Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ben Meisner (1938-2015): B.C. radio's Voice of the North had a dark secret in his past

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
April 20, 2015

Ben Meisner, a gruff radio talk-show host based in Prince George, B.C., was known as the Voice of the North.

Vancouver broadcaster Jack Webster once declared he knew of only three things in Prince George — grizzly bears, black flies and Ben Meisner, each one of which could eat you alive.

Politicians of all stripes acknowledged his popularity by dutifully appearing on his eponymous show even as they grumbled afterwards about his aggressive questioning. Shirley Bond, an MLA from the city, compared a booking on Meisner's show with a trip to the dentist.

Mr. Meisner, who has died of cancer at 76, was one of the last of British Columbia's acerbic, politically astute, love-’em-or-hate-’em radio hosts. In some provinces, politics is a sport. In B.C., it is a blood sport, thanks in part to voices like Mr. Meisner's. Later in his career, the talk jock concluded his over-the-airwaves editorials by declaring, “I'm Meisner, and that's one man's opinion,” which became his catchphrase.

Lauded for his preinterview preparation, Mr. Meisner, a noted recreational fisherman, treated his interview subjects much as he might a feisty catch. Once on the hook, a politician was not allowed to squirm free, no matter how long the struggle.

In 1995, former NDP premier Dave Barrett was touring the province to promote his recently published memoir. Unfortunately for him, the book's release coincided with a forensic audit and news reports about a mysterious party figure known only as “D.B.” who had made a bank deposit of $12,500 in $50 bills. When the former premier appeared on Mr. Meisner's show on CKPG, the radio host asked about the scandal. “Accusations have been made, no charges have been laid,” the former premier jokingly replied. The host persisted and the politician refused to answer, whereupon Mr. Meisner terminated the interview, causing Mr. Barrett to storm from the studio, expletives flying in his wake.

Mr. Meisner claimed to have interviewed every prime minister from Louis St. Laurent to Stephen Harper, and once went pheasant hunting on the prairies with Roland Michener, the governor general.

Never one to shy from controversy, he insisted his prickly on-air approach did not endear him to many. “Doing this job,” he once told the Prince George Free Press, “I have a very lonely life.”

It turns out the outspoken broadcaster also carried a secret for much of his public life. He had been convicted and imprisoned for fraud as a young man.

Benjamin (later spelled Benjimen) Barry Meisner was born on June 3, 1938, on a grain farm near Walpole, a hamlet in southeastern Saskatchewan. He was the youngest of four children born to Anna (née Walowski) and William Meisner. His mother immigrated to Canada from Warsaw, Poland, in 1926, while his father had been born in Lunenburg, N.S.

The boy had a hard-scrabble upbringing in which his father was absent. As an infant, the family moved to Maryfield, a village on the railway line just west of the Manitoba border. In about 1945, his mother began a common-law relationship with Reg Morris, a dairy farmer in Treherne, Man. Young Ben maintained a trapline from which he sold squirrel and mink pelts. At age 14, he moved to Winnipeg, where he found work as an office boy by lying about his age.

Mr. Mesiner was still in his teens when he moved north to Dauphin, becoming a newsreader for radio station CKDM. He appeared in the local newspaper for his charity work, for earning master angler awards for the walleye he caught, and as a member of the station's curling team, known as the “730 Dialers.” He married and started a family.

In 1963, he and two other men, both from Fargo, N.D., were arrested and charged with fraud in a stock-option swindle involving bogus certificates. The other men, both formerly legitimate bonded salesmen, pled guilty. Mr. Meisner was convicted by jury the following year on three charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and sentenced to 18 months in the provincial jail at Headingley, Man. (The judge in his case, Brian Dickson of the Court of Queen's Bench, later served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.)

By 1965, Mr. Meisner was again on air, working for radio station CJGX in Yorkton, Sask., resuming a career that would also take him to Winnipeg and Toronto. He managed radio and television stations in Red Deer, Alta., and Kamloops, B.C., before joining CKPG in Prince George in 1973 where he handled a show called “Talkback.”

An hour-long radio program airing at 9 a.m. every workday became a regular stop for campaigning politicians. At one point, Mr. Meisner's understudy was an ambitious young man named James Moore, the current federal industry minister, who was elected to Parliament at age 24 in 2000.

In December, 2000, Mr. Meisner lost a $30,000 libel suit to NDP finance minister Paul Ramsey, who was a local MLA, after repeating and offering commentary on an out-of-context quotation originally published by The Province newspaper of Vancouver. In its defence, the station's lawyer told court a correction was issued within 17 minutes of Mr. Meisner's editorial, making the statement “the shortest libel in history.”

