Don Obe

1936-2014

 

When Don Obe, the founder of the Review, died earlier this month, we naturally wanted to pay homage. Fortunately, his friends included many of the finest writers and editors in the country, so we asked several for a few words about the mentor, colleague and teacher who meant so much to them. Although some themes emerge here—his unwavering standards of excellence and his passion for exquisite writing, his perspicacious marginalia and his tart wit—taken together, these memories form not just a tribute, but a portrait of a remarkable man.

 

Don was there as punishment because he’d described the Tely copy desk as a group of illiterates

No better magazine editor ever put pencil to paper than Don Obe.

And that’s when he would have stopped me. “Awkward sentence, Paul,” he would have said. “And what kind of pencil? Short? Stubby? 2B? HB? Eraser? Details, Paul, details.”

I met Don at this time of year in 1961 when he was at The Toronto Telegram and I was at the Toronto Daily Star. We were both covering the Santa Claus Parade—a big deal because of Eaton’s. I covered it because I wrote fluffy stories for the Star. Perhaps 500 words with the impact of candy floss. Don was there as punishment because he’d described the Tely copy desk as a group of illiterates.

Years later, he told me there was an opening at Ryerson because he would be gone for a year and he needed someone to whom he could trust the Review.

I immediately took a 50 percent pay cut and signed on.

No easy man was Don. He sought perfection and tried to wring it from his students. His teaching was simple. He showed them how magazine stories were built and helped them put their own stories together. Then he took those stories apart and helped the writers build better ones.

Don reached back into his years as a magazine journalist and convinced talented writers and editors to devote hours to working with students one-on-one. Usually for a small sum of money. His goal was to ensure that his baby, the Review, remained what he had bade it: the standard against which all student-produced magazines in North America are measured.

Don was neat, precise, dedicated. He cherished the written word and honoured the accuracy of stories. He was not given to speeches or idle chat but when he spoke, he spoke to the point. And when hard words were needed, he could say them.

Of Don Obe, it should be said that he did what an editor does—he made stories better.

Let those words stand.

Paul Rush, a retired writer, editor, publisher, radio host and journalism professor

 

The only aphorism of his that I remember was one he lived by: no matter how big or coveted the job, always carry your resignation in your back pocket

When I graduated from newspapering to Peter Newman’s long-ago iteration of Maclean’s, Don was my first editor, overseeing a handful of my initial stories. During that brief, bright time in Canadian journalism, he taught me everything I know about magazines. I can’t remember a single pithy editorial axiom he proffered, since the Don I knew was a man of remarkably few words, nor did he dispense his thoughts by way of witty editorial marginalia. I remember getting back his first edit and puzzling over the red circles dotting my prose. It took me a while to get the message: try harder, dig deeper, excavate within oneself to find the real mother lode of the narrative or the telling metaphor. Never settle for the easy way out, no matter the pressure of deadlines or editorial attitudes that regard risk as a quality reserved for showbiz daredevils.

What I learned from Don was passion—the passion for a craft that he believed could help change the world. For me, he was a kind of one-man walking True North. The only aphorism of his that I remember was one he lived by: no matter how big or coveted the job, always carry your resignation in your back pocket. Always be ready to say no to the forces of co-optation and compromise. It was a belief that saw him frequently stomping off from Maclean’s, only to be cajoled back, and kept him moving from job to job, then eventually to Ryerson, the perfect incubator for imbuing his ideals in generations of young journalists to come. By that standard, I myself was a miserable failure, sticking it out under editors whose precise goal was to bulldoze every trace of individuality from journalistic prose—stints I justified as necessities to pay the rent. But through those bad times, and later, the good ones, Don and his standards remained the lodestars by which I strove to write and live, no matter the confines of the particular job or assignment.

Over the years and many long boozy dinners, the Don I knew was an incredible romantic, who often saw the best in flawed individuals and, when he did so, would defend them fiercely against all comers. For those of us he believed in, his elfin moustachioed smile was a benediction, one usually garlanded in smoke from his ever-present cigarette. My biggest regret is that, during those conversations, I basked in that gift and didn’t turn my interviewing skills on him.

