Jim Travers: a journalist's journalist

Don Newman on Jim Travers, the Toronto Star columnist who died suddenly on Thursday.

He was a gentleman's gentleman and a journalist's journalist.

And now, without any warning to almost anyone, he is gone.

Toronto Star columnist Jim Travers died this morning, March 3, from complications following surgery he had undergone almost three weeks earlier. 

As the news swept Parliament Hill and those parts of the country, the village that breathes politics and journalism, there was stunned disbelief.

How could this be? How could someone only 62 and so much at the top of his game as the Toronto Star's Ottawa columnist, a clever and reassuring presence in print and on television, be no longer here.

Toronto Star columnist Jim Travers died Thursday, March 3, 2011. (Photo Bernard Weil, courtesy Toronto Star)

No longer here to shed enlightenment and insights, gleaned from all those years as a foreign correspondent and political writer. No longer here to explain things on television so that everyone could understand them.

Never complained

For those of us who knew him well, that also meant he would be no longer here to tell a terrible pun. No longer here to laugh loudly at some joke in which he was the delighted butt.

How could this be, so many people are asking. Hardly anyone knew he was ill.

Sure he had been living for a number of years with skin cancer. You could see that when the illness flared.

But Jim never complained about this and he didn't let it slow him down either. Usually he made a joke about it.

What he never talked about was the other health problems he had to deal with, the ones that sent him to hospital in February. The ones that took his life.

But then Jim never talked much about himself.

He was modest in his comportment. There was no flash in his style.

Friendly and gregarious, he did not need a huge social circuit to keep up with what was going on in this town or to try to impress. He let his work do the talking.

A depth of understanding

And how that work spoke!

As a reporter, foreign correspondent and bureau chief for Southam News. As editor of the Ottawa Citizen. As the managing editor of the Toronto Star, the largest newspaper in the country.

Out of Africa

In the late 1980s, Jim and I were the only two Canadian journalists based in Africa and frequently travelled together. Every journey with him provided a monologue of his hilariously caustic observations on African logistics and pessimistic predictions that we'd be jailed or our plane would crash or the electricity would fail and the hotel elevator we were riding in would crash to the basement.

On one occasion, arriving at Addis Ababa airport, I listened to him patiently explain to an immigration officer how we transmitted stories from our laptops over the phone to Canada. "That is impossible," the officer said.

We got to our hotel rooms. As I was unpacking, there was a knock on the door. It was Jim, looking mournful. "The guy was right," he said. "The phones don't work."

His writing was like his personality — civil, intelligent and good-humoured. He was one of the very few journalists I liked working with close-up.

Michael Valpy, former Globe and Mail correspondent

And then as the Star's Ottawa columnist, one of the most important bits of journalistic real estate in the business.

His work was recognized by many awards, including the Hy Solomon Award for Public Policy Journalism, the Charles Lynch Award for Excellence in National Reporting and more than once, National Newspaper Awards.

In 2009, he won the National Newspaper Award for column writing for a piece entitled "The quiet unravelling of Canadian democracy."

I had long admired Jim's journalism, the depth of understanding that he brought in a few hundred well chosen words.

And I wanted to get that kind of journalism on television so I approached him to be a panelist on the CBC's Politics broadcast.

He was keen to give it a try. And no wonder: he was a natural. A real person. A smart person. A person Canadians could relate to and understand.

He was adaptable, too.

During the live coverage of the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scam, I asked Jim to join me on air and help analyze the testimony.

This was shortly after Pope John Paul II died and the College of Cardinals was meeting in Rome to select his successor.

As we were watching the Gomery testimony, word came from the director that white smoke was coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. A new pope had been elected.

Suddenly, there, live on the screen, were pictures from Rome and the smoke from the chapel chimney.

It was going to be up to Jim and I to talk about what was happening, although neither of us knew much about the intricacies of all that had been going on.

But as we talked about the possibility of a new pope, right before us and the eyes of everyone else watching, the smoke began to change colour.

Suddenly, it was no longer white, signaling the election of a pope. But it wasn't exactly black either, which would signal that another ballot was needed.

It was grey. And in that grey area Jim and I finessed our way through what seemed like an eternity on television until the election was confirmed by the Vatican.

As I recall, things were a bit hairy at the time. But almost every time we got together afterwards Jim would laugh about it and suggest the CBC should have him on contract and ready for the next time a new pope is chosen.

Jim liked to laugh. That is why even through the disbelief and the numbness that has greeted the news of his untimely death, there will undoubtedly be the occasional smiles as those who knew him remember the man he was.

 Think of a man who was a delight to know, a delight to read and a delight to listen to.

 A gentleman's gentleman and a journalist's journalist.