Mr. Meisner abruptly quit his own program in 2004. He said he was chastised by station management for criticizing Premier Gordon Campbell for “taking the easy way out” by granting an interview to a younger, less experienced news reporter for the station instead of appearing on his talk show. Management said it was unacceptable for the host to criticize another station employee.

At the same time, he quit writing a weekly opinion column for the Prince George Citizen newspaper to concentrate on an independent online venture he founded, now known as, which takes its name from the area code that covers most of the province.

In his career, he was active away from the microphone, as well, successfully campaigning for better health services in his region of British Columbia. He criticized the sale of BC Rail by the B.C. Liberal government. He also opposed an expansion of Alcan's Kemano hydroelectric project in the 1990s, as he sought to preserve his beloved Nechako River, a main tributary of the Fraser River and an important spawning route for sockeye salmon.

In 2010, Mr. Meisner was appointed a bencher to the Law Society of British Columbia, serving as one of six non-lawyers on the society's 31-person board of governors.

Mr. Meisner fell ill while on an ice-fishing holiday in Manitoba. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and, six days later, on April 2, died in a Winnipeg hospital. The sudden death shocked the city of Prince George, where he had been a fixture for more than 40 years. Several politicians issued statements of tribute, including B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who said the province had lost “a wise and passionate voice.”

He leaves his wife of 20 years, Elaine Macdonald Meisner, a son and two daughters from his first marriage, as well as two grandsons, a sister, and two brothers.

In 2007, he received a lifetime achievement award from the organization now known as RTDNA Canada, an association of radio, television and online news directors, producers, executives and educators. He was hailed for being “fearless and prickly.”

“I'm humbled because I'm not the kind of guy who travels in the right circles to get those kinds of awards,” he said at the time. “I'm a bread-and-butter guy.”

Winnipeg Free Press, April 2, 1964

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fred Latremouille (1945-2015): His voice provided a soundtrack for a generation

Fred Latremouille (left) and Red Robinson on the set of CBC's "Let's Go" c. 1964.

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
March 21, 2015

Fred Latremouille's voice, as smooth as cream liqueur, provided a background soundtrack for British Columbia's baby boomers, who aged along with the popular broadcaster.

He first hit the airwaves in Vancouver at age 17 in 1962, building a following on Top-40 radio stations as a disk jockey spinning the latest rock and pop singles. By his 30s, he had transformed from swinging teenaged heartthrob to wisecracking television weatherman. His final public act was as an amiable and affable morning radio host alongside Cathy Baldazzi, a traffic reporter who would become his wife, on a laid-back show called “Latremornings.”

The death of Mr. Latremouille from liver disease at 69 shocked many of his fans, as his boyish visage and youthful vigour gave him an ageless presence.

A familiar voice on the airwaves for decades, Latremouille's ability to connect with his audience made him a much in-demand pitchman for radio and television commercials, where he displayed a deft comic touch.

Like many of his peers, Latremouille came to radio broadcasting as something of a loner, a boy who moved often and heard on the airwaves the exciting sounds of Elvis Presley and early rock ’n’ roll, finding in it an unseen community that shared his interests.

Frederick Bruce Latremouille was born on Oct. 22, 1945, in Nanaimo, B.C., to Margaret and Bruce Latremouille. His father, a wartime pilot officer, trained other Royal Canadian Air Force flyers on Tiger Moths. The couple divorced when Fred was two. His mother later married Robert Harlow, the regional director of CBC Radio, and the boy grew up in a duplex in West Vancouver. Bill Good, a popular sportscaster, lived on the same block. His namesake son and young Fred bicycled around the neighbourhood and maintained a friendship that would see both become legends in Vancouver broadcasting.

“We didn't so much go to school together,” Bill Good Jr. said recently, “as skip school together.”

Young Latremouille earned spending money as a teenaged caddy at Gleneagles Golf Course, gaining a love for the sport. At age 16, he spotted a newspaper advertisement seeking an announcer for radio station CKYL in Peace River, Alta. With a song about tumbleweeds playing in the background, the teenager recorded an audition tape in the family basement that he mailed to the station. He lied about his age, telling them he was 20. His ruse was discovered when he arrived at the radio station, but, having already invested the price of an airplane ticket, the station retained the precocious youth, who dropped out of Grade 11 to read the news and host a morning show.