Don’s own story could have been a novel, certainly a work of both inspiring and soul-searing personal journalism, but the maestro of words, who elicited such revelations from others, let slip scarcely a tell-tale clue about his own sometimes-tortured journey that began on Brantford’s Six Nations reserve. For me, he will always be the shaggy presence at the back of a meeting room, quiet, watchful, taking in every frayed cuff and sagging stocking that betrays its wearer, all the while shrinking from the limelight when he himself was the far more fascinating, and worthy, story.

Marci McDonald, an award-winning magazine writer and author whose latest book is The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada

 

The crusty sons-o’-bitches at the Tely weren’t having any of “it,” whatever it was

Around 1960, as the “zipper man” at The Vancouver Sun, the early twenty-something Don wrote slice-of-life stories about the 100-year-old man and such for the bottom strip of Page One. And, every Monday, he nicked a copy of a New York Herald Tribune supplement called “New York” from a colleague and pored over it. “We were seeing things for the first time,” he told me in his Toronto harbour–facing condo in 2008. “The Phil Spector profile, where Tom Wolfe describes how the raindrops are running off the plane windows, then Spector bolts off the plane—we’d never seen anything like that before.”

Don remembered his long piece about Quebec’s Quiet Revolution for The Toronto Telegram was runner-up for the 1964 National Newspaper Award in feature writing. This was fabulous news—recognition for his work, and being entrusted with ambitious features—except that he started to freeze up. “I don’t know what it was,” Don said. “I lost my nerve, my confidence.”

At 26, stymied, he became op-ed page editor. He was excited—op-ed was the “thinking part” of the paper (“Well,” he qualified, “as far as the Tely got”)—and he had the budget to pay freelancers. “There was a lot more leeway for people to write in their voice. It prepared me for magazine editing.”

In 1974, Don won the editor’s job at The Canadian, a supplement in weekend papers—the only time, he said, that he beat out John Macfarlane for a job. When Macfarlane became editor of The Canadian’s rival, Weekend, they started a weekly arm-wrestle to see who could produce the best stories, photography and illustration.

Don had been agitating for years to tear down all barriers to good writing. He wanted to get beyond the stylish, one-interview piece and to burrow inside a story and get at character through saturation reporting. “There was a newspaper tradition of horrible restraint when it came to any kind of creative writing. The desk hated it with vehemence—you could practically see the blood popping out the veins in their forehead when people started publishing this stuff.”

At The Canadian, Don had a chance to do it. “When I came out of college, the dream was, you’d go to work at a newspaper for maybe 10 years. You’d get your speed down, your style down, pay off your debts, and then you’d quit and write your novel. That was the dream of almost every reporter who cared about writing. With the coming of literary journalism, suddenly you didn’t have to write a novel to get the satisfaction of writing really well. You could experiment, you could write in your own voice. You could write stories.”

What Don championed, either you got it or you didn’t. The crusty sons-o’-bitches at the Tely weren’t having any of “it,” whatever it was. Don couldn’t wait to fling some of those “character” stories down onto page.

True to form, Don added, “When I got to be an editor-in-chief at The Canadian, well, ‘Fuck that! Let’s go!’”

Bill Reynolds is graduate program director at Ryerson’s School of Journalism and author of Life Real Loud: John Lefebvre, Neteller and the Revolution in Online Gambling

 

Don was every bit as competitive on a ball diamond as he was at the National Magazine Awards

Don made us all much better than we are. He was a fabulous editor who could save you from yourself, but his great genius was in assigning. You might have an idea, but he could refine it, focus it, polish it and make you far more excited about it than when you first dared suggest it. He also had his own ideas for you and they were received like a gift from the gods. Stories that began as topics became themes. Profiles became explorations that told us as much about ourselves as they did about the subject. He sent you off with a crystal-clear picture of what that story could be, and if somewhere along the way any preconceived notions changed, well, that was fine, too. His only rules were clarity and honesty. He made us excited to work for him.

He was also just damned good fun. There are a million memories, but I see him snickering like that long-ago cartoon dog while he sat and watched and listened to Earl McRae do absolutely dead-on impersonations of Don in a meeting: searching for his smokes, hemming and hawing, eyes and moustache dancing, open hand slamming on the desk and, of course, somewhere in the midst of his monologue some mention of “the human condition.”

