Thursday, the Canadian Journalism Foundation presents its Excellence in Journalism awards at a gala in the Fairmont Royal York hotel, Toronto.
The main event will be a tribute to the late, great Canadian TV journalist Peter Jennings. He was anchor of the ABC evening news for an incredible 24 years and died six years ago.
That other famous ABC journalist, Ted Koppel, (former anchor of Nightline), who is a fine and decent man as well as a first class journalist will present the award. He’ll no doubt mention Peter Jennings’ many other awards: Order of Canada, 16 Emmies, two Peabodies, the Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement, etc. etc. And Koppel will praise Jennings’ professionalism, courage and deep commitment to journalism as public service.
I was a colleague of both Jennings and Koppel at ABC News, New York, back in the late sixties. I wrote news scripts for each and produced some of Jennings’ documentaries.
So allow me to add my own tribute to Koppel’s.
Peter had a child-like curiosity and a marvellously inquiring mind. He could soak up information with incredible speed, report breaking news, hour after hour, with no sign of fatigue. The admiring term at the time was that he had “iron pants.”
He also had that increasingly rare anchor’s ability to sound and act exactly the same — no pompous “Voice of God” for Peter — whether off-camera, reading a script, or ad-libbing.
He was the ultimate professional, about both journalism itself and communicating honest, fair, relevant, understandable information to the viewer.
But enough of the traditional obit stuff. Time to talk about Jennings, my friend.
We had a lot in common. At 27, we were the youngest people in ABC’s newsroom. Both high school dropouts. Both fascinated by journalism as a vital cornerstone of democracy.
And we were both foreigners. He from Canada, across the icy northern border. Me, from tropical Congo, where I’d covered a couple of wars for United Press International.
We played makeshift cricket together in Central Park. He, much better than I. We both enjoyed a few drinks after work. And we both loved women.
Peter was one of the most eligible bachelors in America. Suave, witty, polite, urbane, and elegant, but in an unthreatening Canadian sort of way. So handsome, so charming, that women went weak at the knees when he smiled that you’re-so-gorgeous smile for them. People magazine once named him “one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world.” (He eventually married four times.)
Peter and my son Derek both went to the posh Trinity College School (TCS) in Port Hope, Ontario. At different times, of course. Peter failed tenth grade and dropped out. His reason: “pure boredom.” He added by way of explanation: “I loved girls.”
At a TCS awards day I chatted over excellent sherry with a retired teacher and happened to mention Peter. The teacher smiled fondly. “Ah yes,” he said, “I believe Jennings still holds the record of being the youngest boy ever to get laid while here.”
I flew in a rickety plane with Peter to some story deep in the Arizona desert, landing at a godforsaken dirt strip. Out of the distance, followed by a dramatic cloud of dust, came a convertible driven by a beautiful woman. It doesn’t make sense today, but I’m almost certain she was wearing a mink coat.
The crew and I bunked down in some fleabag motel and didn’t see Peter again until he arrived (on time) on location the next morning. He was in that same convertible, driven by that same beautiful woman.
Once, when he was working on a documentary in Cuba, a lovely ABC associate producer named Carrie who’d adored him for years (she was one of many) and told me she planned to fly there unannounced to prove her undying love and provide solace. Knowing Peter and his strong need to protect his private space, I counseled her that it was entirely the wrong strategy. Anyway — although I didn’t tell Carrie — he’d likely already made his own solace arrangements.
We built an enormous tropical fish tank in Peter’s Manhattan apartment. It had a machine to feed the fish while Peter was away on one of his frequent story assignments, or busy having a sleepover.
There was, of course, a lot more to him than his legendary love life.
Peter was proudly Canadian. He talked often about his family there. And the cottage somewhere outside Ottawa where the family summered.
He was a passionate admirer of the best of Canadian T.V. and films.
One time he screened the late Canadian director Allan King‘s great documentary Warrendale for a bunch of TV heavies. It’s about a Toronto home for emotionally disturbed children so powerful the CBC, which commissioned it, refused to air it. Peter thought the film was a splendid example of Canadian filmmaking and spent much time trying to get an American broadcaster interested. The film, eventually shown in cinemas, won the Prix d’art et d’essai at Cannes.
For my birthday, he gave me a delightfully graceful Inuit whale carving.
Peter had a wry, understated, very Canadian sense of humour. I noticed he normally pronounced “schedule” as “shed-yool.” Instead of the American “sked-yool.” Just for fun, I worked the word into as many of his scripts as I could. He loved it. It was our subtle protest against convention. Only a formal meeting with the bosses changed his pronunciation.
Peter, like all good journalists, was very much his own man. He believed he, not desk producers — and certainly not management — was solely responsible for his stories and therefore the only person accountable for everything in them.
He was one of the finest and most dedicated journalists with whom I’ve ever had the honour and pleasure to work.
Peter Jennings loved life.
He was my friend.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on June 7, 2012: Lady Killer, Ace Journalist and Friend