The gig lasted about a year before he returned to Vancouver, enrolled again in high school, and began hanging out in the waiting room of radio station CJOR trying to cajole the staff to listen to his tape. He pestered station manager Vic Waters for months before being hired to handle an afternoon show featuring country-and-western music. The young jock slipped onto the playlist pop tunes of interest to his peers. He claimed to have been the first in the city to play a record by the Beatles and was a keen promoter of the Motown sound.

In 1964, he was lured away to a popular hit-parade station whose boss jocks were known as the CFUN Good Guys, billed as “tops on the teen scene,” and whose weekly charts were called the CFUNtastic Fifty. He even took a pay cut to be able to work at a station more dedicated to pop music. (In later years, as his popularity and effect on the ratings became more obvious, he proved to be a shrewd negotiator.) Mr. Latremouille won the coveted assignment to act as master of ceremonies for the Beatles concert to be held at Empire Stadium in Vancouver in August, 1964. Unfortunately, he developed mononucleosis and the task fell to Red Robinson, who had introduced Elvis Presley at the same venue seven years earlier.

The following year Mr. Latremouille played drums with the station's house band, the CFUN Classics, on a rollicking instrumental song titled, “Latromotion,” released on the London label. It first appeared on the CFUNtastic Fifty at No. 45 on Feb. 13, 1965. The tune spent seven weeks on the station's charts, rising as high as No. 13. (The Classics formed the nucleus of the band Chilliwack, chart-friendly rockers who enjoyed several hits in the 1970s and ’80s.)
For a time, the station promoted him as Fred Latrimo, though he soon reverted to his given name. Mr. Latremouille (pronounced LAH-trah-moe) had been called, briefly, Fred Lane, and, later, Fearless Freddie. He also created an alter ego known as the Legendary Chief Raunchy Wolf, who wore a coonskin cap, a fringed buckskin jacket and spoke in risqué double entendres.

In the mid-1960s, he was invited to become a business partner in night clubs. He declined in the end, but the night spots — one in Vancouver and the other in suburban New Westminster — thrived under Latremouille's suggested name, The Grooveyard.

In an age of frenetic delivery and motormouth patter, his cool insouciance stood out, and he was tabbed to be host of television shows airing on the CBC in the 1960s, including “Let's Go,” “Where It's At” and “New Sounds.” He described Mr. Robinson, the first deejay to play rock ’n’ roll in the city and a later coworker at CFUN and co-host of “Let's Go,” as a mentor. For his part, Mr. Robinson says of his pupil, “greatest natural talent I ever saw.”

A restless figure confident in his abilities, Mr. Latremouille flitted from job to job, knowing he was in demand. He worked briefly at CFAX in Victoria before returning to Vancouver for two years at CKLG, a Top-40 rival to CFUN. At ’LG, he joined with fellow jockey Roy Hennessey under the name Froyed to record a parody of the Rolling Stones' “Ruby Tuesday” renamed “Grubby Thursday.” The parody lyrics joked about unclean hippies and rhymed DDT with LSD.

While he missed out on the Beatles, Latremouille got to emcee a 1966 performance by the Rolling Stones. “The Stones rolled out of a big black Caddy limo in a cloud of marijuana fumes,” Latremouille once told Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd. “Some girls had a birthday cake for Mick Jagger, but he just scooped up some icing on his finger and kept walking. Keith Richards didn't say a word, but I talked a lot to Charlie Watts. When they started, my mouth dropped open at how good they were, what a great lead singer Jagger was. Then, right in the middle of 'Paint It Black,' the kids charged the stage and all hell broke loose.” The show included several arrests, broken windows, and a bomb scare.

The 1960s had reached Vancouver. The radio host grew his blond hair into a mod, mop-top bowl with long sideburns, while also wearing a velvet-trimmed Edwardian morning coat, or a red serge military tunic in the Sgt. Pepper style. He performed alongside Paul Revere and the Raiders and chugged Southern Comfort with Janis Joplin. At public events, the deejay would be mobbed like a rock star.

Mr. Latremouille became a co-editor of the Georgia Straight newspaper in 1967 seven issues after its debut, a time when the underground paper faced harassment from the police and threats from Vancouver's mayor. “Sometimes we had to step over the dopers on the floor to get work done,” he once said, “and the Marxists were always coming in to tell us we were too soft.” He personally sold the paper on street corners at 10¢ per copy and conducted a telephone interview with John Lennon during his honeymoon bed-in for peace with Yoko Ono in Amsterdam in March, 1969.