I also recall one special incident. Don was every bit as competitive on a ball diamond as he was at the National Magazine Awards. The Canadian had dispatched me to Winnipeg to write a profile on an up-and-coming golfer. Our Toronto Men’s Press League fastball team—called “Toronto Life” but with writers, editors and ad executives from all over on it—was in the playoffs and up against bitter rival “Toronto Star,” headed by pitcher Martin Goodman. I landed in Winnipeg, settled in and fielded a call (pre-cellphone) from Don telling me I had to return immediately to Toronto. “We gotta beat these guys,” he said. I flew back, we played, won, and I flew right back to Winnipeg to continue the story.

My expenses were never questioned.

Roy MacGregor, who worked with Don at Maclean’s and The Canadian

 

 

 

Obe Caricature

At The Canadian, Earl McRae drew caricatures of his colleagues, including this one, of Don Obe.

“We all hated them,” says Roy MacGregor, “but knew they were dead on.”

Don was a complicated guy leading a complicated life but perhaps that’s what made him such a terrific editor: he lived and breathed complexity

I had just finished dinner and was settling in for a quiet, at-home evening of reading freshly purchased magazines from Lichtman’s when the phone rang:

“Steve! Don Obe here.”

“Oh. Hello, sir,” I stammered, trying to sound calm.

This can’t be good news, I thought.

It was the late 1970s, I was a junior editor at Toronto Life and Don had been parachuted in to bring a greater degree of order and professionalism to the publication. There were rumours of major changes afoot. I presumed that included staff dismissals.

“Sorry for calling so late,” he said solemnly, and then proceeded to tell me he would be holding an editorial staff meeting the next morning at which he would be making some harsh comments and judgments.

He paused. I held my breath.

But, he added, his voice turning warmer, I wanted to let you know beforehand that none of it—absolutely none of it—applies to you.

I was astounded and robustly thanked him, as I would many times for many other reasons in the decades ahead.

It was his generosity of spirit toward me (and so many others) that I’ve been thinking about most since his death. Though I could go on at length about his prowess as an editor, writer, journalist, educator and (as he often added to Toronto Life cover lines) much, much more, I keep returning to memories of the out-of-the-office Obe: at a Jays game (he loved the near-the-beer disabled-seating area pre-SkyDome); at the Starbucks in the now-closed downtown Sears (where one day he sheepishly admitted to buying a bedskirt); or running into him on the street (and one day hearing good news about his daughter and seeing the immense relief on his face).

Don was a complicated guy leading a complicated life but perhaps that’s what made him such a terrific editor: he lived and breathed complexity and recognized that, though he couldn’t repair everything in his own life, he could, with enough intensity, drive, creativity, good and bad humour, fix a manuscript, a magazine, a school and, along the way, do hard-hitting journalism, foster great writing, throw a few overly pushy sales reps out of his office and do his part in training the next generation of journalists, which included limping, lurching me, whom he once described as “a talented young man with an italic gait.”

I met him over 30 years ago and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t quietly acknowledge him for his constant encouragement and support, particularly at a time in my life when I wondered just how welcoming and accessible the world of journalism could be.

Stephen Trumper, who was honoured with the National Magazine Awards Foundation’s Outstanding Achievement award in 2013 and now writes the back-page column for Abilities

 

But most of all, you had to convince Don that what you were writing was not just clever and forceful. It had to be true

InObe-5 my years at Toronto Life, everyone on the magazine, staff and writers, was guided by the mordant wit and solid professional standards set by Don. In the Obe years, you needed three independent sources to confirm every statement. He made damn sure that copy editors and fact checkers were vigilant and ruthless. But most of all, you had to convince Don that what you were writing was not just clever and forceful.

It had to be true.

Case in point: I won a National Magazine Award for “Drugs In The City,” a hardcore trip through the uglier precincts of Toronto’s drug scene. After the show was over, back in the bar, Don and I were mellowing out, savouring it.

A pause, and he said, “That was a great piece. Some of your very best writing. No, man. I mean it.”

I said, “Thanks, Don.”

Don smiled, sipped his Heineken.

“Know what I always think, when I see you writing your ass off like that?”

“No, I don’t.”

He gave me that sideways smile.

“I think, as far as actual content, you got dick-all, didn’t you?”

And he was right.

That was Don Obe.

