Saturday, November 29, 2008

William Allister, PoW and painter (1919-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 29, 2008

An actor, artist, novelist, filmmaker, and scriptwriter, William Allister’s creative impulses were stifled but not extinguished during 44 months of wartime mistreatment by Japanese captors.

Imprisonment demanded painstaking ingenuity. A pilfered swatch of canvas, a paintbrush improvised from a whittled stick and shoe-brush bristles, and a smear of crankcase oil secreted from an Japanese truck were the materials that allowed him to create surreptitious paintings of his Hong Kong concentration camp.

Camp overlords were known by nicknames, some hinting at their particular cruelties — Piston Fists, Little Napoleon, the Kamloops Kid. The latter was a notorious tormentor whose childhood experience of racism in British Columbia had left him with a dark heart and evil intent.

Mr. Allister suffered much deprivation and several beatings. Once, a Japanese officer unsheathed a sword, threatening to cut his head off. Mr. Allister’s defiant riposte — “Tell him my boss doesn’t want his men working without their heads” — was deliberately ignored by a fellow prisoner serving as translator, likely saving his life.

The brutal treatment brewed a hatred still simmering more than three decades after his release. Memories of punishments endured and friends lost to treatable diseases could not be erased.

“Starvation, beatings, illness, insults, psychological wounds,” he wrote in a memoir. “Hostility and anger ran deep in my blood.”

In 1983, the impulse to resolve these feelings lured him to the Japanese shipyard where he had been forced to labour in appalling conditions.

During a month-long visit, he immersed himself in a culture of a people he had come to loathe but in whom he now found much to praise. A son of one of the camp guards spent a week as a guide in Tokyo. At a precise moment, as a ceremonial dancer removed one kimono after another, Mr. Allister felt his animosity evaporate.

The journey unlocked a vision of how he could reconcile a simmering hostility with a new-found admiration.

“As an artist, I would paint toward peace, paint as I’d never painted before, stretching to the limits, soaring, exploring new forms, new harmonies,” he wrote. “Visions of giant canvasses marrying East and West unfolded before me.”

Remarkable for their bright colours and expression of an exuberant spirit, his works can be found in collections around the world. He had more than 30 one-man gallery shows.

This transformation became the subject of a 1995 Canadian documentary film. “The Art of Compassion” offers parallel portraits of the artist and a Japanese-Canadian architect who had been interned during the Second World War. Both men found inspiration from their painful wartime history.

Mr. Allister detailed his own imprisonment in “Where Life and Death Hold Hands,” a 1989 memoir remarkable for recapturing the stilted life of prison camp in which the veneer of civilization has been all but stripped away.

“Forget — no. But forgive — yes, if forgiving could encompass disapproval. To really understand was to forgive, to grasp the nature of the illness, the historic path of the virus in the bloodstream of a nation,” he wrote. “Open the gates of war anywhere, and hellish monsters roam the earth.”

Born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants at Benito, Man., a village on the Saskatchewan border, he grew up in Montreal, where he graduated from Baron Byng High School. He had major roles in productions by the Little Theatre, a prominent amateur group affiliated with the Young Men’s Hebrew Association.

“Growing up in the hectic and colourful Montreal of the Thirties,” he said, “I was swept up in the stormy winds of art, politics and racial conflict.”

In April, 1939, Mr. Allister won a regional acting award at the Dominion Drama Festival. He portrayed a shell-shocked veteran in the one-act play “Road of Poplars.” He could not have known his own promising life would be consumed by another dreadful war in a few months.

Having “tasted the sweetness of early recognition,” as he put it, the young actor joined a touring repertory company, performing zany comedies for audiences in the Catskills. The Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village offered a venue for satirical sketches.

With steady stage work and having had performances aired on the CBC radio network, Mr. Allister pursued advance studies in drama in New York City.

He abandoned his classes to return to Canada in 1941, enlisting in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.

He underwent basic training at Huntington, Que., and Debert, N.S. An arduous regimen left him capable of transmitting eight words per minute in Morse code, a woeful rate about half the top speed of even a third-class signals operator.

He sailed to Asia aboard the liner SS Awatea after volunteering for a mission in which he joined other raw recruits in bolstering the garrison in the isolated British colony of Hong Kong. The thrill of so exotic a posting, in which the brazenness of the gambling and prostitution shocked even a Montrealer, was soon lost with the Japanese invasion.
In the chaos of the attack, he witnessed his own side summarily execute a coolie suspected of being a fifth columnist.

Surrounded by the enemy, he fired back with his rifle.

“A figure was dead centre in my sights ... silhouetted against the sky as I pulled the trigger. He dropped. The thought vaguely registered that I had just killed a man. And so (itx)easily.(enditx)”

He compared the experience to a duck-shoot booth at a country fair.

The hunter soon enough became the hunted.

Other comrades chose suicide over surrender. In retrospect, it might have been the wiser decision.

The Canadians and other allies captured began to waste from a starvation diet and the subsequent diseases that thinned the ranks — dysentery, diphtheria, beri-beri, cholera.
Beatings were common, and delivered on whims so as to be almost unpredictable. The prisoners bravely expressed their outrage through vulgar though dangerous stunts, the most notorious of which involved urinating into a teapot used by a man they called Little Napoleon.

The Allister family in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal endured a year from the fall of Hong Kong before learning the fate of their son. The capture of the signalman warranted a brief article in the Canadian Jewish Review.

Some time later, Mr. Allister received mail from back home.

“I opened the letter with trembling fingers and stared uncomprehendingly at the first sentence: ‘We were overjoyed to know you are a prisoner of war.’ Overjoyed! There I sat — in shit up to the eyeballs, half dead, crawling with lice, exhausted, starved, disease ridden, jolted by electric feet, a bloody walking skeleton — and they were overjoyed? Had they all gone balmy? It took a while to see it their way.”

In January, 1943, about 700 prisoners were ordered into the hold of a rusty freighter. The men used buckets as latrines, were fed rancid rice, and got only scant seconds of fresh air on deck in the four-day journey to Japan. They were to be slave labourers at the Nippon Kokan Shipyards at Kawasaki.

The men filled out forms detailing their civilian employment. The wily Mr. Allister listed librarian and painter. The unlucky translation of the latter placed him “on a thin plank suspended over the Pacific Ocean, painting the side of a ship.”

At one point, his true calling became known to his captors, one of whom established Mr. Allister in a stockroom with a supply of fresh paints and canvases. Happy to be painting and not eager to return to the deadening monotony of meaningless work, Mr. Allister painted with deliberation, calling on his showman’s instincts to turn his procrastination into a performance.

The ruse ended when the would-be patron realized the painting depicted the prisoners as kindly and their jailers as fiends. The canvas was smashed to the ground and the painter ordered back onto the scaffolding.

In March, 1945, he was moved to another camp that was “decrepit, small, uninviting, in a coal yard on the outskirts of Tokyo beside a rail ramp.” Only good fortune and a timely end to the war prevented them from being bombed by their own side.

Mr. Allister learned of the end of the war with the Emperor’s announcement of a surrender. The odds were just as good the guards were prepared to execute their charges. Six days passed before an Allied aircraft flew overhead. The prisoners cheered and shouted, waving bedsheets while using mirrors to reflect sunlight to attract attention. The pilot dipped his wings in acknowledgement. Mr. Allister remembered it as “the most magnificent symbolic salute ever received.”

The memoir offers an unsparing account of his own behaviour in those lawless days, as he joined colleagues in search of prostitutes. They entered a factory staffed by women workers, most of whom fled in fear. Mr. Allister confronted a woman in her small quarters. When she pushed past him, however, he did nothing to restrain her and returned to camp, having contemplated, but not committed, a crime.

In his favour, he saved three young Japanese guards from being executed by a trigger-happy American soldier.

Mr. Allister kept a diary throughout his ordeal, even though detection of the forbidden notes would mean a beating, or worse. Some was lost when he absentmindedly left a jacket behind in a latrine for a few moments. The rest did not survive when a friend nonchalantly threw the pages into the ocean on the way home.

In 1946, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career suspended by the war. He took bit parts in such movies as “Berlin Express” and “Joe Palooka in the Big Fight.” He did not stay long, finding “the jungle values of Hollywood were lower than the jungle values of prison camp.”

He turned to writing and painting, earning a living as a commercial artist and scriptwriter in New York. He composed a first draft of a novel in a Brooklyn graveyard, a rare place of solitude for a budding author with a young family — he had married a model from Ottawa — in a rumbling metropolis. A stint as an executive for a Montreal advertising agency financed a decade of revisions.

