Bruce and Martha Smillie raised seven children and have 32 grandchildren (at last count). Smillie worked days on the docks and nights as late city editor for the Vancouver Sun. His reporters called him Mr. Nightside.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 16, 2012
The police scanner squawked with bursts of excited voices.
Shots fired. Man down.
Bruce Smillie looked out on a deserted newsroom. The reportorial staff had vanished. His crew was chasing down untold stories in the naked city, or, more likely, sampling some of the sinful temptations available in Vancouver on a Friday evening.
At last, he spotted a waif half-hidden behind a pillar — a long-haired, teenaged cub reporter in torn jeans and sneakers whose voice had yet to crack and did not shave.
In a calm but authoritative voice, Mr. Smillie, the night city editor of the Vancouver Sun, the largest and finest newspaper in Western Canada, filled me in on sketchy details gleaned from eavesdropping on the police.
Go with the photographer, he ordered. He’ll drive.
Good thing, I thought. I don’t have a driver’s license.
The newsroom reeked of cigarette smoke and spilled booze in the final year of that blighted decade, the ’70s. The dingy linoleum showed black pockmarks from the stubs of lit cigarettes tossed carelessly on deadline. When pulled open, desk drawers rattled with a symphony of empty glass bottles of booze.
The Vancouver dailies had just endured an eight-month strike. Bitterness prevailed. (The newspaper endured four strikes over the years, each shorter in duration. These are remembered as “eight months, eight weeks, eight days, ate lunch.”)
To fill out the roster, they’d hired a 19-year-old, soon-to-be-dropout with a thin resumé of student newspaper clippings. I handled weekend grunt duties — items, library research, police checks. (“Duty officer, please. Anything to report tonight in Ioco? Squamish? White Rock?”) It wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein, but it was all right.
The shifts began in the late afternoon, or, for a hapless few, at 8 p.m., concluding at 3 a.m. The first edition of the newspaper, known as the Three Star, as two earlier editions had been cancelled somewhere back in the Mesozoic era, rolled off the presses in the morning. The morning and evening crews had a rivalry, though the nighttime shift knew they were not only doing the bulk of the work, they were finding the interesting features for which the daytime deadline crew never had time.
Overseeing the action was Mr. Smillie, whose duties included assigning stories. The son of a Comox postmaster, he had got his start as a circulation clerk in the paper’s New Westminster office, later becoming a reporter in the bureau there. He had big workingman’s hands, a laurel wreath of greying hair, and, unlike so many others in the business, never raised his voice in anger. He had seven children at home, overseen by his wife, Martha. Those were a lot of mouths to feed, so during the long strike he worked on the waterfront, a job he held onto after the dispute settled as he still needed to make up for a shortfall in the family’s income. By day, he was a longshoreman responsible for stacking 50-kilogram (110-pound) sacks of flour in the hold of a cargo ship. By evening, he was at his desk, a lamp nearby to compensate for the newsroom’s dismal, yellowish lighting, the telephone ringing and the police scanner sputtering to life now and then. He was a real life Lou Grant and his staff loved him. They called him Mr. Nightside.
He was assisted by Archie Rollo, a soft-spoken Glaswegian of tidy attire who took dictation by telephone from reporters in the field, asking questions and rewriting even as the story was read aloud. He was encyclopedia, gazetteer, and spell check in human form.
So, though nervous about my first dangerous assignment — shots fired! man down! — I knew my back was covered by Mr. Nightside and his faithful sidekick, Archie.
In the meantime, I was in the hands of wild-eyed Dan Scott, a photographer with hair Brylcreemed to a pompadour atop his forehead. He’d been at the Sun since before I’d been born. By reputation, he would trample his mother to get the shot.
(If he even had a mother. It was within the realm of possibility he’d been raised by a pack of feral lensmen.)
We raced to a night club in suburban Richmond, screeching to a halt in the parking lot. I leapt out the passenger side, notepad in left hand, pen in right, running towards the entrance.
The door opened and a large, square-shouldered man emerged. Startled by my approach, he raised his right hand.
In the slow-motion memory one gets during a car wreck, I was staring down the barrel of a revolver. I put on the brakes, both heels forward like Wile E. Coyote trying to stop from going over a cliff, only to get bumped from behind. Mr. Scott was trying to get his photograph and, dammit, the kid reporter was in the way.
Turned out the man in the doorway was a plainclothes Mountie. The scene inside, a gangland hit, was unpleasant. The suspect, or suspects, had fled. The police on the scene were jittery. Back in the newsroom, Mr. Smillie called the duty officer, who apologized. No harm. No foul. Mr. Nightside dispatched me to the press club across the street. Just another day at the office for him.
Mr. Nightside stayed in the newsroom until retiring in 1994, a revered figure in a workplace not known for its harmony.
Mr. Rollo died 20 months ago, aged 76. The newspaper’s obituary, written by a cub reporter, praised his ability in catching such common errors as misspelling Gandhi. The obit made it through three copyeditors and into print with the leader’s name spelled “G-h-a-n-d-i.” There could have been no greater tribute to Archie’s talents.
Mr. Smillie is 82 now, patriarch of a fecund clan — his seven children have produced 32 grandchildren.
Asked his philosophy of running the newsroom, he said, “It was simple. If you treat people decently, they’re going to respond in turn. If you’re going to sit there as an ogre, they’re going to go in a different direction on you.”
A generation of young reporters thrived under his benevolent hand.
On the weekend, the Sun celebrated the 100th birthday of its first edition. The paper produced two handsome, well-written sections on its history in which, understandably, the ogres overshadowed the kindly Mr. Nightside, which is how these things work. Everybody remembers Mussolini, but no one can name his post-war successor.
Happy centennial, Vancouver Sun. Many happy returns, Mr. Nightside.