Writing conversation – McKenty: a man for all seasons

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 Kennedys 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.

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A student asked me “How do you get what is in your head down on paper?”

What a good question.  How would you answer – do you have any clues for budding writers out there?

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