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A eulogy for J. Frank Willis

The Story


Legendary Canadian broadcaster J. Frank Willis passed away at 60. In this 1969 CBC Radio clip, fellow journalist Bill McNeil gives a moving eulogy for the man he calls "my first hero." Interestingly, McNeil's tribute focuses mainly on Willis's groundbreaking coverage of the 1936 Moose River mine disaster -- widely considered the event that catapulted Willis onto the world stage as a pioneering radio reporter. "For J. Frank Willis, it was the real beginning of a career that made him the dean of Canadian network radio," says McNeil. 

Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Oct. 27, 1969
Host: Bill McNeil
Duration: 4:12
Photo: CBC Still Photo Collection

Did You know?


• Born in 1908, J. Frank Willis grew up in Halifax and went to New York at the age of 20 to study art. He returned to Halifax in 1930 and began a career in freelance radio work.


• Willis's biography page on the Canadian Communications Foundation's website explains that his tireless reporting on the Moose River disaster wasn't only a turning point in Willis's career, but it also changed the popular notion of what radio was meant for. "The event revolutionized the understanding of what radio could do. It had been perceived as a mainly entertainment medium. Now it was recognized as a fast -- even live -- news source."

 

• In Knowlton Nash's 1994 book The Microphone Wars, he wrote: "Willis's [Moose River] broadcasts demonstrated vividly how radio could tie an entire nation -- even several nations -- together to share the emotions and experience the drama of a single event. It was the beginning in Canada of broadcast news specials. Willis was swamped with offers from American radio stations and agencies wanting him to do broadcasts, make speeches and public appearances, and endorse products. Willis... turned them all down saying, 'I felt there was something wrong capitalizing on a thing like the Moose River disaster.' He stayed in Canada to become one of the country's best-known and highly regarded radio and television performers."

 

• Willis stayed with the CBC for the bulk of his career, working mainly on radio documentaries throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, and then switching to television in the 1950s. The CBC-TV program he is best known for is Close-Up, which he hosted from 1957 until 1963.

 

• J. Frank Willis died of a heart attack on Oct. 26, 1969. He was survived by his wife Gladys and his younger brother Austin, an actor.

 


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The 1936 Moose River Mine Disaster more