Carsten Stroud, an author whose novels include The Niceville Trilogy

 

 

He made it look like an athletic activity—his blue pencil hovering in one hand, while he pulled at his moustache with the other

Like all people who accomplish important things, Don was a bundle of contradictions. He didn’t suffer fools, but his door was always open. He prodded writers, but couldn’t prod himself to write. He had no interest in bureaucracies, but he handled them with success.

His younger self would have been surprised at how good a teacher he turned out to be. If he was being honest, or had had a drink or two, he would probably tell you he was suspicious of journalism schools. Yet there he was running one. He was too cranky to be a department head, but he was good at it. He transformed Ryerson’s journalism school from an old boys’ club to an open place, where standards mattered. Under his chairmanship, the magazine and broadcast streams came into their own and the school earned the reputation it had already garnered.

He was, at the bottom of it all, a fiercely focused editor. He made it look like an athletic activity—his blue pencil hovering in one hand, while he pulled at his moustache with the other.

He would have fit in with the old New Yorker crowd, especially for his dedication to writers. He was suspicious of those with power or money—on principle.

I am sure there are a lot of people who remember him as prickly. But there are plenty of others who would tell you he was loyal to a fault. If you were on his side, he would stick with you, through thick and thin.

Stuart McLean, professor emeritus, Ryerson University

 

Don instilled a love of long-form journalism in our class that would never leave us

I wasn’t Don’s best student, but he was my best teacher—ever.

On the first day of class in September 1984, he warned us that he’d be grading our work by “professional standards.” And he meant it. My first carefully typewritten feature for “dobe” came back with constructive marginalia crammed all over its pages. My next draft fared a little better, and Don actually printed “nice!” in three places. (It still means a lot when I look at those small, neat words in grey pencil.) Over time, with his advice and encouragement, my efforts improved enough that he rewarded my final feature with an “excellent”—despite its “slight stiffness in places.”

Don instilled a love of long-form journalism in our class that would never leave us. (Thanks to him, I’ve worked as a magazine editor for more than 25 years.) To show our appreciation, at our graduation party, we presented him with a special honour: The Horse’s Ass Award. (It was a weird little statue of an equine posterior that I’d found in a store on Yonge Street.) Don was thrilled to receive it, and I suspect it meant almost as much to him as the Outstanding Achievement Award he would later win from the National Magazine Awards.

Twenty years after graduating, I was lucky enough to work with Don professionally. I was the sole editor of a small-but-award-winning magazine and desperately needed a bit of editing assistance. I called Don, knowing that he’d retired from Ryerson. I gave him a story by one of my stronger writers, hoping that he could turn an already good piece into something even better. When I got Don’s final edit, I read through the pages thinking nice! nice! nice! By the end, I realized (correctly) that he’d helped make the story a Gold Medal winner. I also realized that, though I was no longer Don’s student, there was still plenty he could teach me.

James Little, who has won lots of National Magazine Awards but has yet to win a Horse’s Ass

Don Obe w B'day Present

He laughed a lot and had a boyish enthusiasm for things

At Ryerson, Don was like my magazine dad, and his equally talented and influential colleague Lynn Cunningham—they were later married—was like my magazine mom. You wanted to please both, but were, perhaps, more afraid of dad.

“Odd that you would crock this sentence so badly after three pages of clear writing,” Don wrote in his clean, pencilled marginalia on one of my assignments. “Do you ever read your stuff aloud?”

Ever since.

But Don’s hard-assed journalist persona was balanced by a soft side. He laughed a lot and had a boyish enthusiasm for things like a new electric pencil sharpener.

Our 1987 edition of the Review won the coveted top prize from the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications. Dad and mom were thrilled. They somehow found the funds to fly editor Lisa McCaskell and me (as senior editor) to Portland, Oregon, to join them at the association’s annual conference. The awards were handed out at a luncheon. The winning magazine received a whopping $75 cheque.

“We were sorely disappointed when no wine was served at the luncheon,” I wrote in my diary. “Shortly after receiving the envelope, we escaped to the bar.”

Happy, perhaps more innocent, times. Thank you, Don.

Doug Bennet, the founding editor of Masthead and co-author of five nature guides, including the best-selling Up North

 

I never knew a person could have such intense feelings about a sentence. A good one was intoxicating to him

Don was like the Lorax. There was the obvious physical resemblance: they were both shortish and gruffish, with that big bushy moustache and sawdust voice. But it was the depth of their passion that clinched it. The object of the Lorax’s fervor was trees. For Don, of course, it was words.

