Saturday, December 17, 2011

Andy Stephen, broadcast journalist (1927-2011)

Andy Stephen in the studios of Victoria radio station CKDA, circa 1954. He later became a well-known reporter with television station CHEK.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 16, 2011


Andy Stephen reported the news of Vancouver Island to a television audience for whom he became as familiar as the newsmakers he covered.

With a stentorian baritone, his words enunciated with crisp precision, Stephen chronicled the damming of rivers and the cutting of highways through British Columbia’s rugged terrain. He arrived in Victoria shortly after the ascension of W.A.C. Bennett to the premier’s office, an era in which Social Credit went from loony fringe to family dynasty.

Stephen, who has died, aged 84, forged working friendships with the premier and his supporting cast in cabinet, plying them with drink (save for Bennett, a teetotaler) and invitations to go fishing.

Every three years, the reporter seemed to scoop the rest of the pack by breaking the news of an election call. So predictable were his exclusives that jealous rivals wondered how the reporter became privy to inside information. Was he in cahoots with the premier?

The truth, according to Jim Hume, the veteran political columnist, was far less dramatic. Stephen was a rare reporter to have established a relationship with Commander Gar Dixon, the tight-lipped secretary of Government House. When rumours swirled, Stephen made a daily morning telephone call to the residence of the lieutenant-governor. After chit-chat about fishing, the reporter would ask Dixon, “Is the premier dropping in for tea today?” An affirmative answer meant an election writ, or at least a cabinet shuffle, was in the works.

For 22 years, Stephen hosted Capital Comment, a weekly roundtable program in which reporters and politicians discussed the issues of the day. Premier Bennett was the inaugural guest. Such exposure, as well as his pioneering work as a television reporter covering the legislature for stations based in Victoria and Vancouver, made Stephen a recognizable figure even to residents in such far-off locales as Pouce Coupe.

Blessed with a rich, resonant tone, Stephen required no amplification. His voice boomed. Even when whispering, he did so in a voce less than sotto.

It would come as little surprise to his audience to learn he had been briefly an opera singer as a youth before he ever considered becoming a newsman.

Born in Edmonton on Aug. 22, 1927, Andrew Yurechuk was the son of Ukrainian immigrants. His father, Stephen, arrived in Canada as a year-old infant in 1903, while his mother, Katherine Kolody, born in the town of Stryi, settled with her family in southern Alberta a decade later, homesteading near the hamlet of Etzikom.
Andy Stephen and W.A.C. Bennett on Capital Comment.

His father worked the kill floor of a slaughterhouse. When he lost his job during the Depression, he found similar work in Winnipeg, moving his family about the time of his son’s 10th birthday. At age 17, Andrew wielded a cutlass in a school production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Pirates of Penzance. The following year he was selected by Metropolitan Church Choir director Herbert Sadler to play General Malona in the operetta The Maid of the Mountains. A Winnipeg Free Press reviewer cited the “unquestionable” talent of Yurechuk, who was “particularly adept at stage business.”

While visiting Toronto in 1948, Yurechuk popped into the CBC’s studios, where he met Leslie Nielsen, who advised him to enroll at the Academy of Radio Arts operated by Lorne Greene. He did so, soon dropping out, having been hired as an announcer at Ottawa radio station CFRA. By then, he had adopted his father’s given name as a surname.

He broadcast ballroom dances at the Chateau Laurier and fiddler’s dances in towns along the Ottawa Valley. A highlight was covering Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1949.

In Ottawa, he worked with announcer and program director Fred Davis, later to become nationally famous as host of television’s Front Page Challenge.

In 1953, Stephen was hired as news director of Victoria station CKDA and, three years later, also became the first news director after the launch of television station CHEK, the first privately-owned outlet in the province. At Channel 6 on the dial, it was only the third station available in southwestern British Columbia.

His days began before dawn as he prepared morning news casts for the radio station, then moving on to the television studio, where he anchored the suppertime 6 Star Final News. He later co-hosted a noon-hour show.

