As It Happens

Joe Schlesinger's colleague mourns loss of 'one of the best' Canadian journalists

Brian Stewart says "we've lost a really great one" with the death of former CBC correspondent Joe Schlesinger.

Brian Stewart says the former CBC correspondent 'set the bar' for a generation of journalists

Longtime CBC foreign correspondent Joe Schlesinger, who spent decades covering war zones and global events that shaped history, has died. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)
Listen6:19

A generation of CBC reporters have been inspired by Joe Schlesinger's work as a CBC foreign correspondent, says his friend and colleague Brian Stewart.

Schlesinger, one of the Canada's most celebrated journalists, died after a lengthy illness Monday at the age of 90. He bore witness to some of the most famous — and tumultuous — news events in the world during the latter half of the 20th century.

Stewart, a former CBC foreign correspondent who worked with Schlesinger, said he remembers him as someone who always pushed his colleagues to do better.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

[Joe] was always, seemed to be, in the right place at the right time. I mean, there he was in Vietnam. He was there at the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was in St. Peter's Square when John Paul became pope, and Tehran when the Shah fell. Gorbachev came to Washington, he was there. Reagan goes to Moscow, he's there. I mean, he had that kind of journalistic horseshoe up some place, right?

He absolutely did — the great ones have it. I've never quite figured out what it was, but they sure have it.

We always felt, you know, when you're in the field and in this business where we're not only good chums and friends and love each other, but we're kind of competitive, we're competitors.

When Joe would come in on a big story or covering like the Berlin Wall, say, or the Gulf War, you always had an instinctive feeling right off you were going to be playing for silver and bronze, not the gold — because you know who's going to be getting the gold medal, and he always did. 

But at the same time, he earned it, right? Because, I can recall, even after he retired, you'd be, on a Sunday afternoon, whatever, in the building and he'd come running in because he'd heard a story had broken and he was going to cover it. I mean, it's like the fireman. The first one down the pole even years after his retirement.

Unbelievable. I was covering the Gulf War one night just coming back from the battlefield ... and he was trying to get in with a bunch of reporters they were trying to block from going in.

This was about eleven o'clock at night, and I get up to this checkpoint where they're trying to keep everybody back, and there's fires going off in the background and the oil wells are blazing. It's like a vision out of hell.

The reporter who is absolutely in the front is Joe. At 64 years old, he's way ahead of all the others. You know, he was always pushing us to get in and move more. And it was so great because he made everybody a little better at their job.

Schlesinger, centre, on a panel with fellow CBC News journalists, including Brian Stewart, left, during the 1980s. Stewart says Schlesinger had 'a great humanitarian sense of justice and outreach to him' that journalism needed. (CBC)

You hit on something really important about the way that Joe reported, which was that he could make you care about stories even if they were remote and they dealt with people who seemed so far away from your own life, your own experiences — he had some way of reporting on that or writing about it ... that would connect your empathy with who he was reporting on, didn't he?

I do believe that part of it goes back to his own childhood, and the murder of his family during the Holocaust and his own narrow escape from that. I think it pained him, as it would, for the rest of his life.

It gave him a great empathy for other people who were subjects of tyranny, brutes, of bullies of all kinds, and horrible ends, and he had a great humanitarian sense of justice and outreach to him that the business needed.

The National's Adrienne Arsenault looks back at the life and work of journalist Joe Schlesinger. 4:35

He refers to being in a Czech refugee camp and he was a refugee — he did experience these things, he lost his family in the Holocaust — but he was part of something called the Kindertransport. Years later, he told us about that, what's the story there?

[Nicholas Winton] organized this railway to go from Czechoslovakia to England filled with young Jewish kids to get them out from under the Nazis who were really, you know, going extremely brutal in the late '30s and get them out of what he saw was coming.

He put on, I think it was, 670 of these kids. Each had a suitcase and they got on the train and they went off to England, and Joe was one of them. It was a remarkable rescue.

Joe got into England and was sent to a boarding school ... but left behind was the family that were exterminated. And it just such a remarkable early-life example of both the horrors and the possibilities of life.

Renowned journalist Joe Schlesinger describes meeting Nicholas Winton, the man who saved his life. 5:38

He told [the Toronto Star]: "If I could choose one moment, it would be going back to Prague 50 years after I'd left as a refugee from Hitler, 40 years after I left as a refugee from Stalin, and watching the whole system crumble." And he got to see that, didn't he?

One of my fortunate moments is I got to be there with him.

He was there to see the glorious moment. I mean, the hundreds of thousands of people pouring through the streets, and in the main square, and people in tears of joy, literally.

And it was just such a perfect, perfect moment for somebody who had suffered, somebody whose family had suffered as his did, and I know it meant an enormous amount to him.

What have we lost with the death of Joe Schlesinger?

We've lost a really great one. I think, for a generation of reporters, it's certainly lost somebody who always made us better, because he sort of set the bar, and he said the way stories should look, and the way they should be approached.

We also lost somebody who had this great context about all stories — no matter where the story broke, you could sit down with Joe, and he'd know the history and the background of that country, and he'd put it in some context, and he'd look for networks of events and that, that one could follow.

He was an exceptionally great foreign correspondent. One of the best of any country in the world anywhere in his time.

Written by Zahraa Hmood with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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