First Person by Catharine McKenty

 

As long as he could remember, Neil McKenty was interested in writing. A teacher in grade school gave him a key piece of advice: “Find some­thing to write about.” And he did.

At 9, he won his first oratorical con­test, no doubt helped by his mother, Irene, a talented teacher.

His father, Arthur, owned a hard­ware store in the small town of Hast­ings, Ontario.

At 15, Neil signed on as a stringer for the Peterborough Examiner whose editor was Robertson Davies. He covered village council meetings, sports events, accidents, runaway horses, lawn bowling and Sunday af­ternoon teas. He was paid 10 cents a column inch.

He and his cousin bought an old Dodge car for $30, patched the leaky gas tank with bubble gum and put a big sign marked PRESS on the wind­shield. He learned about politics, prices and world affairs while sitting with the farmers on bales of twine around the glowing pot-bellied stove in front of nail kegs in his dad’s hard­ware store.

While studying with the Jesuits, he got one a masters degree in his­tory and another in communications from the University of Michigan.

In 1967, his biography of contro­versial Ontario premier Mitch Hep­burn won the centennial prize for best biography

I met Neil on a Toronto dance floor in 1971. At the time, he was finish­ing a three-year stint with the Foster Foundation, working with the Ken- nedys and Brian O’Neill of the Na­tional Hockey League to bring the Special Olympics to Canada.

He was looking for a new chal­lenge. He found it.

Two weeks after our honeymoon, we moved lock, stock and barrel to Montreal.

Neil did his first editorial at CJAD hardly knowing where Peel and Ste. Catherine were.

With one part-time paycheque and no car, we explored this fascinating city by bus in all kinds of weather.

One bitter January day, we were waiting on a street corner near the Botanical Garden.

We decided then and there you had to join the Montreal winter or freeze to death, so we bought skis for $49 a pair at Eatons and slithered around Angrignon Park.

A member of the Laurentian Lodge Ski Club took pity on us and the result was some memorable friendships, including Jackrabbit Johannsen, and a book, Skiing Leg­ends and the Laurentian Lodge Club, which Neil turned into a best-seller.

Skiing Legends of the Laurentian Lodge Club is soon to be available as an ebook through Amazon. All proceeds from Neil’s books go to scholarships for young journalism students. Some CJAD tapes will soon be added.

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3 Comments »

  1. 1
    Catharine McKenty Says:

    Recently a student from Ireland, in the Wider Horizons programme, asked me “How do you get what is in your head down on paper?”
    Good question.
    In the next few days, we’ll post some of Neil’s answers to this question – please add your own as well.
    What was your first experience of writing? Which writers most impressed you? Have you taken a course in writing?

  2. 2
    Jim Says:

    This is an excerpt on writing, written by Neil in his bio “The Inside Story”.

    As long as I can remember, I was interested in writing. In 1936, in the senior grade of the separate school, I wrote a long essay on Francisco Franco, and the Spanish Civil War. Of course, I defended Franco because all the Catholics I knew, including my parents, were praying he would kill the godless communists. Usually my father took a hard line against the communists and that other godless group, the “international bankers,” … who, some believed, controlled the world through banks. One of those who believed it was the famous radio priest, Father Charles E. Coughlin. In a golden voice as rich and rolling as an organ, Father Coughlin excoriated the international bankers every Sunday afternoon on his radio network originating at the Shrine of the Little Flower, in Royal Oak , Michigan. And every Sunday afternoon without fail we had to listen with our father to this spellbinding preacher who fought for the underdog in the middle of the Depression – a stance that appealed to Dad. And we continued to listen every Sunday until Coughlin, a demagogue and a rabid anti-Semite, was removed from the airwaves by his own religious superiors in the Spring of 1942.
    It was during Father Coughlin’s heyday that my interest in radio and writing began to grow. Soon after I began classes at Campbellford High School, my English teacher, Kate Ferris, a tall angular spinster who taught the parsing of sentenses as precisely as others might teach figure skating, stopped beside my desk one day and said quietly “You should work at your writing. You have a flair for it”
    I wanted a public forum for my work, because if it wasn’t in public it wasn’t worth doing; if it wasn’t noticed, it didn’t happen. I was fifteen. The Peterborough Examiner, under editor Robertson Davies, was becoming one of the country’s most distinguished newspapers, and I decided I wanted a job. Unfortunately, the fact that I was interested in writing was not enough to convince them to hire me. But help came from an unexpected source. (Part 2 to follow, Jim)

  3. 3
    Jim Says:

    Neil’s writing career, from his bio, “The Inside Story” (Part 2)

    Berk Boyle had written for The Examiner and the Toronto Star as a sideline when he had lived in Hastings and was working for my dad in the hardware store. When Berk decided to move to Peterborough and go into journalism full time, he asked me if I was interested in a job. I jumped at the chance. The Examiner hired me to be a stringer covering the Hastings area.
    Being a newspaper stringer in Hastings was like being a minnow in the Trent River. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that I was the only minnow in the river. I was not only being noticed but I was developing some kind of autonomy, breaking out, even fleetingly, from the magnetic field of my father’s control. I covered village council meetings, sports events, accidents, fires, runaway horses and Sunday afternoon teas, not to mention lawn bowling tournaments in which both my parents were keen participants. If the reeve of Hastings wanted to see his name in the paper, he called me. If Mrs Stubbs on Norwood Road wanted her friends to know she had entertained the Turners from Asphodel, she gave me the information.
    I was paid ten cents a columnar inch for hard news (such as a fisherman from Ohio catching a record-breaking muskellunge) or three cents a columnar inch for the personal stuff (Mrs Stubbs and Mrs Turner). As soon as I was old enough to drive I bought an old Dodge touring car for thirty dollars in partnership with my closest friend, Tim Coughlan. The car (whose leaking gas tank we tried to patch with bubble gum) had an enormous windshield. I went to the office of the Hastings Star and ordered a large sign. The sign which I attached to the windshield read “Press.” Everybody in Hastings and its environs knew I was the local reporter for The Examiner.
    One frigid afternoon in January 1940, Mother met me at our door after the school bus dropped me off. She told me the sad news – the first young (enlisted) man from Hastings had been killed in the war. It was Bud Richardson, serving in the Air Force. He had been a star athlete, especially in the Hastings softball league. His death in action would be a terrible blow to our little town. I grabbed a notebook, put on another sweater against the sub-zero weather and walked the three miles through the snowbanks to the farmstead home of Bud Richardson’s parents. I hadn’t known Bud Richardson well, but as I walked, I thought of the young athlete we had cheered on the playing field and felt a deep sense of loss. At the farmhouse I spoke to Bud’s parents about their son and borrowed their only picture of him in uniform. In spite of the circumstances I enjoyed talking with the Richardsons. I had learned much listening to farm people chewing the fat about politics, prices and crops as we all sat on bales of binder twine around the glowing pot-bellied stove in front of the nail kegs in Dad’s hardware store. Bud Richardson’s death in action and his picture and the story in The Examiner brought the war home to Hastings in a personal way. I was there to record it – an experience I will never forget.
    Every day before supper I would wait for the bus from Peterborough with its hot- off-the-press copies of The Examiner, and would feverishly look through the paper to see if the article I had written had made it into print. Often it had, which would provide a boost to my ego. 30


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