Father, journalist, spin doctor, sailor. Born on March 16, 1929, in Toronto; died on March 15, 2014, in Toronto, of cancer, aged 84.
Vincent Devitt spent two years in Grade 2, two years in Grade 4, two years in Grade 8 and then, according to his account, he was kicked out of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School after Grade 9 at the age of 16. But he overcame those early challenges to become a respected journalist and self-described political hack of the first order.
Through benign neglect, Buster (as he was known in childhood) was allowed to run wild. Police officers would turn up at the door looking for him: He and his pals once cut down trees on Toronto Hunt Club property to make a fort; another time they placed burning horse manure on streetcar tracks for an afternoon’s fun.
In his late teens he worked in the rail yards unloading cargo, and knew he wanted more. He started collecting books (Thoreau, Spinoza, Joyce, Merton) and read voraciously, looking up and writing down every word he did not know. He worked nights as a bartender while paying for high-school courses at Dominion Business College and then studying at Ryerson School of Journalism. He graduated in the spring of 1956 and married Mary Anne Sheridan a few weeks later.
After chasing plenty of police cars in the middle of the night as a freelance stringer in North York, he was hired as a Globe and Mail reporter, a post he held for 10 years. Vince was active in the union and was proud of fighting for pay equity for female reporters. He regularly reported on Toronto City Hall and Queen’s Park, where he honed the political savvy that would come into play later.
He moved on to the Toronto Telegram and then the Toronto Star, focusing on international news. He went to Israel in 1967 to cover the Six Day War, and to Chile in 1970 to report on the election of Salvador Allende, returning in 1973 to cover the military coup. His reporting from the Canadian embassy in Santiago was instrumental in helping with the safe transit of refugees to Canada. At home, his reports on the James Bay project helped bring the Cree point of view to national attention.
In 1976, Vince left the news room to serve as Ontario Premier William Davis’s press secretary, a hot-seat job he held until 1982. He then worked as communications director for the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture until 1989. After that he launched his own consulting firm, but retired soon after Mary Anne’s death in 1991. A year later, he married Patt Montgomery and for the next 20 years they divided their time between Alabama, Florida and Lake Chemong in the Kawarthas, before returning to Toronto.
Vince was an avid sailor and among his lighter assignments in the Davis days was helping to bring the Tall Ships Festival to Toronto. He also helped build the first docks at the Bluffer’s Park yacht club and spent many evenings and weekends sailing his schooner Cresta on Lake Ontario.
Spurred by his sense of adventure, Vince also loved to take his family on camping expeditions. On one journey he regaled his four daughters, crammed in the back of the station wagon, with his visions of Pacific Rim National Park and what a paradise it would be. After two weeks of driving they finally made it to the Vancouver Island park, only to find the campground full. They had to settle for a night on a cold, foggy beach. While Mary Anne tried to concoct a sand-filled dinner, Vince and the girls walked into the unknown – feeling the dry sand becoming tidal mud flat, smelling their way to the water’s edge. “You see,” he exhorted them, “We are one with the cosmos!”
Nan Devitt Tremblay is Vince’s daughter. A scholarship fund for journalism students at Ryerson University has been established in his memory.
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