The completed book, “A Handful of Rice,” published in London by Secker & Warburg in 1961, describes the tribulations of Canadian prisoners captured at Hong Kong. The men endure the tortures of their captors and the dangerous selfishness of their own officers. The novel, which won a minor literary prize, was translated into Dutch and Norwegian.

Mr. Allister moved his family to San Miguel de Allende in 1962, seeking in Mexico to explore an abstract style. He proved to be prolific and his works popular, he once told the author John Virtue, generating jealousy among more established painters, though he himself did not think much of his own efforts.

“They weren’t too good, but they were all different, experimental. ‘This is the kind of stuff we’ve been looking for,’ people told me. Unfortunately, I outsold all the pros, the seasoned artists and teachers.”

While in Mexico, he completed a second novel, “Time to Unmask the Clowns,” which went unpublished.

The Allisters were also the subject of a short film by Jack Zolov that aired on the CBC television program “Focus.”

He returned to Canada before the decade ended, writing film scripts and radio plays, as well as documentaries. He won an Author’s Award in 1986.

The return journey to Japan resulted in the publication of his vivid memoir in 1989. The Globe critic William French praised the book, which he said “offers graphic evidence of the corrupting influence of war on traditional moral and ethical values, and affirms the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.”

“Where Life and Death Hold Hands” won a prize for the promotion of intercultural relations. The memoir was translated into Japanese in 2001.

Mr. Allister was active in the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, where he would be joined by Jan Solecki, an associate professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia. Mr. Solecki, who had been born in Inner Mongolia to a Russian mother and a Polish father, had been an artillery gunner when captured at Hong Kong. His spirit in prison camp inspired Mr. Allister to not give up hope.

Mr. Allister’s home in the Tsawwassen neighbourhood of the Vancouver suburb of Delta, about a block from the United States border at Point Roberts, provided a peaceful setting for contemplation, including the frequent presence of eagles.

His paintings received wide praise, including a showing at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, a building designed by Raymond Moriyama, the architect featured in “The Art of Compassion” documentary with Mr. Allister.

“Striking from across the room, Allister’s canvases first apear to be sizzling Zen calligraphy,” Robert Amos, a painter and art critic for the Victoria Times Colonist, wrote of a 2003 show. “As you approach nearer, his free play with colour kicks in. Up close, you’ll find a wealth of narrative and illustrative detail worked into the imagery.”

Some of his prison camp paintings survived the war. Two works, one depicting a Japanese sentry and the other a ship sunk in Hong Kong harbour, were sewn inside the pant leg of John Burton, a fellow prisoner from Toronto. A daughter took ownership after his death. They now hang on the living-room wall of her home in Prince Edward Island, a silent reminder of beauty amidst depair.

William Allister was born Oct. 5, 1919, at Benito, Man. He died on Nov. 2 at his home at Delta, B.C. He was 89. He leaves his wife, Mona (nee Gurland); daughters Dorrie and Ada; and, a granddaughter. He was predeceased by two brothers and three sisters.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prolific writer chronicles big trouble in little city

Mark Leiren-Young photographed by Don Denton

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 26, 2008


Mark Leiren-Young finds trouble. Or, rather, trouble finds him.

He writes a radio play exploring racial attitudes and is accused of racism.

He writes a stage play about Shakespeare and censorship and anti-Semitism and not everyone gets the point.

He writes political satires and we all know how satire is a universal language of respect and understanding.

So, you might be forgiven for thinking he has adopted as his first name the adjective controversial, as in “controversial playwright,” or “controversial political satirist.”

Mr. Leiren-Young is a one-time reporter, so he knows controversial is newspaper code word for “this is a nuanced and complicated issue about which I will not pass judgement and besides that single word does a lot of work on my behalf and might even get this story on the front page.”

He did not spend too long in the low-paying ghetto of community newspapering before finding less lucrative work pounding out plays and scripts. Happily, he also has many gigs writing for television, which he composes on his preferred midnight-to-dawn shift.

He has just published his first book, which is to be launched tonight at Biz Books in Vancouver.

The book is titled, "Never Shoot a Stampede Queen.” It is subtitled, “A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo.” It is published by Heritage House in paperback and costs $19.95.

It is going to be controversial.

The book should have been titled, “Never Shoot a Smart-aleck Writer.”

Mr. Leiren-Young — and after this let’s dispense with the double-barreled surname and go with the Hyphen moniker with which he was tagged at his student newspaper — is fair, honest and accurate in describing the good citizenry of the Cariboo. Which is to say it might not be such a good idea to stand behind him should he ever again visit Williams Lake, as the city comes across as the Wild West mixed with Capone-era Chicago with a soupcon of Jim Crow Deep South segregation and an unsavory dash of perversion.

And that’s just in the first chapter.

Hyphen is not without sympathy for the Cariboo. He knows he is the fish-out-of-water. “Apparently I had the only car in town,” he writes. “Everyone else had a pickup.” He is surprised to find that the annual stampede not only has a dress code calling for Western wear but that such an edict is enforced. The long-haired, theatre-loving, big-city environmentalist is shocked to discover Ducks Unlimited is a hunter’s group.

Soon after graduating from the University of Victoria with a bachelor of fine arts in theatre and creative writing — “recognized in better restaurants worldwide as a waiter’s degree” — Hyphen is lured by penury into entertaining a job offer from the Williams Lake Tribune. He accepts. Then, he looks on a map to find the city.

He arrives in town after midnight, stopping at a combination gas bar and convenience store, the only business still open at the hour. Three police cruisers are parked out front and he figures this is the local hangout. Instead, he learns the joint has suffered yet another armed robbery. The young female clerk pronounces Williams Lake to be the crime capital of the province.

He quotes her in his debut story. She says she did not give him permission (though she helpfully spells her name). The police are unhappy that he has not waited for their press release.

In short order, the new arrival has the city in an uproar.

“The cops wanted to shoot me, my bosses thought I was a Bolshevik, and a local lawyer warned me that some people I was writing about might try to test the strength of my skull with a steel pipe. What more could any young reporter hope for from his real job?”

What more? Among the stories he covered — a train derailment involving a load of toxic chemicals; three deaths from a ranch shoot-out involving a mad trapper; incensed relatives of beauty-pageant contestants (hence the book title); a manslaughter trial following a knifing death of a liquor store panhandler; the mysterious crash of a Piper Navajo, the pilot disappearing into thin air like D.B. Cooper; a female defendant in an assault case offering as her defence the statement, “The bitch deserved it” (“It felt less like a criminal trial,” Hyphen writes, “than an episode of Jerry Springer with Canadian accents”); another trial continuing even though the accused brings with him a homemade pipe bomb, which the judge, known for wearing cowboy boots beneath his silks (itx)orders be kept in the courtroom(enditx); and, a union drive in his own newsroom for which he received threats.

After 10 months, Hyphen pulled the plug.

These days, he wears his hair even longer, as it cascades well past his shoulders. With his beard, he looks like Ian McKellen as Gandalf were Gandalf not so white-haired. He remains boyish and enthusiastic, even when the intent of his work is misconstrued, as happened with the play “Shylock” and CBC Radio’s “Dim Sum Diaries.”

He is prolific, too. Not only does he perform a satirical cabaret as one-half of the comedy troupe Local Anxiety, but he has also recently wrote, produced and directed “The Green Chain,” his first feature film, about the debate over the forests (“Nothing is Ever Clear Cut”). At the end of each month, he takes a skewed look at current events for the Vancouver-based webzine TheTyee.

His old newspaper has yet to review the memoir. (Kamloops This Week called it “221 pages of rip-roarin’ Cariboo craziness that you simply won’t be able to put down.”)

Surely, though, Hyphen has taken comedic license to exaggerate life in Williams Lake (Official city motto: Moving Forward).

So, I moseyed over to the Tribune’s Website to check out the big news of the week.

The headline on the most-read story: Clerks threatened with bear spray in robbery.

The female clerks at the Handi-Mart convenience store on McKinnon Road described the perps as three young males in hoodies. They wore black bandannas over their faces. They demanded cash and cigarettes.

They fled on foot. Likely because they were too young to drive.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bad News Bilodeau, hockey enforcer (1955-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 25, 2008

A tough and fearless hockey player, Gilles Bilodeau created mayhem whenever he stepped onto the ice.

He punched like a heavyweight and he wielded a hockey stick like a woodman’s axe, tripping faster rivals and clubbing tough opponents.

Big, beefy hands rarely managed to push the puck into the net, but he was never employed for his scoring prowess.

An extensive rap sheet included a ridiculous number of fights and misconducts.