Stephen covered the Swiftsure international yacht race from aboard the ocean-going tug Sudbury, delivering hourly reports over a grueling 32-hour broadcast session.

In other summers, he provided dramatic accounts as marathon solo swimmers Marilyn Bell and Cliff Lumsdon each conquered the chill waters of Juan de Fuca Strait.

“It was a clean-living town,” he told broadcast historian Drew Snider in 2004. “If you got a car stolen, it was a big deal.”

A rare serious crime occurred on April 24, 1960, when an escaped mental patient shot 35-year-old Saanich police Const. Robert Kirby, a six-year veteran, through the heart, killing him instantly. Stephen covered the aftermath of the shooting scene, as well as the funeral procession, but his cameraman was barred from the church.

It was in the province’s hothouse of politics that he earned his reputation. He caused a stir by making the first radio report of the sitting of the Legislature from within the chamber in 1953. His arrival in the building was not greeted warmly by print rivals, who vacillated between sneering at radio and television reportage while fearing that it might end their predominance, as it did.

In time, colleagues in the Legislative Press Gallery warmed to him, and Stephen served three terms as president, presiding over the writing of the group’s first formal constitution in 1972. (He was succeeded by Barbara McLintock, who became the first woman to hold the post. She is now a coroner.) He was later made a life member, a rare honour.

The Socreds delivered an activist government, nationalizing the hydroelectric company and creating a provincial ferry service. While such characters as highways minister Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi, who explained speeding tickets by insisting he was “testing the curves,” offered good stories, the government remained very much a one-man act.

In 1959, the Queen of Sidney, a car ferry built at the Victoria Machinery Depot, was launched with fanfare as the first of a fleet of boats that would come to be known as Bennett’s Navy. The premier had a surprise for those who joined him on the ferry’s inaugural voyage.

As Stephen once recounted to the historian Ross Crockford, “When we got halfway across the Strait of Georgia, (Bennett) stopped the ferry and said, ‘I’ve got something to show you.’ His secretary brought out a suitcase, and Bennett opened it and pulled out a flag. The premier ran it up the mast and said, ‘That, ladies and gentleman, is the first unveiling of our new provincial flag.’ ”

During the sitting of the legislature, the premier conducting a brief session daily in his office at precisely 9:30 a.m. Stephen sat at the end of the premier’s desk, while other reporters sat in two rows of chairs. The questioning ended when Stephen said, “Thank you, Mr. Premier.” Stephen was one reporter who could attend after hours at Bennett’s Oak Bay apartment without incurring the premier’s wrath.

The hard-drinking denizens of the Press Gallery, who worked then as now in a cluttered, filthy space mirroring the setting of The Front Page, were keen for hijinks.

Stephen led a team of fortified reporters to victory in the First Great International St. Patrick’s Pothole Golf Tournament held in the northern Vancouver Island logging town of Port McNeill in 1968. They returned to defend their title the following year on a road trip during which the local Socred MLA was to officiate at the opening of a highway bearing his name.

After Liberal MLA Pat McGeer, a noted oenophile, criticized British Columbia vintners for producing an inferior product, which he described as “terrible,” “lousy,” and “garbage,” Stephen organized a blind wine-tasting in which three imported whites were pitted against three provincial whites. The politician’s grimace, as though he had swallowed vinegar, made the national news and caused consternation among Okanagan wineries.

Stephen eventually became a freelancer. He held positions as an information officer and for a brief time drove taxi in the city. He also exhibited a gizmo known as the Seat Belt Convincer, which simulated the impact of a crash at 6 m.p.h. (9.7 km/h).

He died on Nov. 22 at Saanich Peninsula Hospital, near Victoria. He leaves his partner, Joan Martins; a son; a daughter; and, a brother.

His memorial service was attended by many former colleagues, known as CHEK-mates. The station he helped launch aired a brief news report that evening including still images of Stephen interviewing Santa Claus, pecking at a typewriter, and wearing a grass skirt while beating a bongo drum.

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