This is the copyediting desk (the rim) at the Montreal Star in 1976, probably just before 8 a.m., the paper has been put to bed and we’re just hanging around. I am across the desk on the left. Peter Leney with the long hair is next to me, The gray-haired gent is Walter Christopherson, the copy boss. Barry Johnson would normally be seated on my right, but most of the sub-editors appear to have momentarily disappeared.
I just discovered this obituary from the Vancouver Province. I worked as a copyeditor (we called them sub-editors) at the Montreal Star in 1975 and 1976. We worked the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., putting the paper to bed around 6 or so, then often adjourning to a bar across the street for a morning drink. Barry Johnson, a handsome, florid-faced old-hand, usually sat to my right on the rim, no doubt placed there to keep the new boy out of trouble. He had been trained as an air force pilot, but he knew his grammar and punctuation inside out and could amalgamate a dozen wire-service reports into a gorgeous 10-para story with nothing but a steel ruler, a ballpoint pen and a gluepot (these were the old days, let me tell you). He had stories to tell: how he got his nickname Precious, his career as a foreign correspondent, his sideline in the movies (spaghetti Westerns in Italy, a part in a TV mini-series on Casanova in France), his rather hasty escape from Greece in obscure and unseemly circumstances. Barry was a legend, a man bigger than life, but his star was falling, age was creeping on him. Sitting next to him as the newspaper technology changed around us (we were dinosaurs of several varieties), I was always in a spin, in awe and yet aware of the ache of loss, time moving on. I soaked up his stories, while at the same time incubating an idea for my first (published) novel Precious.
Years later, the Star shut down and Barry went through a bad patch. He ended up in Toronto, unemployed, scrambling. My book was out. I didn’t know if Barry knew how much he had influenced me. An old friend from my newspaper days (we worked at the Peterborough Examiner and the Montreal Star together), Mal Aird, arranged for us to meet at the Spadina Tavern. It was a stirring thing, handing Barry a copy of the book. It meant a lot to me; clearly it meant a lot to him. Now both he and Mal are dead. Time eats her children.
Former Province reporter and copy editor Barry Johnson died peacefully in hospital after a long illness Saturday night, with his wife and sister at his side.
He was 74.
Johnson, who was known as “Precious” to his many friends, had a long career in Canadian newspapers, with stops at the Montreal Gazette, Montreal Star, Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald.
The former jet pilot jumped into journalism in the 1950s after a stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His writing career also took him to London, Greece and Rome.
“He’s been everywhere,” his sister Patricia Holland recalled Sunday.
Regarded by many as a lovable scoundrel, Johnson inspired Douglas Glover’s 1984 murder mystery Precious, the tale of “a boozy, burned-out reporter with an embarrassing nickname and a penchant for getting into trouble,” according to Glover’s website.
via Barry Johnson: A precious one gone.
But see also Barry Johnson obituary with more life details here.
I stayed where I was a few minutes longer to see the hands lock down the last plates, hear the warning bells, and watch the freshly folded newspapers flooding off the line. Twenty years had fled. I hadn’t listened to Uncle Dorsey. When I got out of the air force, I had my wings and a ticket to a gold mine. In the early sixties airlines were offering a million bucks, fifty grand a year, to ex-servicemen who wanted to fly passenger jets. But the thought of turning into a glorified bus driver at the age of twenty-five chilled me. And somehow I thought the money would always be there.
On a whim I took a job covering the police beat for a small city daily not unlike the Star-Leader. Inside of a month I was hooked on the steady rhythmic surge of the deadline, dropping Dexedrine tablets and working eighty-hour weeks, drifting through my free Sundays in the company of chain-smoking, liverish veterans, their hoarse endless talk echoing in my ears and dreams. I got married; I got divorced. The years accumulated like spent butts in an ashtray. When I finally pulled my nose out of the rat race long enough to grasp the situation, when I finally realized Dorsey had been right all along, it was too late to change and too late to kick.
But, as the French say, even the most beautiful woman cannot give more than she has.
A gluepot, wow. I saw this and wondered how I’d missed your mystery. At least you’ve got that photo to foil the cruel & hungry pace of time.