A diagnosis of testicular cancer in 1972 seemed to barely slow his pace, though the radiation treatment would damage his bones so that he would be unable to golf in his later middle ages. He was host of “Hourglass,” a dinnertime news program airing on CBC-TV in Vancouver, and later showed up on the dial on a lunchtime program titled “Fred and Friends,” which was taped at locations around the city. By the early 1980s, he was the weatherman on BCTV's “News Hour,” a ratings juggernaut in the market.

He also appeared in bit parts in Hollywood movies filming in Vancouver, including playing a cop in the Donald Sutherland crime caper, “A Man, a Woman, and a Bank” (1979), an airport guard in the George C. Scott horror movie, “The Changeling” (1980), and a reporter in the made-for-TV thriller about a serial killer, “Jane Doe” (1983).

Mr. Latremouille was a popular spokesman for Chevron gas and Kokanee beer, but a series of spots on behalf of the provincial government, called “The Province Reports,” were criticized by some commentators for being propaganda masquerading as news. The Opposition NDP complained of factual errors putting the governing Social Credit party in a favourable light.

In 1984, he returned to C-FUN, where he handled morning-show duties alongside a bright, young broadcaster named Cathy Baldazzi, who reported on traffic and weather. They married — his third, her first — in 1987. A move from C-FUN to rival KISS-FM in 1992 shook up local radio lineups, as rivals scrambled to counter the city's top-rated morning man. (At the same time, Red Robinson wound up hosting the morning show at rival CISL. “When he was on the air,” Robinson said of Latremouille, “the ratings came.') The couple got Prime Minister Kim Campbell to join them one morning, as she selected music and introduced the traffic report. The pair retired in November, 1999, with Mr. Latremouille saying it was time, as he told one newspaper, to “bury the alarm clock, sleep in and hit some golf balls.” The couple returned to the airwaves six years later on Clear-FM, broadcasting from their suburban seaside home in which a studio had been built. After a year, they retired for good, building a summer home on 25 acres on Prince Edward Island.

While holidaying in Hawaii in 2003, the couple invited B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to dinner. The premier helped himself to “two or three martinis” before having wine with dinner, Mr. Latremouille said afterwards. The premier was pulled over for speeding and arrested for drunk driving after leaving their home. A breath sample an hour after his arrest registered a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.149, well over the legal limit of 0.08. Mr. Campbell later pled no contest and paid a fine. Mr. Latremouille wondered aloud whether he should have “tackled” his friend before letting him leave.

Like many broadcasters, Mr. Latremouille dedicated much time to charity fundraising and was known for promoting with his wife the annual Christmas Wish Breakfast, a yuletide tradition in which people bring toys for distribution to needy children.

The broadcaster was inducted into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2006 and was named to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Hall of Fame the following year.

Mr. Latremouille died on March 5 at Scottsdale, Ariz., where he maintained a winter home. He leaves his wife of 27 years as well as sisters, brothers, his stepfather and his mother.

The broadcaster was a noted prankster, responsible for mayhem during live shows. (He once set Bill Good Jr.'s script afire as he read from it.) He incorporated fake wakeup phone calls in his shows, including once calling a woman at a snore clinic to tell her she'd be representing Canada at an international snore-off.

The radio host was in the audience for a taping of the “Tonight Show” while on holiday in Hollywood in 1988 when approached by a man who said he was looking for a Canadian disc jockey. The man told Mr. Latremouille that host Johnny Carson had taken ill, as had guest host Jay Leno. “I started to get nervous,” Mr. Latremouille later confessed. “And then I really got nervous when the guy asked me if I was funny.” He then was handed a piece of paper letting him know he'd been pranked by friends back home.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ordinary games, extraordinary athletes

To mark International Women's Day, here's a selection of past articles and columns on Canadian women:

Barbara Howard, the first woman of colour to represent Canada at an international sporting event
The Globe and Mail, May 18, 2010

Marge Maxwell, who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League:
The Globe and Mail, November 7, 2007

Elaine Tanner, swimming's Mighty Mouse:
The Globe and Mail, May 17, 2011

Shirley Gordon Olafsson, an Olympian born with a deformed foot
The Globe and Mail, September 21, 2011

Kay MacBeth, the last living player of the legendary Edmonton Grads
The Globe and Mail, January 29, 2012

Ladies Night in Canada on the history of women's ice hockey in British Columbia:
The Globe and Mail, January 7, 2010

Kay MacBeth photograph by Erin Wallis.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Witness to Auschwitz

The Soviet Red Army captured the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland on Jan. 27, 1945. As the 70 the anniversary nears, a look back at Rudolf Vrba (1924-2006), the man who escaped Auschwitz and whose warnings to the world went unheeded. Vrba became a professor at the University of British Columbia after the war.

