The police scanner squawked with bursts of excited voices.
Shots fired. Man down.
Bruce Smillie looked out on a deserted newsroom. The reporting staff had vanished. His crew was chasing untold stories in the naked city, or, more likely, sampling some of the sinful temptations available in Vancouver on a Friday evening.
At last, he spotted a waif half-hidden behind a pillar – a long-haired, teenaged cub reporter in torn jeans and sneakers whose voice had yet to crack and who did not shave.
In a calm but authoritative voice, Mr. Smillie, the night city editor of the Vancouver Sun, the largest and finest newspaper in Western Canada, filled me in on sketchy details gleaned from eavesdropping on the police.
Go with a photographer, he ordered. He’ll drive.
Good thing, I thought. I don’t have a driver’s licence.
The newsroom reeked of cigarette smoke and spilled booze in the final year of that blighted decade, the 1970s. The dingy linoleum showed black pockmarks from the stubs of lit cigarettes tossed carelessly on deadline. When pulled open, desk drawers rattled with a symphony of empty glass bottles of booze.
To fill out the roster, they’d hired a 19-year-old soon-to-be-dropout with a thin résumé of student newspaper clippings. I handled weekend evening grunt duties – library research, police checks. (“Duty officer, please. Anything to report tonight in Ioco? Squamish? White Rock?”) It wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein, but it was all right.
Overseeing the evening action was Mr. Smillie, whose duties included assigning stories. The son of a Comox postmaster, he got his start as a circulation clerk in the paper’s New Westminster office, later becoming a reporter in the bureau there. He had big, workingman’s hands, a laurel wreath of greying hair, and, unlike so many others in the business, never raised his voice in anger. He had seven children at home, overseen by his wife, Martha. Those were a lot of mouths to feed, so during the long strike he worked on the waterfront, a job he held onto after the dispute settled to make up for a shortfall in the family’s income. By day, he was a longshoreman responsible for stacking 50-kilogram sacks of flour in the hold of a cargo ship. By evening, he was at his desk, a lamp nearby to compensate for the newsroom’s dismal, yellowish lighting. He was a real-life Lou Grant and his staff loved him. They called him Mr. Nightside.
Dan Scott, a wild-eyed photographer who had been at the Sun since before I was born, raced to a night club in suburban Richmond, screeching to a halt in the parking lot. I leapt out of the passenger side, notepad in left hand, pen in right, running toward the entrance.
The door opened and a large, square-shouldered man emerged. Startled by my approach, he raised his right hand.
In the slow-motion memory one gets during a car wreck, I stared down the barrel of a revolver. I put both heels forward like Wile E. Coyote trying to stop going over a cliff only to get bumped from behind. Mr. Scott tried to get a photograph and, dammit, the kid reporter was in the way.
Turned out the man in the doorway was a plainclothes Mountie. The scene inside, a gangland hit, was unpleasant. The police were jittery. In the newsroom, Mr. Smillie called the duty officer, who apologized. Mr. Nightside dispatched me to the press club. Just another day at the office for him.
Mr. Nightside retired from the newsroom in 1994, a revered figure in a workplace not known for its harmony.
He is 82 now, patriarch of a fecund clan – his seven children have produced 32 grandchildren.
Asked his philosophy of running the newsroom, he said: “It was simple. If you treat people decently, they’re going to respond in turn.”
A generation of young reporters thrived under his benevolent hand.
On the weekend, the Sun celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first edition. The paper produced two handsome, well-written sections on its history. The kindly Mr. Nightside was overshadowed, which is how these things work.
Happy centennial, Vancouver Sun. Many happy returns, Mr. Nightside.
Special to The Globe and Mail