A life of firsts: Ernest Tucker, trailblazing Montreal journalist, dead at 87
Pioneering reporter worked for CBC News and taught generations of journalists at John Abbott College
When Ernest Tucker graduated from Toronto's Ryerson Institute of Technology in 1954, he took the long bus ride north to Sudbury, Ont., to be interviewed for a job as a reporter.
He arrived in the newsroom and was told there'd been a mistake: the job had already been filled.
It was the Bermudian native's first experience with racism in Canada.
"He had been bouncing back and forth between Canada and Bermuda in the 50s because he wasn't able to get hired in Canada, at first, as a journalist," Brian Daly, a CBC News TV producer in Halifax and a former student of Tucker's, recalls his mentor telling him.
But Tucker, who died earlier this month at Anna-Laberge Hospital in Châteauguay at the age of 87, overcame the obstacles.
His first real journalism job in Canada was at the Toronto Telegram, moving back to Canada from Bermuda after a story he wrote caught the eye of a Telegram editor, who offered him a job.
Tucker was not at the paper long: he joined the CBC radio newsroom in Toronto in 1961, and he's believed to be the first black journalist hired at the CBC.
How Tucker earned his promotion
Tucker loved to recount how, on Nov. 22, 1963, he was alone in the newsroom when the teletype machines suddenly went crazy with the breaking news that U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
"Everyone else in the office was out to lunch," says his daughter, Rebecca Sevrin, recalling her father's story. "So he consulted the news bible, and then wrote the story himself — finding a news announcer to read it on air."
At first, he was reprimanded for running with the story, Sevrin says. The next day, after CBC Radio was praised for its quick work in getting the news of Kennedy's death on the air, Tucker was promoted.
Tucker remained at the CBC, moving to Montreal some years later, where he worked a weekend shift on the CBC News lineup desk and then worked Monday to Friday, teaching media arts at John Abbott College.
Born in Warwick, Bermuda in 1931, Tucker came to Canada at the age of 14, when his older brother won a teaching scholarship in Toronto and brought his younger sibling along with him.
Tucker covered some of the most notable events of the era, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the FLQ kidnapping of the British diplomat James Cross in 1970.
His daughter Rebecca said he had to work hard, but her father rarely spoke about the difficulties, never dwelling on the negative.
"My dad was so understated," Sevrin said. "He just did his job and then moved on to the next thing."
Met Ringo on the tarmac
Sevrin says her father entertained the family with stories about the celebrities he interviewed.
"He was the first person to talk to the Beatles when they came to town. He spoke to Ringo on the tarmac. And he interviewed Louis Armstrong."
"I remember him telling me Armstrong ate two dozen eggs before he went onstage, and then he said to my dad, 'Sit in the back row because I'm going to be farting all the way through.'"
Kristy Rich, who produces CBC TV News in Montreal, was one of Tucker's students at John Abbott.
"I will always remember his stories about the things he'd covered over the years: interviewing Josephine Baker, being alone in the newsroom when the news of JFK's assassination broke and scrambling to get the information on the air."
He was a very supportive mentor, Rich says.
"He helped me realize that journalism was something I wanted to do and that I could do it."
Mike Armstrong, now a national reporter for Global TV News in Montreal, also remembers Tucker's abilities as a teacher. He says he took two courses from Tucker, TV1 and TV2, but he and his fellow media arts students wanted more.
"A few of us got together with Ernie and pitched Abbott on a more in-depth TV3, and it was accepted," Armstrong remembers. "To this day, one semester in the early 90s is probably the only time John Abbott College ever had a TV3 course."
Tucker was reluctant to speak out about the racism he had faced, said his former student, Brian Daly.
"There were a few of us in the class who were black, and he did take special attention to talk to us about the history, because it was a history you would never read about or see in media reports," said Daly. "He did talk to us in confidence, but he didn't talk about it in front of the class."
He also helped his black students to move forward, mentoring them and encouraging them whenever he could.
"You know, when I had him as a teacher, it stood out that he was a black instructor," said Daly. "Ernie himself stood out to me — just in the graceful way that he carried himself and the challenges, the knowledge that were just pouring out of him."
Tucker retired from the CBC in the mid-1990s. However, he kept teaching until 2008, retiring from John Abbott College after nearly 36 years.
But he remained an old-school newsman.
"He would have the news on 24/7, and he was always talking about current events," Sevrin recalls. "He just lived for the news."
While still at John Abbott College, Tucker wrote a novel, Underworld Dwellers, published in 1994. A second novel, Lost Boundaries, which tackles the subject of police harassment of black Montrealers, was published a decade later.
Tucker's wife Jeannette said her husband of 60 years finished his third novel shortly before he became ill late last summer. It's set to be published later this year.
Ernest Tucker died on Jan. 3.
He is survived by his daughters, Rebecca and Jasmin, his son Julien and his wife, Jeannette Jarvis Tucker. He was predeceased by two children, Michael and Krista.
Joanne Bayly is a senior journalist at CBC Montreal who worked with Ernie Tucker. She remembers his kindness and good nature and his ability to remain calm, no matter what was going on around him.