To suit up against Mr. Bilodeau demanded a gut check. Early in his career in his native Quebec, he earned such nicknames as Tarzan and Zombie. When the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association promoted him from the minors, the team unveiled him as Bad News Bilodeau, a fitting nickname for a hockey enforcer.

In hockey’s lexicon, a goon can also be known as a policeman, for it is his responsibility to protect smaller, more skilled players by enforcing the sport’s Biblical code of a slash for a slash, an elbow for an elbow.

Mr. Bilodeau played a central role in a notorious incident remembered today as the Thanksgiving Massacre.

On another occasion, he could only be subdued after police sprayed him with mace. When he appeared in court, a judge compared him to a bum.

As is so often the case with tough guys, Mr. Bilodeau was a kind and law-abiding presence as long as he was not wearing a hockey sweater.

He was the third of nine children born to dairy farmers at St-Prime, Que. Even in winter, his mother locked the door to the farmhouse, forcing her rambunctious sons to either play in the barn, or skate on the frozen ponds of their Saguenay farm.

As a young man, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound left winger played major junior hockey for the Sorel Eperviers, a team whose fans, many of whom laboured in the shipbuilding industry, preferred a robust style of play. Mr. Bioldeau’s muscular presence was reflected in frequent appearances on the score sheet, more often than not for time served in the penalty box.

In 1975, the Toros selected the hard-nosed player No. 122 overall in the league’s amateur draft. The teams in the more established National Hockey League did not draft him at all.

Mr. Bilodeau made his professional debut with the minor league Beauce Jaros, based at Saint-Georges, Que. His name quickly became synonymous with fighting in the North American Hockey League, a circuit known for bench-clearing brawls and mayhem both on and off the ice.

The team’s playing coach, Gypsy Joe Hardy, offered a gentlemanly presence on a team with more than a few scofflaws.

Mr. Bilodeau led the league in penalty minutes, accumulating a stunning 451 minutes in just 58 games. He spent the equivalent of more than seven full games contemplating his transgressions in the penalty box. The eight goals and 17 assists he recorded, which would be the highest season totals of his career, seemed an afterthought.

He had been with the Jaros for about a month when a game against the Mohawk Valley Comets at Utica, N.Y., had to be suspended after just two periods of play. A fight-filled game ended in a free-for-all brawl that Comets general manager Brian Conacher described as a “riot on the ice.”

The league fined Mr. Bilodeau $250, adding a three-game suspension.

Later that month, as he served yet another suspension, Mr. Bilodeau became embroiled in a fight that would land him in court. He was sitting in the stands at War Memorial Arena at Syracuse, N.Y., when Wally Weir, another suspended teammate, became incensed at a referee’s decision. Weir rushed from his seat to bang against the glass surrounding the penalty box while shouting obscenities. When a police officer intervened, the two scuffled. An off-duty officer came to aid his fellow officer, causing Bilodeau and a third teammate to join in the melee.

The fight in the stands attracted the attention of the Jaros, who rushed across the rink to join in. Some swung their sticks over the boards, striking the officers. The fight ended only after Mr. Bilodeau and others were subdued after being sprayed with mace. Two policemen were treated at hospital with head injuries.

Police charged Mr. Bilodeau with second degree assault, a felony, as well as misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, and resisting arrest. He was one of seven Jaros to go to police court.

Judge Morris Garber asked the accused: “What’s the difference between the action of bums and your activities last night?” The judge did not wait for an answer, according to a newspaper report.

An unrepentant Mr. Bilodeau later broke the neck of Syracuse’s goalie with a cross-check from behind, ending the netminder’s season, as well as the Blazers’ playoff hopes. It was said to be his worst offence since biting a chunk of ear from a Mohawk Valley player during a fight. Outraged sports columnists urged the player to be suspended for life. Instead, he was promoted.

The success of the Philadelphia Flyers, a National Hockey League team nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, created a boom in roughhouse hockey. The sport always demanded a hard-nosed attitude, famously captured in Conn Smythe’s statement that “if you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you won’t beat ’em on the ice.” The Flyers’ tough guys intimidated rivals, while more skilled players popped in goals.

The era of on-ice goonery was best captured in the slapstick movie, “Slap Shot,” which featured real-life hockey brawlers. One of them, Jeff Carlson, once got in a fight with Mr. Bilodeau along the boards at centre ice. Mr. Carlson reached into the rinkside announcer’s box, grabbing a microphone with which he proceeded to club his tormentor, each blow echoing through the public-address system — Poom! Poom! Poom!

The Flyers’ formula worked for the Jaros, who were acclaimed the dirtiest team in pro hockey even as they built the best record in the league.

The WHA’s Toronto franchise, struggling on the ice and at the gate, decided to call up Mr. Bilodeau, whose antics might not win games but would at least attract a certain clientele for a team without much of a following.

“We know he’s not the complete hockey player,” coach Gilles Leger said.

Writers on the hockey beat agreed.

“Bilodeau was built like a giant redwood and skated like one,” Al Strachan wrote in the Globe.

In 14 games of spot duty, Mr. Bilodeau recorded a single assist. He got 38 minutes in penalties, rather tame behaviour compared to his minor-league mayhem.

The Toros franchise shifted to the Deep South for the 1976-77 season. Home games of the Birmingham (Ala.) Bulls began with the playing of Dixie. Early in each game, fans more accustomed to seeing ice in their tea than on the floor of an arena began to chant: “We want goons! We want goons!”

Referees assessed Mr. Bilodeau 133 penalty minutes in just 34 games, an impressive array of wrongdoing until compared to his minor-league mark with the Charlotte Checkers that season. He managed to be charged with 242 penalty minutes in just 28 games.

He was back wearing Birmingham’s blue sweater, featuring a snorting bull, when he started a game against the Cincinnati Stingers on the evening of the American Thanksgiving holiday in 1977. The Bulls carried a grudge into the game, which Cincinnati’s coach somehow failed to realized. He sent his five most skilled — and smallest — players onto the ice to start the game.

The Bulls lined up three brutes — a forward line of Bad News Bilodeau, Steve (Demolition Durby) Durbano, and Frank (Seldom) Beaton, whose nickname hinted at his success as a pugilist. The clock ticked just 24 seconds before gloves were dropped. Mr. Durbano decked a Stinger, a signal for his teammates to jump in. Mr. Bilodeau squared off against Jamie Hislop, a hockey Gandhi whose penalty total for the entire season (17 minutes) had been matched by his tormentor in a single shift. Later in the game, Mr. Bilodeau cut another Stinger with a high stick. A newspaper compared the one-sided donnybrook to watching the German army invade Poland.

The Thanksgiving Massacre marked the nadir (or the apex, depending on one’s preference) of ruffian hockey.

In another game at Winnipeg that month, Mr. Bilodeau earned a $1,000 fine and a three-game suspension for leaving the penalty box to engage in several fights.

Despite such shenanigans, Mr. Bilodeau was only the third most penalized Bull that season, his 258 minutes overshadowed by Mr. Beaton’s 279 and Mr. Durbano’s 284. Dave (Killer) Hanson completed the club’s rogue gallery with 241 minutes.

The Quebec Nordiques signed Mr. Bilodeau as a free agent in 1978. In a game against the Edmonton Oilers, he made the mistake of picking on a slight centreman. The bullying caught the attention of the Oilers’ Garnet (Ace) Bailey.

“One night during my rookie year, we were in Quebec City, and this huge guy, Gilles Bilodeau, kept running me, knocking me around,” Wayne Gretzky told Sports Illustrated magazine seven years ago. “I weighed around 146 pounds, and Bilodeau must have been 220. Ace didn’t get a lot of ice time that night — in those days you didn’t use fourth-line players much — and he was getting angrier and angrier at Bilodeau. Finally, Ace told me, ‘Next time you have the puck, get that guy to chase you and skate in front of our bench.’

“So I did that, and a second after I went by, I heard the whistle blow and I looked back. Bilodeau was flat on the ice, and Ace and the other guys were all looking into the stands as if someone had thrown something at Bilodeau and they were trying to figure out what had happened. Ace had clocked him with his stick when he skated past.”

The following season, the Oilers and the Nordiques were among the WHA teams absorbed into the National Hockey League. As unlikely as it seemed, Mr. Bilodeau reached the pinnacle of pro hockey. He skated in nine NHL games, gaining a single assist and recording just 25 penalty minutes.

Mr. Bilodeau settled in Birmingham after retiring as a player. He had married a secretary whom he had met at a bar across the street from the hockey arena called, appropriately enough, The Place Across the Street from the Civic Center. They played the Bobby Orr PowerPlay pinball machine.