Until I met him, I never knew a person could have such intense feelings about a sentence. A good one was intoxicating to him: his eyes would take on a rapturous glaze when he read Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese aloud to his students. A bad one was excruciating—and he couldn’t hide his revulsion. I once saw him gag while reading a line from a first draft.

As a Don Obe student, handing in your work and waiting for his marginalia was often agonizing. But it was also immensely rewarding. It’s impossible to overstate how much we all learned from him. His love of words, of the perfect turn of phrase, was thoroughly contagious. And he got such a high out of sharing that passion—flipping on the switch in his students, cranking them up and watching them go. In 1989, I was managing editor of the Review. Don was my teacher, my editor, my confidant and my friend. Before the year was out, he got me a job at Toronto Life—a job I loved so much that I never left.

I don’t know where I’d be, or who I’d be, if it weren’t for him. And I’m not alone. Don took countless naïve, stumbling kids and gave us purpose, direction and an insatiable desire to go out there and make gorgeous sentences. Like the Lorax, he planted seeds and treated them with care. He was a cultivator of magazine people. He grew a forest.

Angie Gardos, executive editor of Toronto Life

 

donobe

“I’d revise and polish until dawn only to come in the next day and find all my copy on the chief rewriteman’s spike. I took a blood oath that before long, my words would be printed, not his”

A wise and generous mentor, Don taught me to take teaching out of the classroom. He believed “journalism professors” should work as editors with our aspiring writers rather than lecturing. In line with that philosophy, his departmental evaluations of my teaching took place out of the classroom. We simply sat in his book-lined office and talked about my challenges, frustrations and questions about making the leap from doing journalism to teaching journalism.

Rather than tell you more, better I show you. Here’s what Don, in his own (abridged and edited) words, offered me two decades ago in his formal, written “teaching evaluations” on my track to tenure at Ryerson.

  • Do they understand that you can’t write well without reading well? That, as Larry L. King says, it’s a requirement of the soul? After all, the way you learn standards is by reading the people who set them and then trying to get there yourself.
  • They’re arrogant, most of them; they have an overblown idea of how good they are at this stage of the game … Which brings us round to that other thing at work here: the shaky sense of standards that fuels all that arrogance. It’s easy to get high on yourself if you don’t have to compete and you just about never get turned down. I know that from experience early and late. Working nights as a rookie on The Vancouver Sun, I’d revise and polish until dawn only to come in the next day and find all my copy on the chief rewriteman’s spike. I took a blood oath that before long, my words would be printed, not his.
  • Yet, if you can show them they are selling themselves short, maybe you can push them toward the appreciation of excellence you so much want them to have.
  • You might try something that works for me. On feature pieces, don’t mark first drafts. Get them in, tear them apart (including calls for re-reporting) and send them back to be done again. Talk over the fixes one to one. That way, you can deal with individual strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps get across the idea that writing is perpetual revision, that standards are immutable (they are not subject to discounts according to mood or market). The idea isn’t to get an A, but to get better.
  • I don’t know what kind of nerve all this maundering advice will strike in you. Whatever it’s worth, it’s offered with respect.

His words were priceless, timeless. He made a difference to me and to so many others.

Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

 

Yes, he could be ferocious, but his insights were razor-sharp

At first, I knew Obe by reputation only. He was never officially my teacher; by the time he became chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, I was working in the business. He was never officially my editor; as a journalism student I’d dreamed of writing for Toronto Life but he’d stepped down as editor-in-chief by the time I sold my first story. After my friend and editor Lynn Cunningham finally introduced us, we would spend hours talking about feature writing, discussing the merits of Gay Talese’s “Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-aged Man” or Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”

Unlike some gurus, Obe didn’t ostentatiously collect followers like baseball cards; they gravitated toward him and he had time for anyone who was serious about journalism, although I noticed that if other disciples proved to be slow learners, he would impatiently raise his voice, as T. S. Eliot once described Ezra Pound, like “a man trying to convey to a very deaf person the fact that the house was on fire.”

He asked me to come into his classes to talk about “the life of the freelance writer.” A year or so later, he asked if I’d teach a night course in freelance writing. A year after that, he hired me to teach freelance writing to full-time students. When I asked him later what made him do that, he said, in his characteristically gruff way, “Thought you might have the gene.”

