Saturday, March 6, 2010

Howard Kessler, reporter (1914-2010)

Howard Kessler in 1954. BELOW: A page from the family scrapbook.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 6, 2010


A week after his marriage to a pretty co-ed, Howard Kessler conjured an idea that placed his name in newspapers throughout the continent.

The young Alberta-born student was studying journalism at the University of Oregon in 1936, a year in which Depression hardships gave rise to faddish pastimes and eccentric movements.

Mr. Kessler and his bride, the former Edith Davis, a home economics student known as Edie, formed a campus organization called the “Two-Can-Live-As-Cheaply-As-One Association.” The idea was for married students to test the age-old adage by making bulk purchases and sharing the rent of large apartments.

Everyone scrimped in those days, so the eager young couple’s experiment with thrift gained wide publicity. Their tongue-in-cheek use of a pared-down acronym — T.C.L.A.C.A. — amused reporters who included the unwieldy shorthand in their copy.

The initial reports garnered hundreds of letters from other students eager to follow their example.

The president of the university, the aptly named C. Valentine Boyer, encouraged the success of the campus association, as married students scored on average a 20-per-cent higher grade than other undergraduates.

The fledgling group even invited the abdicated monarch, the Duke of Windsor, and Mrs. Wallis Simpson to become honourary members.

“I see a national organization with affiliated branches in many universities and having headquarters from which the organization will be directed,” Mr. Kessler told the Lethbridge Herald seven weeks after his marriage.

The grand dream never happened. A final newspaper nod to their adventure came with the birth of their daughter, Stephanie, in 1938, which received coverage even in Click, a magazine with a wide circulation. The Oregonian in Portland published a photo of the parents and their baby beneath a headline reading: “Two-can-live-as-cheaply plan complicated.”

Howard Eugene Kessler was the son of Lulu Bell and Anson Kessler, who settled on a 960-acre farm in Alberta just north of the border with Montana. The Kesslers hailed from a family of barrel manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio, arriving on the Canadian Prairies in 1909. He soon had a steam plow and six four-horse teams working his spread, most of which was planted with winter wheat. In time, the elder Kessler became an insurance agent.

From a young age, the boy made known his desire to be a journalist. At age 16, while attending Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, he wrote for the school newsletter, called the Ballyhoo.

He left Alberta to study journalism in Eugene, Ore., where he met his future wife, a student from North Dakota. He took a break after his first year to travel through Europe, a journey during which he wrote several long reports for his hometown newspaper.

His first dispatch in 1934 described the arrival in London of Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark for her pending marriage to the Duke of Kent. After culling 13 daily newspapers in the capital, the tyro reporter bemoans the overwhelming interest in the hat worn by the princess, a concern that bumped coverage of constitutional reforms in India to inside pages.

He visited France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Morocco, sometimes passing days without eating. He spent a month touring southern England by bike, train and on foot, finding a land struggling with the ravages of the Depression.

“The tin mines of Cornwall, great gashes in the earth, are nearly all deserted and the machinery shipped to South Africa for use,” he wrote. “The fisheries, which especially along the east coast, are the principle sustenance of English seagirt towns, are poor and ailing, hard hit by the most disastrous fishing season in history.”

A recreational tennis player himself, Mr. Kessler interviewed the great Bill Tilden while dining on roast beef at the Savoy Hotel. “I came away impressed by the vitality, the versatility and the good common sense of this champion who stands undisputed, the monarch of all champions of the tennis Valhalla,” he wrote.

Mr. Kessler also spent time in a Spanish cabaret with Charles Zimmy, a man whose feats he first marveled at in a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” item. A sideshow attraction billed as The Human Fish and The Legless Wonder, Mr. Zimmy lost both limbs as a boy after falling beneath a Chicago streetcar. He became an world-renowned marathon swimmer, setting marks for distance and for hours immersed in the sea.

Mr. Kessler wrote that he found his time with the swimmer so engrossing that he barely noticed as the cabaret’s dancing girls swayed nearby. (The Herald displayed the article under the tasteless headline, “No pulling his leg.”) Two years later, Mr. Zimmy, his torso coated in grease as protection against numbing cold, broke his own records by swimming from Albany to New York over several days without ever leaving the Hudson River.

Mr. Kessler returned home by ocean liner to New York, after which he hitchhiked to Washington, DC, before continuing to Kansas and north to Lethbridge.

On his return, he warned the Herald that Huey Long was the most dangerous man in American politics, so great was his popularity among the disenfranchised. The Louisiana senator was assassinated three months later. Mr. Kessler also reported that the administration of Franklin Roosevelt was losing support. “Too much going up blind alleys and then backing up,” Mr. Kessler said, though his prediction proved wildly wrong, as the president won overwhelming re-election a year later.

In 1938, he wrote a humorous article for Movie Mirror magazine in which he described meeting Hollywood stars on luxury liners about to depart for vacations in Hawaii. He poses a question to one pint-sized star, only to have Shirley Temple complain, “But Mamma, I thought this was a holiday!” He also posed beside Robert Taylor, the handsome leading man of “Magnificent Obsession,” and interviewed Groucho Marx, who lifted a pant leg as a bit of burlesque for photographers.

After graduating with a science degree specializing in journalism, Mr. Kessler packed his young family into a motor trailer and began a cross-continental journey in 1939. They drove through the Appalachian states before heading south to Florida and west through the Gulf states into Texas. It had been his idea to write a book about the journey, but the travel proved to be too taxing and the trek was aborted.

He launched a newspaper called the Mill City Log in an unincorporated lumber town on the North Santiam River about 90 kilometres south of Portland. It did not last long.

Mr. Kessler worked as a reporter for newspapers in Portland and Bend, Ore., as well as in Petaluma and Sacramento, Calif. He spent many years with the California Farm Bureau.

In 1965, he moved to Victoria, where he opened Poor Richard’s Books, stocking the shelves with his sizable personal library. His wife opened her own storefront operation in the suburbs in which she specialized in inexpensive paperbacks. The bookstore was sold in 1976 and the couple retired the following year, returning to the wandering that marked so much of their life. They counted 50 different addresses in a half-century of peripatetic curiosity.

Mr Kessler was a thrifty, energetic and optimistic character, always eager to try out a scheme, even if so many proved to be pipe dreams.

He maintained a series of notebooks in which he chronicled his adventures. He kept every letter he received and every missive he sent dating back to 1934.

Howard Eugene Kessler was born on Nov. 10, 1914, at New Dayton, Alta. He died on Jan. 8 at Surrey, B.C. He was 95. He leaves a daughter, Stephanie Belanger, of Ferndale, Wash.; a grandson; a granddaughter; and, a great-grandson. He was predeceased by his wife of 72 years, the former Edith Davis, known as Edie, who died in White Rock, B.C., on Aug. 9, 2009.


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