Mr. Bilodeau worked for former teammate and fellow Quebecker Jean-Guy Legace as a painter and deck builder before becoming a self-employed contractor.

He watched “Slap Shot” every chance he got. He would be forgiven for mistaking the comedy for a documentary.

Away from the ice, he was a lawful, pleasant, even kind man. In 1999, he was enjoying a day with his family at Panama City Beach, Fla., when a sudden thunderstorm surprised beach-goers. A man from Georgia and his teenaged daughter were felled by a lightning strike. Mr. Bilodeau performed CPR until an ambulance arrived. The girl suffered minor injuries, but her father was declared dead on arrival at hospital. Mr. Bilodeau’s wife said Bad News thought often of the unfortunate man and his family.

Gilles Bilodeau was born on July 31, 1955, at St-Prime, Que. He died of undiagnosed pancreatic cancer on Aug. 12 at his home at Birmingham, Ala. He was 53. He leaves Debbie (nee Powell), his wife of 28 years; two sons; two grandsons; five brothers; and, three sisters.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

John Ko Bong, commando (1912-2008)

Mary, Peter, John and Andrew Ko Bong

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 19, 2008


John Ko Bong enlisted to fight for democracy on behalf of a nation that deprived him of rights because of his ethnic heritage.

Born in Canada, he came of age at a time when ancestry trumped birthplace. He could not vote, nor hold certain professions, nor even swim in public pools.

He was working in a family business when Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Chinese community in Canada, which for years had been raising funds for the defence of China against Japanese aggression, had to decide how to contribute to the Canadian war effort.

“We had a big public meeting to say which side shall we take,” Mr. Ko Bong told the filmmaker Wesley Lowe as part of an oral history project. “Are we going to fight side by side with the Canadians? Or are we going to sit on the fence and let the Canadian boys do the fighting for us?”

Mr. Ko Bong and Roy Mah argued in favour of joining the war effort.

“Roy and I decided that we’re not going to be fence-sitters. We’re not going to show that we’re too yellow to fight. So we went up to the Canadian Scottish people at the Bay Street Armouries (in Victoria) and then we joined up.”

After basic training, Mr. Ko Bong volunteered for a perilous assignment made possible by his ethnic heritage. He was to be parachuted behind enemy lines as a saboteur in what was called Operation Oblivion. The name did not hold promise of a safe return.

The Oblivion volunteers showed devotion to a land in which they were treated as less than full citizens. They would later cite their wartime service to demand rights they felt they deserved by birth.

A Chinatown formed in Victoria soon after the discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon in 1858. By 1912, the neighbourhood covered about six square blocks, including brick buildings, narrow alleys, and ramshackle cabins built of scavenged wood. It was into this bustling community of 3,458 residents that a boy named Ko Jhon Bong was born.

His given name was misspelled on his birth certificate. He was the fourth son of Jew Fun Shee and Ko Bong, who was also known by the anglicized name George Bong Simon, a couple who had named their first three boys Matthew, Mark and Luke. This apostolic quartet was followed by Mabel, Ruby, Mary, Peter, Andrew and Garnet.

Mr. Ko, who was born in Guangdong province in China, arrived in Victoria at age 16 in 1896. He became a naturalized citizen in 1909. Two years later, he met in Victoria with Sun Yat-sen, leader of the republican movement in China, who was on the cusp of overthrowing the Manchu dynasty. Mr. Ko later launched the Chinese New Republic newspaper, the proceeds of which were funnelled to republican leaders in his homeland. He even became a pilot and opened a flying club so he would be prepared to serve in an air force defending free China.

The father’s sense of duty and dedication to a noble cause left an impression on his children.

Young John attended grade school in Victoria, where his father owned a jewelry store. The eldest son, Matthew, took over the store after the family moved across Georgia Strait. John graduated from Vancouver Technical High School at age 15. In Vancouver, the family opened adjacent storefronts — G.B. Simon Jewellers and G.B. Simon Sporting Goods — on Main Street between Keefer and Pender in Chinatown.

Just weeks after the bombing of Pear Harbor, Mr. Ko Bong returned to Victoria, where he enlisted with the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s).

His sister, Mary, beat him into uniform. She joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps shortly after its creation in 1941. She worked as an instrument mechanic, handling optics for compasses and binoculars. Miss Ko Bong was one of just six Chinese-Canadian women so far identified by the Chinese Canadian Military Museum to have served in uniform. Brothers Peter and Andrew would also serve during the war.

In December, 1942, John Ko Bong and Robert Lowe, representing the Victoria Chinese Youth Association, petitioned B.C. Premier John Hart for an end to discriminatory practices. The pair pledged their loyalty to the war effort, while insisting a fight to preserve democracy meant they should have the right to vote.

“These restrictions are particularly difficult for Chinese-Canadians,” Mr. Ko Bong wrote. “They, being born in Canada, cannot be considered as Chinese citizens. Because of Oriental parentage, British Columbia does not recognize them as Canadian citizens.

“Under these conditions,” Mr. Ko Bong wrote, “ can anyone be justly to blame if he wonders whether all the professed ideals we are fighting for are after all but mere hollow illusions and that the land for which he is willing to lay down his life can never be truly called his own?”

The premier promised to take the message to Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Mr. Ko Bong underwent basic training at Vernon, B.C., before being shipped to Newfoundland, where he was instructed in the use of anti-aircraft guns at Gander.

Mr. Ko Bong was undergoing yet further training — this time in infantry tank support at Camp Borden, Ontario — when he was ordered to report to Toronto.

The ethnic heritage for which he was discriminated had new-found value among war planners in British intelligence.

The Special Operations Executive enjoyed success in planting agents in occupied Europe, where they organzied acts of sabotage designed to disrupt enemy activities. The SOE wished to establish a similar program in Japanese-occupied Asia, but found the pool of potential recruits to be severely limited by race. As it turned out, Canada had a small supply of loyal soldiers who could be dropped into enemy territory and blend in with the local ethnic Chinese populations.

A select group of 12 recruits arrived by train at Penticton, B.C., in May, 1944. They travelled by boat to estabish a camp about 15 kilometres north at Dunrobin’s Bay on Okanagan Lake. Although the camp was supposed to be secret, locals soon renamed the site Commando Bay, a name it carries to this day.

The men were to infiltrate Japanese-occupied territories in Malaya and Borneo and elsewhere in Asia as part of the SOE’s Force 136. The recruits were taught radio telegraphy, amphibious infiltration, jungle survival skills, and sabotage techniques. They were schooled in the techniques of the silent kill, as well as in the use of small arms. Photography and propaganda were also on the curriculum. They practiced what they learned in demolition class on an abandoned cabin not far from camp.

While Mr. Ko Bong was fluent in both English and Cantonese, some of the recruits did not speak Chinese, rather defeating the purpose of the force, so language lessons were added to the commando training.

Operating as a self-sufficient group, Mr. Ko Bong became the group’s barber. (Many years later, he saved pennies by cutting his own son’s hair, though the crew cuts he scissored were mostly unappreciated by their recipient.) A watchmaker by trade, he became adapt at repairing equipment.

After a series of underwater training exercises along the British Columbia coast, including mock raids against a pulp mill and a ferry terminal, the dozen men sailed for Australia, where they were to be taught parachute jumping as the final lesson before being sent into combat.

A history of the Commando Bay camp by Debra Faraguna describes an unexpected development as they neared their destination. Their American troop ship was ordered to the Philippines, so the commandos were dropped off on the coast of New Guinea, lacking provisions and a means of continuing their journey. They tracked down a signals office, which put out word of their dilemma. After several days sleeping beneath palm trees, a civilian liner picked them up to complete the last leg of their journey in luxury.

The sudden end of the war came before Mr. Ko Bong could put his training to use. Others in the group did see action. Four of the 13 commandos of Operation Oblivion were awarded the Military Medal for their bravery behind enemy lines in Borneo. Mr. Ko Bong was sent to Manila, where he was to handle prisoners of war released from Japanese camps.

“They came in walking like human skeletons,” he once recounted. “All you could see was their heads and their ribs, you know, skinny legs with no meat on them.”

They returned home to a Canada still not yet ready to recognize the veterans with full rights of citizenship. The federal government finally extended the right to vote to Canadians of Asian ancestry in 1948. British Columbia granted voting rights a year earlier, ending a disenfranchisement dating to 1874.