Soon we were guests in each other’s classes. Once, after he’d tutored my students on the fine art of transitions, one earnest fellow asked, “So is the goal to have a neat transition between every paragraph in the story?” Obe’s face reddened and he snapped, “No! You wouldn’t have a story, you’d have a goddamn doily!”

Yes, he could be ferocious, but his insights were razor-sharp. For a long time, I gave him almost everything I wrote—from the first draft of a magazine feature to a rough pass at a book proposal—to get his reaction. He was often blunt. (“It’s like driving along on a smooth highway until the middle of page six,” he once said. “Then it’s like someone forgot to pave the road.”)

As time passes, relationships begin, flourish, fade and either regenerate or die. After Obe’s second marriage ended, there was a misunderstanding and a meteorite hit our long friendship. We eventually made up, but it was never the same. To me, though, even the sadness of that tough ending is eclipsed by the profound, immeasurable influence and richness he brought to my life.

David Hayes, a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and teacher

When Don retired from Ryerson in 2000, his School of Journalism colleagues gave him an old Tely newspaper box

In 2000, Don’s Review masthead students gave him an old Tely newspaper box

Don was an editor at Banff for 10 years. He left his mark on the program forever

Most writers’ retreats give a writer the luxury of time and isolation. The Banff Literary Journalism provides an editor as well, which is much of the reason it is has been such a potent well of creative non-fiction for 25 years. Don was the first editor of the Banff program in 1989. (He was soon joined by the formidable Barbara Moon.) He would work intensively with his writers through several drafts and coach them through the sometimes harrowing roundtables with the other writers.

I arrived at Banff in 1997 with what I thought was a brilliant lede, a couple of thousand words I thought were OK, and an outline for the rest of the essay that I thought was plausible. Don sat down with me the first day and told me the piece was going to work and that I would be presenting it in the second roundtable (a scary proposition for an inchoate draft). He then told me the lede was crap and to lose it, to move some sections around and to develop some themes I’d mentioned in my proposal and omitted in the draft.

I retreated to my cabin for four days of intense writing. Don’s eye became my eye as I reworked my copy. Can I improve these words? Is there a better image here? Can this paragraph be tightened? Can this be funnier? Is this section even necessary? Why is it important to me that I’m writing this?

The roundtable went well, and Don’s direction over the ensuing three weeks elevated my writing to a new height. (He would probably cross out that last phrase and write, “CLICHÉ.”) As Dan David, one of my seven writing colleagues that summer, said in a Facebook tribute to Don: “More than anyone, he knew there was something ready to bust out of my gut like that little creature in Alien.”

Don was an editor at Banff for 10 years. He left his mark on the program forever. He made sure the writers toiling in their cabins in the mountainside forest didn’t get lost in the woods.

Ian Pearson, a Toronto writer and editor who was an editor in the Banff Literary Journalism program for eight years following the Obe era

 

What luxury to have his astute, measured editorial feedback, and to bask in his withering humour — fortunately, not aimed my way (at least, not while I was around)

When I arrived at Ryerson to study journalism in 1983, I knew I wanted to write for magazines. Learning from masters like Don Obe was a dream. The man had such great taste, was so sharp in his critiques, and had such a dry wit. You knew he did not suffer fools gladly, and that you did not ever want him to think you were a fool.

Later, he was my editor in the Literary Journalism program at the Banff Centre—another dream. What luxury to have his astute, measured editorial feedback, and to bask in his withering humour—fortunately, not aimed my way (at least, not while I was around). When my piece was workshopped, one of the participants critiqued the story for not including references to certain writers he thought essential. Privately, afterwards, Don was hilarious as he lampooned what he saw as nitpicking pomposity. “What does he think this is, a fucking PhD oral?” The story ended up in Brick magazine. So lucky to have a guy like that on your side. Will never forget his brilliant mentoring.