Rudolf Vrba escaped to warn the world

A sketch from the Vrba-Weltzer Report

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A farewell to NHL players in 2014

By Tom Hawthorn

From the brightest star in Jean Béliveau to a one-game goalie like Joe Junkin, several former Canadian-born NHL players were among the fallen in 2014. Here are their obituaries, originally published on my Benched blog:

Don Ward
Journeyman defenceman enjoyed a long career in the Western Hockey League after having cups of coffee in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and Chicago Black Hawks:

Joe Junkin
Goalie's NHL career lasted seven minutes, 56 seconds:

Danny McLeod
Decorated wartime hero, driving force behind the creation of what is now Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS), McLeod later worked as the NHL's supervisor of officials:

Keith Allen
Never scored a goal as a player, but built the expansion Philadelphia Flyers into Stanley Cup winners:

Doug Mohns
Diesel spent 22 seasons in the NHL on five different clubs, yet never had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup:

Jack Stoddard
Tall player known as The Octopus for his reach, Stoddard was first NHLer to defy superstition by wearing sweater No. 13 for an entire season:

Doug Jarrett
Hard-hitting defenceman was known as the Chairman of the Boards:

Joe Bell
He lost three years of his career fighting Nazis instead of NHL rivals:

Ron Murphy
Stalwart left-winger got his name on the Stanley Cup after he retired:

Chuck Scherza
Rugged bruiser scored six goals in 36 wartime games:

Lionel Heinrich
Defenceman scored one goal in 35 games with Boston Bruins:

Jim Mikol
Lantern-jawed forward played briefly for Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers in the 1960s:

Edgar Laprade
Stylish New York Rangers forward was a hockey Gandhi:

Ross Lonsberry
Checking forward won two Stanley Cups with Philadelphia Flyers:

Ralph Nattrass
Bruising defenceman played good defence on bad Chicago Black Hawks teams:

Brian Marchinko
An original member of the expansion New York Islanders:

Larry Zeidel
Tough player known as The Rock endured anti-Semitic barbs on ice:

Guy Trottier
Tiny forward nicknamed The Mouse:

Carol Vadnais
Defenceman twice got his name on the Stanley Cup, played in six All-Star Games in 17-season career:

Milan Marcetta
Journeyman minor leaguer was playoff call-up on 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs:

Wally Hergesheimer
New York Rangers sniper slowed by broken leg:

Len Ronson
Forward whose wrist shot earned him nickname The Rifleman played in 18 NHL games with New York Rangers and Oakland Seals:

Pat Quinn
Big Irishman played nine seasons on blue-line for Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Atlanta Flames, later had success as coach and general manager, winning Olympic gold in 2002:

Murray Oliver
Stylish playmaker scored 274 goals over 16 NHL seasons:

Gilles Tremblay
Two-way player won four Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens:

Jean Béliveau
Le Gros Bill. Ten Stanley Cups as a player, another seven as an executive, all with the Montreal Canadiens. Five hundred and seven career goals. Grace personified:

Connie Dion
Winning goalie in most lopsided NHL game ever played — a 15-0 victory for Detroit over Rangers:

Bob Solinger
Scored 10 goals in 99 NHL games:

Eddie Kachur
A stocky forward with the Chicago Black Hawks:

André Gill
Québec goalie recorded a shutout for Boston Bruins in his NHL debut, but was soon back in the minors:

Germain Gagnon
Québec forward slogged through minors for a decade before playing for Montreal Canadiens, New York islanders, Chicago Black Hawks and Kansas City Scouts:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Born again Blue Jay

The Toronto Blue Jays obtained Micheal Saunders in a trade with the Seattle Mariners. Saunders becomes the second player from Victoria, B.C., to play for the Blue Jays. Here's a feature article from 1997 about Steve Sinclair's revived effort to get to the major leagues. He made his big-league debut with the Blue Jays in 1998.

By Tom Hawthorn
Victoria Times Colonist
September 28, 1997

Not so long ago, Steve Sinclair had called it quits, had hung 'em up, had stepped down from the pitcher's mound for good, had seen his childhood dream go to that big bullpen in the sky. He had languished in the Toronto Blue Jays system for five yearsand the closest he got to the bigs was listening to Buck Martinez on TSN. He had had enough and came home to Victoria at age 24 to go to school, to get a job, to become a grownup.