About 70 Chinese-Canadian veterans applied to the Royal Canadian Legion, but their request for a branch was rejected. Instead, they The formed their own branch of Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans Association in Canada, Pacific Unit No. 280. Many went on to distinguished careers, including Douglas Jung, who became the first member of Parliament of Chinese ancestry.

Mr. Ko Bong returned to work in the family business in Vancouver, which eventually relocated farther south on Main Street. He served as a steward and elder in the Chinese United Church, where he was also known for singing with the choir.

The filmmaker Jari Osborne told the soldiers’ story in the 1999 National Film Board documentary, “Unwanted Soldiers.” Among the veterans was her father, Alex Louie.

Mr. Ko Bong told her never doubted the rightness of fighting for his homeland.

“If you’re on a ship and it catches fire, you fight the fire,” he said. “Canada was our ship. There was a war on. You pick up the nozzle and you fight the fire.”

In doing so, he helped end a long and tragic period of legal discrimination.

John Ko Bong was born on Nov. 18, 1912, at Victoria. He died, aged 95, on June 17 at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital in Vancouver. Mr. Ko Bong leaves a daughter, Victoria, of Vancouver: a son, Mervyn Ko, of Lethbridge, Alta.; a granddaughter; and, a sister, Mary Ko Bong, of Toronto. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Ida Sue Yek, who died in 2003. He was also predeceased by five brothers and three sisters. He outlived one of them, Garnet, who died in 1931 at age 7, by 77 years.

The next generation sails into local politics

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 19, 2008


Tara Ney played host to an election-night gathering of close friends at her home, a safe venue lest the evening succumb to disappointment.

Only after the announcement of civic election results for Oak Bay did the party move to the Penny Farthing Pub.

Ms. Ney need not have worried. A newcomer to politics though no stranger to campaigning, she finished second in balloting for a six-person council of a municipality teasingly known as being ensconced behind a Tweed Curtain.

Her father long ago told her the secret to being a successful politician.

“You’ve got to look people in the eye,” he told her. “Let them know who you are. Let them know what you’re going to do. And then do it.”

One of the things her father did is dress as a pirate and slice the air with a cutlass while promoting Nanaimo as “the sun porch of Canada and the jewel of the West.” Frank Ney’s boosterish description stood in contrast to more common comparisons of the Hub City with sunshine-deprived body parts.

A showman and a salesman, he turned the annual bathtub race across Georgia Strait to Vancouver from a silly pastime into an international sensation. Henceforth, Nanaimo became known for washbasin wackiness rather than an addictive dessert (the Nanaimo bar), or an all-white male wardrobe, down to shoes and belts (the Full Nanaimo, not to be confused with, or likely contributing to, the Full Monty).

Mr. Ney served as mayor from 1968 to 1984 and from 1987 to 1990. While mayor, he also spent three years as a Social Credit MLA. An elementary school now bears his name. A bronze statue portraying him in pirate regalia can be found on the waterfront. They loved him in Nanaimo, even if they didn’t always vote for him.

His eldest daughter, now aged 53, remembers a childhood spent on the hustings with 10 siblings. Her father always threw his pirate hat into the ring.

“He was campaigning all the time,” she said. “His life was one long single campaign. He was always talking to people and listening to their stories. He never stopped.”

Where her Nanaimo birthplace is proudly blue collar, her Oak Bay community remains steadfastly blue blood.

Ms. Ney won without resorting to a peg leg, an eyepatch, a flintlock pistol, or a parrot on the shoulder. Instead, she hung out in the villages (High Streets), chatting up passersby and drinking coffee by the bathtub load.

After Saturday’s balloting, Ms. Ney is not alone as a civic neophyte with a political pedigree.

Constance Barnes won election to Vancouver park board. Her father was a professional football player and a Speaker of the B.C. Legislature, while her mother was a pioneer female sports commentator who wrote a tell-all book titled, “The Plastic Orgasm.”

Amid the returns, some other names stuck out.

The voters of Keremeos opted for mayoral rule by a Despot — Walter Despot, a retired phramacist.

Pitt Meadows has a Bing and a Bell on council, while Wally Cheer topped the councillor poll in Port Clements. Donna Shugar was acclaimed in the Sunshine Coast.

In suburban Richmond, voters contemplated a ballot graced by four Chens and a Cheng. None were related. None were elected. The same ballot also had three Halsey-Brandts — Greg, the ex-mayor; Sue, the ex-mayor’s ex-wife; and, Evelina, the ex-mayor’s not ex-wife. All were elected.

Newspaper editors will need more than spell-checking software to avoid misspelling Rimas Zitkauskas (Telkwa), Holger Schwichtenberg (Kent), Bonnie CruzelleMyram (Thompson-Nicola), and Candus Pelton-Graffunder (Clearwater). These politicos may make headlines, but they’re unlikely to see their unwieldy family names in one.

Some familiar names failed in bids to return to the political arena. In Smithers, town councillor and former MLA Bill Goodacre finished third in the mayor’s race. In Sidney, population 11,000, Mel Couvelier failed to win the mayor’s chair, a disappointing outcome for a former finance minister of the third-largest province of a G8 nation.

In Oak Bay, Chris Smith missed joining Ms. Ney as a council rookie by finishing 12 votes behind an incumbent for the final spot. Mr. Smith, who won a Canadian tennis championship in boys’ doubles as a teenager, is the son of former Oak Bay mayor Brian Smith.

Ms. Ney had even bet a friend $10 that Mr. Smith would win a spot on council.

This was the first time her name appeared on a ballot since she won a student council race at age 16 back home in Nanaimo. A psychologist who has worked in the war-torn Balkans, she is known by her friends as Tool Time Tara for her renovations of old houses. During the demolition of the Oay Bay Beach Hotel, she donned steel-toed boots and a hard hat to salvage light fixtures and wood panelling.

She scavenged steel frames for her campaign signs from the local recycling centre, which had plenty on hand after the recent federal election.

Her father died 16 years ago this month, his passing noted that afternoon in the B.C. legislature, where Premier Mike Harcourt rose to pay tribute. He quoted Mr. Ney on his failure in what would be his last campaign for mayor. “In South America they shoot the old mayor when they want a new one,” Mr. Ney said. “I prefer this system.”

Four years ago, the Ney clan learned they had a half-brother born before their father met their mother.

He had black hair and olive skin. Like their father.

He was gregarious. Like their father.

He was a realtor. Like their father.

When Tara Ney told Peter Birrell she was running for council, he did what any Ney would do.

He threw his hat into the ring.

As it turned out, the voters of North Vancouver district opted for other candidates.

He should not be discouraged. Even Frank Ney never won them all.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Boomer's legacy forever enshrined in song

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 12, 2008


As a boy growing up in Europe, Eric Macdonald once enjoyed a family picnic that included a romp through fields speckled red with poppies.

He knew even then that those fields in Flanders covered sacred soil.

His mother often recited a poem commemorating victims of a war now all but faded from living memory.

The Great War ended 90 years ago, the Second World War ended 63 years ago, the Korean War ended 55 years ago.

Canadian involvement in the war in Afghanistan is about to mark its seventh full year with no peace on the horizon.

The casualties in the current conflict have been mercifully few compared to the slaughters of the previous century.

So far, 97 Canadian warriors and one diplomat have been killed serving in the Afghanistan mission. Their names reflect the nation in whose name they fought - Doyle and Downey, Leger and Levesque, Gomez and Goddard, Hayakaze and Karigiannis, Klumpenhouwer and Eykelenboom.

Eykelenboom. Mr. Macdonald knew the name when he read it in the newspaper dropped on his porch. The family lived just around the corner from his home in Comox on Vancouver Island. On a warm August morning two years ago, the war came home to the neighbourhood.

Corporal Andrew James Eykelenboom, a medic with the 1st Field Ambulance, based in Edmonton, known by his comrades as Boomer, was killed in a suicide attack while travelling in a convoy in southern Afghanistan. He was the 27th Canadian killed in the conflict. He had been due to come home in a week. He was 23.

About 500 mourners, including the province's lieutenant-governor, gathered in a church for the funeral service for the first Canadian medic killed since the Korean War.

The family launched a foundation called Boomer's Legacy. It brings books, medical supplies and warm clothing to women and children in Afghanistan.

In the weeks after the death, Mr. Macdonald spent time at the family's home, reading letters sent by a son in a war zone to parents back home. The missives were so descriptive Mr. Macdonald began to feel as though he knew a land few Canadians had ever visited.

"A lot of the stories he told me - "Mr. Macdonald paused to correct himself. "That his mother recounted - showed the humanitarian aspect of the work, the medical care he would give to the villagers."

The visits with the Eykelenbooms also unveiled a harsh truth.

