Monday, November 22, 2010

Chuck Davis, historian known as Mr. Vancouver (1935-2010)

Chuck Davis delights at finding another swell fact. Photograph by Les Bazso.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 22, 2010


Chuck Davis unearthed forgotten tales from Vancouver’s rollicking past, providing a history for a city whose memory seemed no deeper than the most recent property boom.

Mr. Davis, who has died three days after his 75th birthday, was an amateur historian who frequented archives and libraries. He mined documents and yellowed newspaper clippings, scavenging facts and oddball nuggets for his books and articles.

A man of boyish enthusiasms, he had an anecdote for every occasion. After a dramatic public announcement of a diagnosis of untreatable lung cancer, he told reporters about one of his recent finds. In 1909, the city acquired the first mechanized ambulance in the Dominion. The crew proudly took it on a tour of the city, during which they struck and killed a pedestrian.

The absurdity of that tragedy struck him as humourous, and one could not help but admire a man whose sense of the macabre was undiminished in the face of his own death sentence.

Mr. Davis was one of the city’s most familiar figures, an avuncular presence for nearly a half century as author, lecturer, quizmaster, cruciverbalist, television host, and radio announcer. No living person knew more about the city and its past, earning him the nickname Mr. Vancouver.

He edited two urban encyclopedias — The Vancouver Book (1976) and The Greater Vancouver Book (1997) — and was at work on a third, The History of Metropolitan Vancouver, which he described as his magnum opus.

He had 17 titles to his credit and had nearly completed two more by his death on Saturday, three days after his 75th birthday.

An amiable man with a hearty laugh, Mr. Davis was, in the words of one of his many friends, a “delightful shambles.” His many passions did not extend to his wardrobe, which often consisted of rumpled shirts and formless sweaters of unappealing pattern. He worked from a home office through which passage was made treacherous by paper stalagmites of uncertain stability.

He was proud of a filing system that made little sense to an outsider and he happily repeated a description of his workplace as the world’s largest gerbil nest.

Though such an appearance hints at carelessness, Mr. Davis was devoted to facts, wasting no effort to track down accurate details. Such painstaking research caused some of his projects to stretch long beyond deadline, testing the patience of his publishers.

A large man with a round face and a ready grin, he had a magnificent, stentorian voice, as befitted a former staff announcer for CBC Radio. He used it to good effect when displaying his gift as a natural storyteller. He displayed little ego and was so self-deprecating he eagerly retold tales in which he was the butt.

Some years ago, he informed a colleague about his ambition to write an omnibus history of the Lower Mainland, promising the book would be “fun, fat, and filled with facts.”

“Just like you,” the co-worker said.

Mr. Davis repeated the exchange often, including during the evening in September when he told an audience at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre that he was dying and needed to raise funds to hire a writer to complete his final book.

Charles Hector Davis was born in Winnipeg on Nov. 17, 1935. His parents’ marriage soon after collapsed and he only once ever met his mother. In December, 1944, his father, who operated three modest confectionaries, moved with the boy to the West Coast. They lived in a former squatter’s shack built over the Burrard Inlet shoreline. It lacked electricity and shook ominously when freight trains rumbled past.

Two years later, a fire destroyed the shack and the homeless boy appeared in a photograph on the front page of a local daily.

A teacher’s etymological examination of the origins of “breakfast” — the act of breaking, or interrupting, a fast — sparked in the schoolboy a lifelong fascination with words. (Mr. Davis was a demon at Scrabble.) He also began compiling lists of such facts as the rivers of Australia and the prime ministers of Hungary. His father jokingly suggested he compile a list of his lists, which became much of his working life.

The boy and his father moved to Toronto, where they lived in rooming houses. Chuck sold copies of the Globe at the intersection of Queen and Bathurst, offering passersby a patter of slick talk (“almost like speaking in tongues”).

Since the neighbourhood included many Poles and Ukrainians, he asked another vendor for a Slavic word for newspaper. He later discovered that the day’s poor sales were the result of his trying to sell newspapers while bellowing the Polish word for feces.

His formal education ended at age 13 midway through Grade 8. At 17, by which time he had held 23 different jobs, he decided he wanted to go fight in Korea. He enlisted with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in June, 1953.

“That war ended in July,” he wrote, “so I guess someone notified the North Koreans. They didn’t tell me when I joined that you had to be 19 to go over, anyway.”

He found his calling while stationed overseas in West Germany. At 5 p.m. on March 21, 1956, Mr. Davis, a private, had the honour of making the inaugural broadcast on CAE, a 250-watt Canadian forces radio station.

On discharge later that year, he returned to Canada to launch a radio career in Ontario, working for stations in Kingston, Kitchener, and Kirkland Lake before accepting a job at CJVI in Victoria. He worked for the CBC in Prince Rupert, B.C., before being transferred to Vancouver.

A boom-and-bust mentality transformed the city every few years, as land speculation offered dizzying changes to streetscapes, as well as to demographics. Mr. Davis decided to create what he called an “urban almanac” for a port city no longer as sleepy as it once had been. He recruited dozens of writers for a compendium of history and information. Printed on cheap newspaper stock, which gave it the semblance of a telephone directory, The Vancouver Book proved enormously popular. The library staff told Mr. Davis that it was the second-most purloined title in the collection. The most-stolen title was Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

(Two decades later, while working on a succeeding volume, Mr. Davis shared this detail with newspaper columnist Denny Boyd. His response: “Well, thank God the other fellow isn’t planning a sequel.”)

The Greater Vancouver Book proved a critical success, winning two major literary prizes, but a financial disaster, the only black ink in the enterprise to be found in the book’s 904 pages. Writers went unpaid even though Mr. Davis took out a second mortgage on his home in suburban Surrey. “Memo to self,” he later wrote, “never publish, only write.”

He also wrote histories of radio station CKNW (Top Dog!), suburban Port Coquitlam (Where Rails Meet Rivers) and the stately Orpheum Theatre (Palace of Entertainment). His most financially successful book was Turn On To Canada, a Grade 3 textbook.

Mr. Davis also devised radio game shows such as Look That Up, with Vicki Gabereau, and Conquest!, about knowledge of foreign lands.

For the past several years, he has been beavering away on The History of Metropolitan Vancouver. Having learned his lesson from the previous fiasco, he enlisted corporate sponsors to finance the writing of a year-by-year account of the region stretching from Bowen Island east to Langley. An extensive website, which can be seen at, offers a flavour of the rich anecdote and telling detail Mr. Davis uncovered in his research.

The book is to be issued by Harbour Publishing next year to mark the city’s quasquicentennial. The author spent his final weeks raising $30,000 to hire a writer to complete the work. Negotiations are continuing.

Mr. Davis received a diagnosis of cancer in December, 2007. The following month he had surgery to removed his bladder and prostate. As he awaited the procedure, he wrote a limerick, a favored pastime, which he eagerly shared with his wide circle of friends. With typical gravitas, which is to say little, he wrote:

On the first day of 2008
Chuck Davis sat mulling his fate:
‘They’d make me feel gladder
To leave in my bladder
’Cuz peeing the old way was great!’

Students, historians and journalists owe him a tremendous debt, as his diligent work has made any project about the past so much easier.

The announcement of his ill health in September sparked tributes, many of which were overdue. The city declared a Chuck Davis Day last month and he was awarded the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for his literary work.

On Friday, just hours before his death the following morning, a plaque honouring Mr. Davis was placed on the Writers’ Walk at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library, a home away from home for the tireless researcher.

Mr. Davis leaves Edna, his wife of 45 years, and a daughter, Stephanie.