Opinion

BONOKOSKI

Peter Worthington: 'The last of the newspaper Mohicans'

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By Mark Bonokoski, Postmedia Network

Peter Worthington with the Canadian troops in Afghanistan. (QMI Agency, file)

Peter Worthington with the Canadian troops in Afghanistan. (QMI Agency, file)

There are not many one of a kinds in this world.

But he was one.

Peter Worthington, in fact, was the sphinx in the newspaper world we all believed would somehow live forever, the old boot that would never wear out, and the veteran newsman whose prolific output and relevancy would never diminish let alone come to an end.

Yes, 86 is a good run, but his death nonetheless brought shock to those of us in the game who knew he was literally the last of the newspaper Mohicans — his career as impossible to replicate as it is to emulate.

It was one of genuine legend.

Peter Worthington was old school. He was from an era that was steeped in hot lead and printer’s ink, smoky newsrooms with whiskey bottles in desk drawers, and the air thick with the sound of teletype machines banging out news stories in triplicate, and their bells ringing if a bulletin or news flash had to be signalled.

It was that kind of adrenalin-filled atmosphere that inspired the once young like myself to give print journalism a shot, to chase fire trucks with the hope of one day chasing down wars, of learning to write both well and accurately so that editors would think of you as the go-to reporter when a pope got shot or when a Berlin Wall was coming down.

That was the only reason for getting into this game. It wasn’t for the money because the newspaper business was never big on paying big bucks.

It was the promise of adventure that was the draw.

And the chase.

Peter Worthington had been on the canvas many times before in recent years, but he always got up before the count like the true Golden Gloves champion he once was, shaking it off and returning to the fray as if nothing had happened — just as we had been conditioned to expect.

From the very first day I entered the Toronto Sun newspaper, way back in 1974, Peter Worthington was the template for my career, a career that has admittedly fallen drastically short of his. Always my hero, and often my mentor, I absorbed all his advice, swashbuckled when I could, and took a fearless approach to potential danger.

Like him, I work best as a loner. He taught me that, told me to always have bag and passport ready, and to travel alone whenever possible. Take your own pictures. Don’t drag along a photographer who might get in the way or impede your intuitions.

Let the newspaper do its thing, you do yours.

Once, years ago, after getting shot at in Namibia, I telexed Peter in his capacity as the Sun’s executive editor, and bitched about the poor play I got in the newspaper’s layout after “risking my life” in the Ovamboland of that African country’s then terrorist-ridden north.

His reply was terse.

“Let us worry about how the story is played,” he wrote. “If you don’t like it, catch the next plane out.”

As if.

Many years later, when I got temporarily tossed into a jail at the airport in Istanbul over some misunderstanding about hijacked airplanes being in vogue, I kept my mouth shut.

Lesson learned.

Back in March, I wrote here about the number of relatively high-profile Canadian journalists who had recently received the Order of Canada, one of the highest civilian honours this country has to offer.

Around New Year’s, for example, there was CTV’s political war horse Craig Oliver getting the honour, along with Chantal Hebert, a political columnist for Le Devoir, l’Actualite, and the Toronto Star. More recently, it was CBC Radio’s Michael Enright, host of Sunday Edition, along with journalist-author Stevie Cameron, whose 1989 political expose, Ottawa Inside Out, actually turned Ottawa inside-out.

While none was particularly undeserving, and while all came from the spectrum of the left, none was more deserving of the Order of Canada than Peter Worthington.

Yet, to his dying day, he never got the call from Rideau Hall.

This is unforgiveable, and even more unforgiveable now.

In fact, any journalist today who thinks his or her career is truly noteworthy should read Worthington’s 1984 autobiography, Looking for Trouble, before they consider writing their own.

His can’t be topped. By anyone.

Knowing Peter, he is likely attempting right now to be the first newspaperman to file a column from the Other Side, whatever or wherever the other side is.

If the bell of a phantom teletype machine is heard ringing in the newsroom, it’s him.

It could be no one else.

— Bonokoski is Sun Media’s national editorial writer


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