Peter Gzowski Broadcasting's 'Mister Canada'
Martin O'Malley and Blair Shewchuk, CBC News Online
So engaging were some of Peter Gzowski's radio interviews that many people who were listening to them on their car radios would drive to the shoulder of the highway or park by the curb on a leafy street so they could better pay attention to what was being said.
He was a giant of radio in this country, "Mr. Canada" to many, "Mr. Broadcasting" to many others. He was a writer, a columnist, a magazine editor, the author of at least 10 books, depending on which ones you count the marvelous collections of letters sent to This Country in the Morning and Morningside, his personal writings such as The Private Voice, or his elegant true stories of teams and athletes and adventures.
He was also a reluctant and uncomfortable television performer on programs such as 90 Minutes Live and Gzowski & Company. He was a champion of literacy, raising millions for the cause through his annual golf tournaments called the "Peter Gzowski Invitationals" held across the country, even on the ice and the snow of the Arctic (using orange balls).
He loved journalism, though he liked the word "reporter" better than "journalist." He loved hockey, baseball, golf, contract bridge, cryptic crosswords, the North and the sweep and content of the country. He nearly lost count of the honorary degrees he collected over the years. In 1999, he was appointed Chancellor of Trent University in Ontario, fittingly on July 1 Canada Day. He held the position until he died.
He died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or what is more commonly known as emphysema, "the smoker's disease." Gzowski has often discussed and written about his addiction to cigarette-smoking. In the recent book Addicted: notes from the belly of the beast, published by Greystone Books, he wrote a chapter he titled, "How to quit smoking in 50 years or less." In that chapter he says he smoked three large packages of Rothman's a day 75 cigarettes. He wrote, "I have what the health care system, bless its heart, calls COPD, for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, but which everyone knows really means emphysema…."
The truth is, Peter Gzowski died of smoking.
He was born on July 13, 1934 in Toronto. When he was six he moved to Galt, Ontario with his mother and her new husband, Reg Brown. In 1948, at the age of 14, he ran away from home and found his paternal grandfather, who managed to have Peter admitted to his alma mater, Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Gzowski was the great-great-great grandson of Sir Casimir Gzowski, a Polish noble who was an engineer.
After Ridley, where he graduated with two scholarships, he enrolled at the University of Toronto. He began his journalism career at the Timmins Daily News in northern Ontario, returned to the University of Toronto where he was editor of the student newspaper, The Varsity and worked part-time at The Telegram.
In the spring of 1957, Gzowski became city editor of The Moose Jaw Times-Herald in Saskatchewan. By the fall of 1957 he was managing editor of the Chatham Daily News back in Ontario. The next year he joined the staff of Maclean's magazine. At the age of 28 he became the youngest-ever managing editor of Maclean's and became known as journalism's "boy wonder."
He turned to radio in the early 1970s, hosting the CBC's This Country in the Morning and left radio for a disastrous stint hosting the nightly television show 90 Minutes Live. When that show blew up, Gzowski scratched around for writing assignments, wrote the non-fiction books titled The Sacrament and The Game of Our Lives, the story of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.
It was a lonely time for Gzowski. He lived in Rockwood, a hamlet northwest of Toronto. He felt cut off, banished. "My God, how sometimes the telephone doesn't ring," he told a friend.
His return to radio came about as the result of a chance encounter in a restaurant with Barbara Frum, then the star host of CBC Radio's As It Happens.
"How come I never hear you on the radio any more?" Frum asked.
"Nobody asks me," Gzowski told her.
"I wish I were," Gzowski said.
"Would you sit in for me?" Frum asked.
He eagerly returned to radio and in the fall of 1982 began his sojourn as host of CBC Radio's Morningside, which lasted 15 years and made him a household name in Canada. The final show was broadcast from Moose Jaw to honour Gzowski's working connection to that Prairie city.
He told Maclean's soon after he left the show, "The best interviews were the ones that surprised me. They're not (necessarily) the ones with the prime minister or the great author, but, rather, people like Elly Danica, a victim of sexual abuse, or a scientist whose work gives him pride. Donna Williams, the autistic woman, was very moving. She talked about the street lights sparkling pink and the colour of each blade of grass. It was quite wonderful."
It has been estimated Gzowski conducted 27,000 interviews during his tenure at Morningside.
"He brought prime ministers into our kitchens on almost equal footing with rhododendron growers and Inuit throat singers, led a search for the Great Canadian Joke and retried Louis Riel, asked Alice Munro for her tips on making lemon meringue pie and coaxed a Caesar salad recipe out of Joe Ghiz, took the world to Moose Jaw and Moose Jaw to the world, asked questions that seemed to go on forever and listened silently for minutes at a time as ordinary Canadians held a nation-wide audience captive with their words."
This is how John Allemang of The Globe and Mail described Gzowski in a story he wrote about the end of his long stint with Morningside in May 1997. By this time the show had 1.3 million listeners a week. It was a daily, three-hour, mostly live radio show. Worth noting, too, that 1997 was the year Gzowski won the international Peabody award for broadcasting, a huge honour for a Canadian radio host.
Friends know him as amiable but competitive, ego-driven but generous, cerebral but an "Aw, shucks" kind of Canadian. As a youth at Ridley, he was sensitive about his appearance, mainly because of severe acne, which caused some cruel schoolmates to call him "pus face."
In a long passage in The Private Voice, Gzowski remembers:
"But in the years before it did clear up, acne a word I could handle more easily was the most important factor in my life. I don't think people who haven't had the real thing I'm not talking a few zits here, I'm talking ugly, festering pustules that bleed through your basketball shirt and reduce your social life to Frank Yerby novels have any idea what it does to a young person's soul, and if some psychiatrist were to try to explain my sometimes excessive need to be liked on the radio by peering into the history of my epidermis, well, he could have something."
The New York Times has said of Gzowski:
"In a country forever in search of its own voice, Mr. Gzowski is a stand-in for Canada, as curious as he is courteous, interested in hockey heroes and indigenous customs and all the forgotten chapters of a national history and culture that he constantly challenges his listeners to cherish and defend."
In his last book, a collection of his essays and columns titled A Peter Gzowski Reader , published by McClelland & Stewart, under the imprint of his longtime publisher Douglas Gibson, Gzowski writes:
"…I've had a pretty full life. On radio or television or with a pencil in my hand, I've got to meet the Queen, eight prime ministers (nine if you count Margaret Thatcher, who had a cold and couldn't hear my questions but kept on answering what she'd have liked me to ask anyway), four governors general, two chief justices, two Nobel Prize winners, the world yodeling, whistling and bagpipe champions (all Canadians) and every winner and most of the runners-up of the Giller Prize for Literature. I've danced with Karen Kain (well, I made a lifting motion and Karen sprang in the air, light as dandelion fluff), sang with Leonard Cohen (well, Leonard sang and I chanted along to "Tower of Song"), played chess with Boris Spassky (I moved, he moved, I asked if he wanted to resign, he grinned, said sure and we shook hands), golf with George Knudsen, cribbage with Gordon Sinclair and well, sort of, as we've seen hockey with Wayne Gretzky."
Gzowski leaves behind his former wife, Jennie, and their five children Mick, John, Peter, Maria and Alison and Gillian Howard, the woman Peter always called his "life partner."