I am a dinosaur in so many ways! 🙂
I just finished reading “Precious” last night in order to learn more about Barry. My Uncle Barry. A clearly fascinating man whose life was both full and empty simultaneously. I wished I had taken the time to hear more of his stories and adventures. Thanks for the opportunity to get know Uncle Barry a little better through your book.
Barry was an out-sized man. He had a personality, and, I don’t know, not so many people have personalities these days, good or bad, with anything near his volume. He had a big impact on me, obviously. I’m glad my book brought him a bit to life for you. I am really touched and pleased that you wrote.
Sorry to hear about Barry Johnson’s death. It sounds like he had a fascinating life. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks, Kim. In the nature of things, he and I had lost touch. I knew what he was up to, working at the Province, because newspapers are a small world. But then eventually even my contacts there dwindled. But I was touched and pleased to see that even in his death notice the family mentioned my novel–this tells me that he was happy with what I had made of him in fiction. That’s a great compliment from a guy who lived large and was the epitome of the old pro.
Yes, thanks, Douglas. It makes me feel nostalgic, even though my only newspaper experience was as librarian (a fancy title for a glorified file clerk), presiding over the “morgue” and writing obits one day a week, plus other occasional small articles and cutlines, for The Berkshire Eagle in 1967. I wanted to be a reporter, but left and had a baby instead. One of the duties I liked best was giving tours of the paper to Boy Scout troops and fifth-grade classes, showing them the huge rolls of newsprint and the process of forming the lead Linotype slugs into galleys, then sending them to the stereotype machines. The best time to give a tour was when the giant Web press was actually running, so the visitors could stand in awe as that day’s issue roared through the rollers, ending up in a neatly cut and folded newspaper, literally hot off the press.
Ah, yes, I used to go down to the press room just to watch the presses begin to roll and the first papers come off the line and smell the ink.
I read Precious about ten years ago, btw, and enjoyed it. It is good to know more about the person who helped inspire the book.
Thanks, v. A lot of the newspaper details in the novel were taken from my experiences at various newspapers, esp. the Peterborough Examiner where there really was a sign SPROTS over the sports department. The young reporter/sidekick was based on me. The original murder was based on one I covered. I did try to follow the police with the tracker dog through the fields. The cops were laughing at me. I was young.
I must read Precious again now that I’ve been introduced to its muse. Your tribute has left me crying, even though I never met the man and the closest I ever came to journalism was editing my high school yearbook.
I read that in your voice, and it made me tear up just a little
Thank you, Jones.
That was a very nice tribute. Barry was my father. That is quite a picture of him, I call it the Elvis picture. I love to tell people he was a pilot in the air force. He was a great story teller and had a wonderful voice. We got a chance to spend some time together when my brother died in 2010.
Dean, Thank you for writing. The Elvis picture—I like that. He was a bigger than life man to me, although I am sure I got to know little of the whole person. And I knew him only briefly, a pretty spectacular year of my youth. I am sorry you’ve lost him. I was especially touched to note in the death notice that he wanted contributions to go in his name to a youth writing camp. Douglas
Thank you so much for the wonderful tribute you wrote for Barry. He would have loved it! Barry talked about contacting you a few months ago but ultimately his health (cancer) got in the way. He spoke very fondly of you and your shared time at the Montreal Star. I have the tattered old copy of your book, ‘Precious’ that you presented to him, oh so many years ago. The pages are yellow now. It was a surreal experience for me as I read the book and found his own stories reflected throughout the pages.
Barry, as you know, was a raconteur and he met his match in me. We both delighted in sharing stories and in the beginning of our relationship, we talked on the phone one time, for nine hours straight.
He had the most beautiful heart I have ever known and what most people don’t know, is that underneath everything, he was shy.
He was quite simply, the love of my life and he never tired of telling me, i was his. He often said of us…”In the nick of time.” We met seven years ago when my brother Ron (Thor) Thorsteinson died. My brother was also a copy editor at the Montreal Star and if I’m not mistaken he was there the early 70s and in 1975 and 76, too.
