Gushue | Why the loss of Ray Guy has meant so much

Ray Guy often spared no mercy in skewering his political subjects, but the man himself was altogether different, writes John Gushue.

They arrived on a weekly basis, some anticipated more eagerly than others, all of them however opened quickly enough. When Ray Guy's columns arrived at the Sunday Express, it was hard to resist taking a break to read what the audience would get to see a couple of days later.

I remember one particular column — I think Ray was writing about the ever-expanding scandals in the Roman Catholic church — where a bunch of us huddled silently together near a table, passing each sheet of his column around.

That's just one of the memories I have of Ray, who died on Tuesday at 74 after battling cancer for the last little while. I was fortunate enough to get to him know him a bit through the years, first at the Express and later through my work at the CBC. Ray was a wonder of a writer: inspiring, hilarious, sardonic and altogether human.

My good friend Carolyn Ryan, who was the managing editor at the Sunday Express, also remembered him fondly as "surprisingly shy" and a delight to edit. "His weekly columns arrived in brown envelopes reeking of tobacco and talent," she recalled. "I can still see the block letters of his handwriting ... and the font of the typewriter he used."

Yes, a typewriter. I'm not sure if Ray ever adapted to the digital world, but even in the Eighties he seemed particularly old-school.

Ray had a reputation for being caustic, and while his writing was stiletto-sharp and he often spared no mercy in skewering his political subjects, I can't recall him once being mean-spirited in person. To the contrary, he was gentle, even when you realized a little while later that he had just mumbled a particularly clever insult about someone or other. I know some people who have always assumed he was a misanthrope, but they could not have been more wrong.

A stack of much-loved columns

I grew up in a house where Ray was revered. My dad used to keep a stack of newspaper clippings on the right-hand side of the banker's desk in his den, and each clipping was a Ray Guy column in the Evening Telegram. In his heyday in the 1960s and into the 1970s, Ray pumped out a column almost every weekday — a prodigious effort that I never fully appreciated until I wound up in the newspaper business myself.

Ray Guy appeared for many years as a commentator on CBC Television's Here & Now. (CBC)

 It was of course not just volume, but quality, with many of those columns collected in various books, such as You May Know Them As Sea Urchins, Ma'am or That Far Greater Bay. More recently, in 2008, Gavin Will of Boulder Publications gathered some of Ray's political pieces together in a volume called The Smallwood Years, putting Ray's best writing back in the public eye.

It's remarkable to read those pieces again, and to understand why Ray was considered the unofficial (and maybe even de facto) leader of the Opposition to Joseph R. Smallwood. He pushed pins into every balloon Smallwood tried to float, mocking the pomposity of the man, undercutting the grandeur he tried to project.

He certainly understood his role. "The purpose of humour is to kill somebody," he said in a 1985 interview with Quill and Quire. "You have to be in opposition — make fun, make sport, be satirical. Humour is deadly."

When I first got to know him, he no longer had Smallwood to kick around, but did he ever have targets. He took delight in the tail end of the Peckford era (ah, the Sprung greenhouse), the travails of federal Tory titan John Crosbie and the stiffness of the new Liberal regime of Clyde Wells. Ray took the wind out of all their sails, and many more besides.

Ray worked from home, and alone. He had briefly been a staff reporter when the Sunday Express launched in 1986, but the arrangement didn't work; it always struck me that he needed to be away from noise and other people, and on his own. I think he liked it that way. My friend Russell Wangersky, who was with Ray at the paper's start, described Ray as being like a lobster under a rock, occasionally sticking out a sharp claw.

Earlier this week, I was struck by listening to archival tape and hearing Ray admit that he never knew Smallwood personally. He probably didn't like confrontation, preferring instead to crash into his subjects with his typewriter.

Fearless, at least on the page

Ray was fearless in his writing, but his personal style belied that. When he was a weekly commentator at Here & Now, he would come into the newsroom to prepare, but never made much of a deal of himself. He was casual and low-key, never making a wave. I enjoyed having a chat; he was always interested in the latest political skinny, and occasionally I would have a nugget that would make him smile.

'The purpose of humour is to kill somebody. Humour is deadly.' 

Watching him record his pieces was instructive. While he was notoriously shy, Ray could pull it out when the cameras were on. In a sense, he was playing a persona known as "Ray Guy," the curmudgeon in the easy chair who could make you roll with laughter. When the tapings concluded, he'd amble away.

Because we worked with his wife, Kathie Housser, a now-retired CBC producer whose talents behind the scenes deserve recognition, we kept in touch with Ray socially. I last saw Ray a few years back, at Jonathan Crowe's house during a Christmastime drop-in. While stretching my legs at one point, I found Ray alone in a room, sitting happily on a couch. We had a fine chat.

I feel grateful to have had moments like that, and to have gotten to know a writer of such enormous talent.

By the way, I had always assumed that I first met Ray through the Sunday Express. My mom, Sheila Gushue, told me a nice story this week as we remembered the loss.

"You first met him when I brought you and [my sister] Lisa to work with me one evening after hours at the Evening Telegram," Mom wrote to me in an email. My mother in the early Seventies edited what was called "the women's page" at the Tely; it eventually evolved into the lifestyle section.

"Ray was there in his office doing up a column for the next day, as was his wont; he came out of his 'den' to find out what was going on and to whom the very young voices belonged. He was grumpy but cordial to you both and muttered or murmured that someday you two would perhaps be in 'the same racket as your mother.' Prescient," Mom wrote.  

"I feel very sad about his death," she wrote. "A part of my past has died with him."

How shall we remember him?

Me too. I was so impressed, and so happy, to see the outpouring of comments, notes and emails about Ray after his death. It showed what a deep impact he had on thousands of people, over a career that spanned half a century.

"He deserves a Viking burial," I told my coworkers this week, and I'm not entirely kidding. I hope that reissues of his work continue to be published, that his memory is honoured appropriately in the curriculum, that his plays are staged again, and even that a statue — and I know he'd probably snicker at the very thought — is crafted in his memory.

He earned it.