I am not 100-percent certain but I am pretty confident that I have never in all my years on this planet been so very far off the mark as I was when, before meeting him, I prejudged Peter Worthington.
Worthington, who died Sunday evening at 86, was already a legend in the Canadian news industry by the time I shook his hand the first time.
He had been a soldier and a war correspondent. He had helped launch and then operate one of the biggest news organizations in Canada. He watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. He seemed fearless. He was friends with Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel. He could have any newspaper job he wanted.
Me, I was a kid by comparison and just landed an entry-level position at a magazine where he was the boss.
So at the same time as I was looking forward to meeting Worthington, I was intimidated. How could a success story like that be anything but a control freak and probably arrogant?
I also thought he would be quite loud and probably very tall.
Let me tell you how very wrong I was.
Our first meeting came a few weeks after I’d been hired as an editorial assistant at a publishing company called Chimo Media.
The company published three magazines: ProSound for musicians; Sound&Vision for hi-fi buffs and a men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine called Influence. It was sort of a cross between the men’s fashion magazine GQ and conservative American magazine the National Review.
Peter was Influence’s editor-in-chief.
After I started, the first time he came into the office, Worthington was wearing a sports coat and tie, but when I looked closely I saw that his jacket had dog hair all over it. Turns out he was a big-time animal nut, almost to the point of peculiarity.
Peter loved his Jack Russells. And I don’t use the word “love” frivolously. Those dogs owned Peter and to ride in his very modest car was to sit on Jack Russell sheddings.
Worthington didn’t walk so much as shuffle, looking like an absent-minded college teacher who forgot what room his next Dylan Thomas lecture was in.
He treated everybody with respect. That’s what struck me the most.
He was gracious to the receptionist and to the stranger in the waiting room. Later that year, we were walking along a street near the Influence office when, a stranger — a laborer — the lunch-bucket-toting kind of guy Toronto Sun cartoonist Andy Donato depicted so well on the editorial pages of the paper, approached. The man had a story idea for Peter. (What other newspaper editor had a publicly recognizable face?)
Worthington listened to the man’s idea and said he’d look in to it.
If all journalists showed that much respect for their individual readers, Canada would be much better served by its news media.
He had way more money than anybody else I knew, but you could never tell. (The Toronto Sun made its founders prosperous.)
He sure bolstered his credibility with me the time I locked the keys in my wife Helena’s Mazda GLC and he showed me how to wiggle a coat hanger in under the door latch to push up the lock button.
And he was a great boss. A yes-guy.
In his estimation, all story ideas were good until proven otherwise. Everything could be made interesting.
In his mind, anyone could be a journalist, as long as the person had the desire and something to say.
He prized independence of thought.
I once asked him to sign a copy of his autobiography “Looking For Trouble” and dedicate it to my new (at the time) father-in-law. Here’s what he wrote: “To Joe Szybalski — Whatever ‘trouble’ is encountered in this book is NOTHING compared to the trouble you’ll encounter with your new son-in-law who insists on thinking for himself. Good Luck! Peter Worthington, Jan. 1986”
He was a champion at questioning political trendiness.
Back in those days, much of the Western World was very high-minded and determined to rid South Africa of the apartheid system.
Of course we Canadians were being asked to boycott South African products of all kinds. (All kinds that is, except diamonds. Engagement rings remained a-okay, as Worthington’s friend and writer Gordon Donaldson pointed out in one of his many memorable Influence columns.)
In a typical-of-Worthington story assignment that got attention around the globe, Peter invited the then South African Ambassador to Canada to tour a few of Canada’s Native reserves. Influence published his observations under the title “A Few Blind Spots I’ve Seen in Canada.”
When Peter visited South Africa in 1986, at the very height of the tension, he interviewed his friend the late author Alan Paton, who wrote the anti-apartheid masterpiece, “Cry the Beloved Country.”
And in a move that to me crystallized Peter’s generosity of spirit, he brought me back a signed copy of the book. On the inside front cover, Paton wrote:
“To Peter Carter: May you achieve your ambitions and keep your dignity. Alan Paton, Durban, 13/6/87.”
Worthington actually took time from his riotously busy schedule in a war-torn country to have a famous author dedicate a book to a junior staff member. It was pretty impressive.
After Influence closed, Worthington immediately made a phone call and landed newly-wed me a job at the Toronto Sun.
These days, to my work here at Today’s Trucking; I try to apply some of the journalistic lessons Peter embodied.
I certainly try to show my respect for our readers as much as he did his. Your ideas are to our magazine what diesel fuel is to your trucks.
Like Peter, I also like to write clearly and plainly and not show off. I believe in the old Woody Guthrie saying, “Any damn fool can be complicated; it takes a genius to attain simplicity.”
And I welcome people in this industry to contribute to the magazine. You don’t need training to be a journalist; you just have to have desire and something important to say.
Away from work, I cite Peter too. Whenever I talk to journalism students for instance, I try to encourage them that their ideas are all meritorious and everything’s interesting until proven otherwise.
And finally, because of Worthington, if you have an old Mazda that needs breaking into, I’m your man.
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