"I could see that his parents were really, really suffering," he said.

Mr. Macdonald, 56, is an administrator at St. Joseph's General Hospital. He is the son of a Second World War bomber pilot and the grandson of a Great War officer. When not at work, he writes and performs music with the Many Waters Band. (The phrase "many waters" can be found both in the Book of Revelation and in the Song of Solomon.) He decided to write a song in honour of a fallen neighbour.

He cast his memory back to his childhood, frolicking on a peaceful field where earlier carnage could only be imagined.

The song debuted at a performance by the band at a restaurant called The Grotto in nearby Courtenay. Hans and Maureen Eykelenboom attended, their first night out since their son's death.

A year ago, Mr. Macdonald's song was recorded and produced in a studio at the local home of Andy Lorimer, a former keyboardist with the classic rock band Prism.

A haunting vocal was captured in the session, as the band's Katie Lamont Kippel brought to the song her own knowledge of the war-torn land. When he first presented it to her, she said, "I can really sing this song knowing the beauty of the place and its people." Mr. Macdonald had not known his bandmate had spent time in Afghanistan.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1970, Ms. Lamont Kippel spent her childhood travelling with parents involved in the Canadian foreign service. While living in Pakistan, the family took holiday trips through the Khyber Pass to visit Kabul in the years shortly before the Soviet invasion.

On one of those visits, Ms. Lamont Kippel posed with an Afghan trader at a market.

The man offered to trade his daughter for what he presumed, because of a pixie cut, to be a boy. The offer was gracefully declined.

Last Remembrance Day, friends and family gathered at Boomer's grave. A pastor recited a chapter from Isaiah. Soldiers recited In Flanders Fields. Many Waters performed Kandahar Fields.

"Mend the walls that are broken, dig the wells again, plant the fields for harvest, sown with seeds for peace," Ms. Lamont Kippel sang.

"And lay down, lay down, lay down in the Kandahar fields."

Soon after, she suffered a recurrence of cancer. The mother of two young daughters died this March, aged 37.

Her band put down their instruments, too heartbroken to perform.

They returned to the studio only in recent days.

On Remembrance Day, Mr. Macdonald once again visited the Eykelenbooms.

He was joined by several of Boomer's medic friends. They are slightly older than their previous visit. Their fallen comrade will be forever 23.

To download Kandahar Fields, go to

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

When will the president pay a visit?

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 5, 2008


A quadrennial ritual drew to a close last night. The last bunting was draped, the final speech orated, the last tattered streamer and deflated balloon swept by Joe the janitor.

Across the Juan de Fuca Strait, Democrats in Clallam County had planned to spend eight hours of election day on a Port Angeles street corner waving signs.

At the Red Jacket Lounge and Cabaret in downtown Victoria, an event called Obamarama was to offer shooters in Republican red and Democratic blue.

In Vancouver, the group Democrats Abroad were to gather at a Yaletown brewery at about the time the polls closed in Vermont, Virginia and (gulp) Florida. So many wanted to attend what they anxiously hoped would be a victory party that a second celebration was arranged at another location.

Barring a tie in the Electoral College, or some fiasco in the balloting (and how likely is that?), our neighbours now have a new president. No. 44. Leader of the Free World.

So, how about a visit?

Some of us in Victoria can even see America from our front porches.

The province is playing host to the Olympics in less than 16 months.

Guaranteed good seats for a sitting American president.

We've had a few presidential visits in the past.

No. 42 came here (twice), as did Nos. 36 and 32. The first president to visit, No. 29, received a grand welcome. He dined well, received huzzahs, but the visit is remembered, if at all, for not ending well.

As it turned out, the president was dead within a week.

Could it have been the shellfish?

Bill Clinton had no seafood difficulties in his visits to the province. He came here in 1993 for a summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, returning four years later for a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group.

During that visit, he stopped at a Gastown shop to purchase a statuette of a bear's head as a gift for his lover. Less than a year later, Monica Lewinsky turned over the marble-like figure to a special prosecutor's office.

Lyndon Johnson flew into Vancouver in 1964 to sign the Columbia River treaty. As he left the airport, he stopped the motorcade to greet a woman and her four children standing along the road.

The treaty was signed at a ceremony at the Peace Arch on the border.

It was announced that the United States had forwarded a cheque to Ottawa for $253,939,534.25 in payment for the downstream benefits.

“You Canadians went for that last 25 cents,” the president noted in wonder.

Earlier, premier W.A.C. Bennett had shoved a brightly coloured totem pole into the president's hands. The gift did not wind up in any special prosecutor's office.

In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt arrived at Victoria aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Phelps. He toured the scenic waterfront in an open car.

About 15,000 citizens, including many school children who had been given a half-day holiday in honour of the visit, lined the flag-bedecked streets.

Spotting a child with a bouquet at the gates to Government House, the president ordered his driver to halt. He accepted the flowers and planted a kiss on the cheek of seven-year-old Lorraine Roberts.

Nearby, eight boys and girls dressed as Beefeaters in the costumes worn by the guards at the Tower of London saluted the dignitary with pikes and halberds.

Mr. Roosevelt spoke with premier Duff Pattullo about building a highway through the province linking Alaska to Washington State.

“The more good roads there are, the more people will travel,” the president told reporters who gathered around his car.

The outbreak of war a few years later led to the construction of the Alcan Highway, which opened 66 years ago this month.

The first sitting U.S. president to set foot on Canadian soil was Warren Gamaliel Harding, who arrived aboard the USS Henderson on July 26, 1923. Immersed in scandal in Washington, the president had embarked on a five-week transcontinental tour, stopping in Vancouver after salmon fishing off Campbell River on his return from Alaska.

An onshore battery fired a 21-gun salute as his ship arrived in the waters of English Bay before berthing at the foot of Burrard Street. Mr. Harding was driven to Stanley Park along streets filled with fluttering Union Jacks and stars and stripes.

Not known as much of an orator, Mr. Harding's words were warmly received by a large crowd. He promised the gathering that his country would never annex its neighbour to the north, and he teasingly advised Canadians to not annex his own land.

The 57-year-old president found time to play 12 holes of golf, cutting his round short after complaining of shortness of breath. The chief executive enjoyed a lavish banquet. The former newsman even found time to drop in on the reporters' club.

The next day, on route to Seattle, the Henderson rammed a U.S. destroyer in fog. The president had been shaving at the time of the collision, but suffered no injury.

In the early evening of Aug. 2, Mr. Harding was resting in a San Francisco hotel with two nurses in attendance as he recuperated from what was believed to be food poisoning from Alaskan crabs. His wife was reading favourable press clippings to him when he shuddered and died.

Back in Vancouver, members of the local Kiwanis commissioned the sculptor Charles Marega to design a monument in honour of the Harding visit. Unveiled in 1925, the semi-circular memorial features two bronze bald eagles, bronze figures of Columbia and Canada, and a bas relief of the late president. It cost a princely $45,000.

A few years later, Time magazine was outraged when the Vancouver Sun serialized an expose titled, “The Strange Death of President Harding.”

The author, a former FBI agent of dubious honesty, posited the president was murdered and his killer none other than Mrs. Harding.

Among the headlines: “Girl and babe are trailed”; “Family quarrel in White House”; and, the piece de la resistance, “Did his shellfish illness in Vancouver provide ‘alibi' for subtle poison plot?”

If No. 44 does visit, he would be well advised to go with the chicken over the seafood.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Ralph Sazio, Mr. Ticat (1922-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 30, 2008

Ralph Sazio was teaching high school and moonlighting as a football player in Pennsylvania when he was lured north to Canada by his college coach.

Canadian football paid top dollar for imported talent at a time when the Canuck buck was equal to the Yankee greenback. Mr. Sazio, a block of a man at 6-foot-1-inch and 250 pounds, joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a hard-nosed tackle.

He later became the team's coach, general manager and president, his success making him a hero in Steeltown.

Top teams south of the border tried to hire him, but he refused their offers. Instead, in 1981, he stunned Hamilton by taking a job with the arch-rival Toronto Argonauts. It was as though a Hatfield announced he was becoming a McCoy.

Soon afterward, the long-suffering Argos ended seasons of futility by winning a Grey Cup championship. The triumph cemented Mr. Sazio's reputation as a football savant.

The U.S. Air Force veteran looked and sounded like a career football man. He worked hard, spoke in a shout and demanded much of his players.

He could also be gruff and did not hide his disdain for certain reporters. This newspaper greeted his arrival in Toronto with a headline describing him as an “irascible leader.”