Our time together was so ‘precious’…we loved traveling together, reading to each other (books and newspapers), had the most amazingly wonderful conversations, supported each others dreams, were each others best friend and so much more. The one thing we didn’t get to do, that was on our list, was to dance in a corn field! I miss him more than I can say.
Thanks again, Douglas. Your tribute would have meant a lot to my darling husband!
I am touched beyond what I can say to read your message here. Touched that Barry remembered those days so fondly. Touched that you still have that copy of the novel. But especially I am so glad to hear that you found each other and you had some happy years together. Of course, I remember Thor, too. Not so well as Barry, who had the panache no one else could match. I am still mulling over in my mind the strange message loop you describe: you reading stories Barry told you about his life filtered through me and fictionalized (for the sake of the novel story) in Precious. I am sure what I wrote ended up being pretty distant from Barry’s own life. And, of course, I added completely fictional plot stories. But I did try to get across the spirit of the guy I liked and admired and looked up to. Whatever else—he had a spark, a real love of life, and the energy to find some adventures along the way—that’s what captured my imagination.
Sometimes I get a little tired of this magazine. It’s a lot of work. But your note (and Dean’s earlier today) have just made the whole effort completely worthwhile. I wouldn’t have missed connecting with you for anything.
Thank you for writing at such a time.
Thank you so much for your note to me. I am incredibly touched by your words. I see my language could have been more succinct. It wasn’t stories, it was the air force pilot then journalist and actually, at least one of his escapades that seemed surreal to me. You did get across the spirit of Barry, his wonderful spark, his love of life and the energy to find some wonderful adventures along the way!
I am really pleased Dean’s and my note have made a difference for you. Your work is important work.
I wish you all the best,
Thank you. And my best to you. We’ll keep in touch.
Do keep in touch. I tried to print your article and comments but it didn’t work. What printed was just a listing of articles. Any suggestions?
Thank you for your help.
Nostalgia sneaks up on you. I’ve recently started cycling with a younger friend who moved in down the street. Being on the bike again after a long spell brought back powerful memories of long rides with our friend Malcolm Aird.
Now to have you bring back “Precious” and the days when those who wielded the steel ruler
and gluepot were held in high esteem in newsrooms, I too am saddened and riddled with nostalgia.
I’ve come to welcome a good wallow in nostalgia. Thanks for the post.
Yes, this made me think about Mal a lot, too. He knew Barry longer and better than I did. He was working at the Globe when Barry moved to Toronto from Montreal. But you and Kathy and Mal and I were all together at the Examiner, oh so many years ago. Nice of you to wax nostalgic, too. (And, of course, so much of Precious comes out of my time at the Examiner.)
A touching piece.
In the article you refer to a Mal Aird. Am I correct to assume this would be Mal(colm) Aird who would have worked at the G&M sometime in the late 80s?
He was a colleague for a few years at Canadore College, North Bay, Ontario, where he taught briefly in the Print Journalism program. In addition to lively conversations, and truly entertaining anecdotes, we enjoyed cycling together. I lost touch after I moved in 1992. I always wanted to re-connect. I gather from your article he has since passed away.
Any information/update you can share would be appreciated. Directly to my email.
Yes, sadly, the same person. I’ll be in touch via email.
By way of copy-editing the photo cutline, the clock on the back wall (above my long hair) shows it to be 5:25 , not “just before 8 a.m.” We would not be hanging around if the paper had been put to bed. By 8 a.m., Nick would be slipping us in the side door of Junior’s bar for our morning drinking. On the overnight shift, as I think Mal said, there was never a time of the day not to drink.
Thank you, Peter. Just what we need around here — a good copyeditor. No doubt you’re right. It’s good to be reminded of the details of that time. And very nice to hear from you after all these years.
Yes, all these years. I should have added that ex-rim pig Michael Kostelnuk of Winnipeg drew my attention to this picture. He requested friendship on my Facebook page for this specific purpose and then disappeared again. He has always been a great admirer of Barry Johnson.
I remember Michael, yes. Another Montreal Star alum.