Moira Farr, a freelance writer, editor and instructor at Carleton University and Algonquin College in Ottawa

 

 

Don, Lynn, Kali, Krista (RRJ party)

 

He was fierce and articulate and passionate, almost the definition of the kind of journalism he’d spent a lifetime doing, espousing and teaching

L’affaire Hannon” is how Don came to refer to it, those grisly months nearly 20 years ago now when Ryerson’s School of Journalism made headlines of the most lurid sort—and nearly came apart at the seams. I was in the pillory for an article I’d written some two decades earlier, and for engaging in sex work and talking about it rather shamelessly. The administration wanted me gone. The journalism department split. Don, then acting chair, fought relentlessly to get the truth on the record and to keep me in my job as a teacher of magazine journalism. It was not remotely in his interests to defy the administration, and agree to countless exhausting interviews and media appearances to defend a man whose views he often disagreed with. I worried and regretted that my writing and my past and my shamelessness had dragged him into a battle that wasn’t his and was probably unwinnable. I think the demands of it drained him, but a battling Obe, an Obe defending free speech and journalistic integrity was an Obe in his element. He was fierce and articulate and passionate, almost the definition of the kind of journalism he’d spent a lifetime doing, espousing and teaching. I shouldn’t have worried about him. He was a fighter, and I think he loved every minute of it.

Gerald Hannon, who recently retired from both journalism and sex work, was a multiple National Magazine Award-winner over his long career

 

Jazz was our music of choice, beer was our drink of choice and pool was our sport of choice

Over the years, Don and I worked together in Toronto for many different publications. We enjoyed working with each other. He respected me and I certainly respected him. I think we worked so well together because we were from similar working-class backgrounds—two lads from the wrong side of the tracks. Our fathers went to war. Don’s Scottish mother and my Irish mother ran our households with loving iron fists. We weren’t rich, neither were we poor; we had to work for every single penny.

Jazz was our music of choice, beer was our drink of choice and pool was our sport of choice. We thought we could play the game fairly well, but we couldn’t. It was the beer we drank after each shot taken that made us think we were ready to challenge Willie Mosconi.

One day in 1983, he telephoned to tell me he was starting a magazine at Ryerson and asked if I would help. “I have only $200,” he told me, “but things will get better, trust me.” And they certainly did get better. What an incredible passport to the magazine industry each student received after working on the Review with Don.

The last time I saw him was in the Toronto General Hospital. His speech was so difficult to understand that he communicated with me by grabbing my hands so tight, and staring at me so hard, and for so long. I didn’t realize he was saying goodbye. He passed away a few hours later. I miss him now and I’m going to miss him for the rest of my life. He was a true pal.

Jim Ireland, founding art director of the Review

 

He would throw himself into its soft, black-leather arms and listen to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain at max volume

Don and I cohabited for several years way back in the day. We began as colleagues and ended as loving friends. This list is personal, not professional, since other people will undoubtedly attest to his extraordinary skills as a magazine editor and journalism professor.

  • He was loyal, brave and true, to himself and to others.
  • He treasured his Eames Barcelona lounge chair. He would throw himself into its soft, black-leather arms and listen to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain at max volume. It was his throne, and a damned stylish one.
  • When I met him he had a frighteningly awful haircut. It was so ghastly that eventually, bossy me persuaded him to have it styled differently. Success! He looked fabulous, as well he should.
  • In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he hung out with the bad-boy painters who were invading and changing the Toronto art scene: Graham Coughtry, Robert Markle, Gord Rayner, Bill Ronald. He was hilariously parsimonious—his sense of what something was worth in dollars dated from c. 1930—but he bought their work with pleasure.
  • His laugh was as contagious as a sneeze and kind of sounded like one, too.
  • He loved Spain. He had a Spanish friend who told him, “Live life, Don Don.” He did just that and then some.

Jocelyn Laurence, an editor, writer and former Toronto Life staffer

Photo by John Reeves

Photo by John Reeves

Photos courtesy of Lynn Cunningham and David Hayes

 

More on Don Obe:

Legacy of a Legend” (A tribute to Don Obe by Review instructor Tim Falconer)

Good Stuff, Kid” (A profile of Don Obe, Summer 2013, Ryerson Review of Journalism)

Roto Retro” (A look back at The Canadian  and other rotogravure supplements, Spring 2004, Ryerson Review of Journalism)

Ten Years of Popping Off” (A history of the Review after its first decade, Summer 1993, Ryerson Review of Journalism)

Game Point” (A short, unpublished piece written by Obe about his pool game attire, Fall 1986)

To donate to the Don Obe Memorial Fund, click here. All proceeds go to Ryerson School of Journalism students in need of emergency funding.