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Fact-checker Prue Hemelrjik toiled in virtual obscurity for decades, much to the benefit of readers, writers and the truth in general. (Benjamin Moore)
Fact-checker Prue Hemelrjik toiled in virtual obscurity for decades, much to the benefit of readers, writers and the truth in general. (Benjamin Moore)

Tom Hawthorn

Legendary fact-checker made errors her prey Add to ...

Here are some incontestable facts about Prue Hemelrijk:

She was born at Liverpool, England, in 1927.

She immigrated to Canada in 1956.

She swore an oath as a Canadian citizen in 1970.

She resettled in Victoria 12 years ago.

She has laboured most of her working life as a wordsmith, though she rarely received credit in print.

When the Canadian magazine industry created a special award for outstanding achievement, the inaugural prize went to the Liverpudlian emigre over such luminaries (and future recipients) as Robert Fulford, Sally Armstrong and Peter C. Newman.

Unknown by the reading public, for whom she was anonymous, Miss Hemelrijk was the queen of the fact-checkers, a crackerjack researcher and a punctilious (do you mean meticulous? - ed.) copy editor.

To her fell the awesome responsibility of ensuring magazines used proper grammar and, more importantly, had the facts straight.

She has been regarded as a writer's best friend, or an unbearable pedant.

She took special delight in correcting the record in a draft of a story before an error got into print. Even in retirement, she becomes excited by the memory of pursuing such prey as an errant statement.

"Pounce. Like a cat. Gotcha!"

Miss Hemelrijk had been an editorial assistant and copy editor when hired in 1965 by The Canadian Magazine, a national weekly rotogravure (do we need to include the printing process? - ed.) publication to be distributed in newspapers. She recalls editor Harry Bruce approaching her with an assignment.

"This piece," he said. "Could you look after it? At Maclean's they do something called fact-checking. Do you know what that is?"

"I don't know what they do," she replied.

"Well, I think they check the facts," the patient editor said.

"That sounds reasonable."

She worked the telephone, consulted dictionaries and almanacs, rifled through yellowed clippings in files newspaper people like to refer to as the morgue.

If fact-checking was like detective work, she was going to be Miss Marple.

One of her regular assignments was to do the research for a popular feature called "You Asked Us" for which readers provided questions. They did so by the sack-full. One query asked the whereabouts of Colonel Harry Snyder, a big-game hunter whose last known address was a ranch near Sundre, Alta. In those pre-Internet days, she needed three months of following leads and pursuing clues before tracking down the 87-year-old hunter in Tucson, Ariz.

Another time, a reader wanted to know the colour of Alexander the Great's horse. After weeks perusing historical texts and artistic renditions, a legion of librarians recruited in search of the answer, she provided the column's writer with a fascinating detailed account of Bucephalus, the mighty stallion. Yet, in print, the question got but a single word answer: Brown. (Not black?! Pls. double check. - ed.)

The work on the column led to a rare acknowledgment in print with the publication of You Asked Us: And Here Are The Answers To More Than 350 Fribbling Questions That Puzzle Canadians. ( Is fribbling even a word? - ed.) The 1978 book is credited to Anne Collins and Miss Hemelrijk. The back-cover copy promises "this book is crammed with the inessentials that fascinate Canadians."

Though she hailed from Liverpool, Miss Hemelrijk's crisp English accent sounds more Emma Thompson than John Lennon. She was born into a family of Dutch ancestry that made a fortune in the 19th century through Hornby, Hemelryk & Co. cotton brokers. She received an early childhood lesson in both pronunciation and class differences after spending seven weeks in hospital at age 7 recovering from diphtheria. Courtesy of the slum children with whom she shared the ward, she returned home fully versed in Scouse in which a "fur coat" is pronounced as a "fair coat" and a "fair day" as a "fur day." "Marvellous accent," she now says.

As a young woman working at the Arts Council of Great Britain, she decided to alter the spelling of the family name, finding her rendition - replacing the penultimate "y" with an "ij" - to be more aesthetically pleasing.

At about the same time, she noted the suggestive posters promoting the great ocean liners and became determined to see something of the world. She contemplated her preferred choices, ruling out Vienna for her lack of German and America for the difficulty in getting permission. That left what she described as the colonies. South Africa was out due to apartheid. Australia seemed promising, but she feared never being able to afford a return fare. So, Canada it was. Soon after arriving, she began her magazine career in Toronto.

She became something of a legend in the industry, having outlasted countless employers. Her efforts, celebrated by her peers yet unknown by her readers, were recently cited in a fine profile in the student-written Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Alas, the article has a few niggling errors, according to the subject, who, as we have seen, is a stickler in such matters.

Although hard to believe, this column, too, may contain inaccuracies. It is a heavy burden to profile a fact-checker known for consistency and accuracy. If any errors are found, I offer apologies in advance to Miss Hemelrijk and accept full responsibility. If the errors are egregious, however, I will blame the copy editors back in Toronto. They are known to enjoy drink, you know.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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