To his credit, Mr. Sazio credited his success here to his belief in hiring homegrown athletes. “I was a strong believer in Canadian talent,” Mr. Sazio told reporter Denis Gibbons nine years ago. “If you had enough Canadian talent, you could be a winner. I think that was one of our pluses.”

Born in Italy to a barber, Mr. Sazio arrived in the United States as an infant. He grew up in South Orange, N.J. He graduated from Columbia High School in 1941, his play for the Cougars earning him a scholarship to the College of William & Mary at Williamsburg, Va.

Carl Voyles, coach of the school's Tribe football team, built a team known for its stingy defence. In Mr. Sazio's freshman season, William & Mary surrendered an average of just five points a game in an 11-game season, while scoring 245 points. The Tribe took the Southern Conference Championship with a record of 9 wins, one loss and one tie.

After the United States entered the Second World War, Mr. Sazio interrupted his studies and exchanged his football uniform for a military one.

He returned to campus after the war. The Tribe once again won a conference title with a 9-2 record. Mr. Sazio shared the team's captaincy. In the Dixie Bowl at Birmingham, Ala., William & Mary lost 21-19 to Arkansas on New Year's Day, 1948.

The team had success a year later in winning the Delta Bowl 20-0 over Oklahoma A&M at Memphis, Tenn.

Scouts took note of the tackle. Mr. Sazio was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League in the 28th round (258th overall) of the 1947 draft. Instead, he wound up playing in New York. Branch Rickey, the owner of baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, had launched a team by the same name to play in the fledgling All-America Football Conference, a rival to the NFL. Mr. Rickey hired Mr. Voyles as coach and he, in turn, signed his old college tackle.

Mr. Sazio transferred to Columbia University, where he would graduate with a masters degree in education (signed, he would later note proudly, by university president and future U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower), and played at Ebbets Field. He started eight of the 13 games in which he would play in the 1948 season, one of several rookies taking spots on a front line seen as a weakness.

The season opener was played at home against the crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees. The Dodgers' offence sputtered under the guidance of Hunchy Hoernschemeyer, as the visitors rolled to an easy 21-3 victory.

The game captured the spirit of the Dodgers' season, as the club finished with a disastrous 2-12 record. The Dodgers were disbanded afterward, with much of the roster merging with the Yankees. Mr. Sazio's rights were transferred to the Chicago Hornets.

Meanwhile, Mr. Voyles wound up in Hamilton with the Ticats. He asked his old tackle, who was by then teaching high school at McKeesport, Pa., to come north. The clincher was the promise of a day job selling insurance, which he would keep until becoming a full-time coach in 1963.

Starting in 1950, Mr. Sazio spent four seasons on the field with the Ticats, also contributing as an assistant coach. He lost his spot in the line to American import Bobby Cross during the 1953 season, which ended with the Ticats winning the Grey Cup.

Hamilton then embarked on several frustrating seasons in which a berth in the championship showdown failed to result in victory. After Hamilton lost consecutive Grey Cup games to Winnipeg, Mr. Sazio replaced Jungle Jim Trimble to become head coach for the 1963 season.

The Ticats were loaded with talent from A to Z — from Angelo Mosca to Joe Zuger. Add the skills of Garney Henley, Bernie Faloney and Hal Patterson, and the new coach knew he had to deliver a championship or suffer the same fate as his predecessor.

The Sazio-led Ticats once again won the Eastern championship before travelling to Vancouver for a Grey Cup showdown against the hometown Lions. Before the game, the coach indicated the Lions offence depended on the running of Willie Fleming. Late in the first half, Mr. Fleming suffered a concussion after being hit by Mr. Mosca. The Lions star left the game.

The Hamilton coach's blueprint guided the team to a comfortable 21-10 triumph, a victory made easier by Mr. Fleming's absence. After the game, as delirious Ticat players slurped champagne from the Grey Cup, Mr. Sazio said, “I'm happy to say we're taking it home.”

As coach, Mr. Sazio led the club to four Grey Cup appearances in five years, winning three titles.

In 1964, the Lions avenged the Fleming hit and the loss by defeating Hamilton, 34-24, in the Grey Cup.

The Ticats regained the title in 1965, by at last overcoming Winnipeg, 22-16.

By the 1967 season, Mr. Sazio had the Ticats purring like a well-oiled engine. The team did not surrender a touchdown in the final six games of the season, before demolishing the Saskatchewan Roughriders, 24-1, in the Grey Cup game. The Ticats shut down a usually potent offence designed by coach Eagle Keys, featuring quarterback Ron Lancaster (obituary, Sept. 19) and brawny fullback George Reed.

The final scoring play happened when Hamilton's Billy Ray Locklin picked up a Saskatchewan fumble before romping 43 yards for a touchdown late in the game. “That,” Mr. Sazio said afterwards, “is the whipping cream on the custard.”

In the off-season, Mr. Sazio left the sideline for the front office, becoming general manager for the 1968 season after Jake Gaudaur left to become league commissioner.

A stellar coaching record of 49 wins, 20 losses and one tie earned Mr. Sazio a deserved reputation as one of the league's greatest chalkboard masterminds. In five years, he had won four Eastern Conference titles and three championships.

By 1981, he was vice-president and general manager of the club, which was at this point owned by the unpredictable Harold Ballard, better known for his erratic handling of hockey's Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mr. Sazio shocked the league with his midseason leap to become president of the Argonauts. His son, upon returning from a fishing trip, needed to be shown a newspaper article before believing his father had changed teams. The move after 32 years in Hamilton was seen as little less than treacherous by the Ticats' ardent supporters.

“I'm taking this job mainly because I need a challenge,” Mr. Sazio told The Globe and Mail after an introductory news conference. “It's like a second career for me.”

The Argos certainly offered a challenge, and lingered in last place with an 0-5 record. Mr. Sazio soon hired Bob O'Billovich as coach and the Argos advanced to the Grey Cup game the following season, losing to Edmonton. They returned to the championship game in 1983, defeating the B.C. Lions in Vancouver. The championship ended a 31-year drought.

Success on the field did not limit disputes with denizens of the press box. A chief target was Globe football writer Marty York.

“York is poison,” Mr. Sazio told Earl McRae for an article published in Toronto Life magazine in 1983. “He wants to destroy the team. He never has anything good to say. I'd like to drive him through the wall, the little twerp, but then I'd make a martyr out of him.”

Mr. Sazio retired as Argos president in 1990, two years after he had been inducted as a builder into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at Hamilton.

In 2003, the Cats Claws – as the Ticats booster club is called – elected Mr. Sazio to the Walk of Fame at Ivor Wynne Stadium.

By coincidence, the tickets for the first home game played in Hamilton after Mr. Sazio's funeral included an image of his bust from the hall. Many family members attended – “A Sazio grieves at a football game,” son Mark Sazio said later – and the home side eked a victory over the favoured Montreal Alouettes.

On the game's final whistle, a jubilant Ticat player tossed the ball blindly into the stands, where it was caught by a 17-year-old linebacker for the Westdale Warriors high school football team. The receiver was Jake Sazio, grandson of Hamilton's great coach.

Ralph Joseph Sazio was born July 22, 1922, at Avellino, Italy. He died Sept. 25, 2008, at Burlington, Ont. He was 86. He leaves Rose (Matthews), his wife of 61 years. He also leaves a son, a daughter, six grandchildren and a brother.

Killer Kowalski, wrestler (1926-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 4, 2008

In the wrestling ring, Killer Kowalski greeted opponents with an elbow smash. This might be followed by an open-hand slap, or a knee drop launched from atop the ropes.

Whatever the mayhem inflicted in a bout, he more often than not ended the battle by using the Iron Claw, his feared submission hold. The trademark grip consisted of Killer clutching a victim by the head or the solar plexus. He squeezed until they passed out, or were spared by a merciful referee.

He once committed an act of such terrible violence that even decades later newspapers published warnings before describing the incident. It was this incident that earned him the nickname Killer.

A mountain of a man at 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, Mr. Kowalski punched and smacked his way around the globe, filling arenas in Japan and Australia, as well as in the United States and his Canadian homeland.

By 1953, he was billed in trade publications as professional wrestling’s top attraction. He starred in early television broadcasts, his popularity not at all diminished by his role as a villain. In the Manichaean world of entertainment sport, where the narrative is as complicated as a comic-book clash, Mr. Kowalski played the heal with a blood-lust befitting the burlesque of overgrown men in tights and masks.

Men booed him, women hated him, children feared him.

“Just because I get over-enthused about my work people hate me,” he told a wrestling magazine in 1961, according to the Slam! Sports website. “Everywhere I go they throw chairs, newspapers, cigar butts, fruit and anything else they can grab. I have been burned, knifed, blinded by pea shooters, and hit over the head with boards.”

If a brave but foolhardy journalist challenged him on his avocation being little more than a sweaty choreograph, Mr. Kowlaski would administer one of his notorious holds as evidence of the seriousness of the endeavor.

A giant who seemed inexhaustible in the ring, he became a symbol of post-war pro wrestling. His name caused shivers on three continents and, long after he had retired, he was remembered as the epitome of a tough guy. He was even mentioned on an episode of Seinfeld.

Unforgiving in the ring, Mr. Kowalski’s true character only became known in recent years. Unlike many of his brethren, he neither drank, nor smoked. He had even once contemplated a life in the priesthood and remained a bachelor until shortly before his 80th birthday.

For someone who caused so much blood to be spilled, the Killer earned notoriety on the circuit for his unlikely diet. He was a vegetarian for more than 50 years, including during his eye-gouging, hair-pulling heyday.

Killer was so much more an exciting name on the marquee than the one with which he was christened. Edward Walter Spulnik (sometimes Spolnik) was born to Polish immigrants at Windsor, Ont. His father, Anthony Spulnik, an immigrant from Lublin, met Marie Borovska, originally from Bialystok, in Canada. He supported a family of three children with a job as a labourer in the body shop of the General Motors plant across the river in Detroit.

Called Ed by his family, the boy became an athletic star at his all-male vocational high school, where he excelled at football and basketball, as well as javelin, discus and the shot put. He grew to nearly his full height at an early age, but lacked musculature, so took up bodybuilding. It was during a workout session at the YMCA that it was suggested he might wish to take up wrestling.

By then, he was studying electrical engineering at Assumption College, while working part-time as an electrician at a Ford Motor Co. plant. Intrigued by the possibility of earning extra money, he joined the stable of Detroit promoter Burt Ruby in 1947.

He had one brief foray in the ring as a boxer. His one bout did not go well and ever after did battle in a sport where the rules were enforced with less rigour.

He took as his name Wladek Kowalski, the hard Slavic consonants making for an ideal Cold War nom de combat. (His Spulnik birth name could easily have been altered to Sputnik if only he had launched his career a few years later.) The nuance of historical Russian oppression of his ancestral homeland was lost on the rasslin’ crowd.

Mr. Kowalski made his Toronto debut at Maple Leaf Gardens in July, 1949. His was the first bout on the undercard in an exhibition of “strength and science.” The bill was topped by the popular Whipper Billy Watson in a team fight touted as “all four men in ring plus two referees.”

Soon, Mr. Kowalski joined the traveling troupe in open-air combat at such venues as the East York Collegiate Memorial Stadium. He sometimes fought as Tarzan Kowalski. Over time, his name moved up the card until he became a headlining attraction.

His triumphs may have been preordained, his occasional defeats necessarily scripted, but there was no denying the physicality of the man. He was a magnificent specimen, whether administering a drop kick or a flying tackle. A highlight of any match came when an opponent was supine on the canvas. Mr. Kowlaski would clamber a corner post, like King Kong ascending a skyscraper, before using the ropes as a springboard. He launched into the air before landing with terrible force on the helpless victim.

A rival wrestler such as Bo-Bo Brazil included in his arsenal a move such as the Ko-Ko Bump, but the theatrical head bump was no match against Mr. Kowalski’s infamous knee drop.

His reputation was cemented during a bout in Montreal on Oct. 15, 1952, two days after Mr. Kowalski’s 26th birthday. The opponent was Yukon Eric, billed as an Alaskan lumberjack. A powerful man, he fought in bare feet, his ragged jeans held up by binder twine, a plaid checked shirt open to expose his mighty chest. A square head was bracketed by a pair of cauliflower ears, puffy from repeated blows, a hazard of the trade.

Yukon Eric lay flat on the mat, stunned by a punch, when Mr. Kowalski sailed off the ropes to deliver a crushing knee drop.

He landed awkwardly, the force of the impact tearing off a fleshy chunk of Yukon Eric’s damaged right ear. Blood spurted from the wound. As Mr. Kowalski and the referee gaped in disbelief, Yukon Eric fled to the dressing room with a towel against the wound.

The promoter arranged for Mr. Kowalski to visit his recuperating rival at his hospital bedside. A reporter was on hand. When Mr. Kowalski spotted Yukon Eric’s head wrapped in bandages, “like a turban,” he said later, he could think only of Humpty Dumpty. Both wrestlers laughed at the absurdity of the injury. A reporter, perhaps egged on by the eager promoter, wrote about Kowalski’s callous behaviour.

At his next bout, he was greeted with more catcalls than usual from a hostile audience.

“Animal!” one shouted. “Killer!”

An alliterative moniker was born.

Crowds flocked to see a brute whose indefatigable exertions in the ring guaranteed a dramatic show. Some undoubtedly attended in the hope of witnessing another horrible incident. Once, in a bout in Boston, a wild kick by the Killer caught referee Jack Dempsey, the former boxing champion, who had to retreat to hospital.

Sports writers fanned the desires of the more morbid spectators, frequently repeating accounts of the incident with Yukon Eric, some even describing the wrestler having bitten off the ear, ignoring his professed abhorrence of meat.

A rematch featuring the two was a guaranteed sell-out and it is believed they appeared in the first televised wrestling bout in Canada, staged in Montreal in 1953.

He seemed to look more fearsome as he aged, the passing years making his eyes ever more deepset, his face betraying little emotion other than fury.

He took seriously the training necessary to remain a convincing grappler. On long drives between shows, he made it a routine to argue with radio broadcasters, taking a weather forecast as an opportunity to harangue the fates, practice for delivering monologues by microphone before and after matches.

He also steered with one hand, freeing the other to squeeze rubber balls, building the muscles with which he administered the feared Iron Claw and Killer Clutch.

A time the hold succeeded only too well came during a bout against Haystack Calhoun, a 600-pound (273-kg) behemoth. Mr. Kowalski dug his hand into Haystack’s formidable belly, the vice-like pressure causing an unfortunate expulsion of intestinal gas.

“The fumes were so devastating, I started to pass out,” Mr. Kowalski told Esquire magazine. “He rolled over, jumped on top of me, and pinned me.”

He won countless titles in a career spanning three decades, defeating the likes of Nature Boy Buddy Rogers and Don Leo Jonathan, the Mormon Giant.

After conquering Canada, Mr. Kowalski outraged American television audiences for his vicious encounters with Bruno Sammartino, the champion whom he managed to bloody but never conquer.

He teamed with Gorilla Monsoon to claim tag-team titles as a duo of bad guys. Mr. Kowalski once even claimed a tag-team championship in Texas as a solo fighter.
In the mid-1970s, he donned a mask to pair with Big John Studd as a duo called The Executioners. They won the world tag-team championship in 1976.

Mr. Kowalski retired from the ring the following year, opening Killer Kowalski’s Professional Wrestling School. The professor of this school of hard knocks, located on Pleasant Street in Malden, Mass., trained such future stars as A-Train, Chyna and Triple H. He sold the business five years ago.

Mr. Kowalski, who legally changed his surname in 1963 and was known as Walter or Wally by friends, was much honoured by his peers. He was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1996, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003, and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame at Hamtramck, Mich., last year.

When he was informed of the latter honour by telephone, he told the caller he looked forward to meeting him in person someday, promising to administer a body slam when he did so.

At a banquet in Las Vegas in 2002, he received the Iron Mike Mazurki Award from the Cauliflower Alley Club, an association of former wrestlers, promoters and “allied personages.” The award, named for the club’s founder, is regarded as the greatest honour that can be bestowed on a retired rassler.

Away from the ring, the kind and erudite loner indulged his passion for classical music, favouring Mozart and Chopin. He wrote poetry and a book of his photographs, titled “Killer Pics,” was released by a Colorado publisher in 2001.

The lifelong bachelor married his longtime companion in a church ceremony two summers ago. The 79-year-old groom was asked to explain his late entry into matrimony. Ever the showman, he said, “She told me she was pregnant.”

Killer Kowalski was born on Oct. 13, 1926, at Windsor, Ont. He died on Aug. 30 at Whidden Memorial Hospital at Everett, Mass. He had suffered a heart attack earlier in the month. He was 81. He leaves his wife of two years, the former Theresa Todd (nee Ferrioli). He also leaves his brother, Stanley Spulnik, of Ottawa. He was predeceased by his sister, Wanda Wojik, of Windsor.