Returning from covering a juicy union dust-up in Cornwall, Ont., in 1948, hotshot young reporter Ted Byfield rolled into the Ottawa Journal’s newsroom to discover a new and rather interesting young lady in the paper’s Women’s Department.
“I was absolutely floored by her,” Mr. Byfield recalled. “She wasn’t necessarily glamorous, but she sure was good-looking. And she could quote poetry. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to find a way to get her.’”
The object of his attention was Virginia Nairn − known universally as Ginger − a first-year University of Toronto languages student working on a summer contract. Unfortunately, her mother, who’d married into the upper ranks of Ottawa society, was horrified at the relationship and quickly decided the family needed to spend more time at their cottage on the Gatineau River, establishing maximal distance from the newsroom and its unsavoury denizens.
A summer of clandestine wooing followed, which included Mr. Byfield signalling at night from the west bank of the Gatineau River with a flashlight, at which point Ms. Nairn would hop in a canoe and paddle over from the east bank for a midnight rendezvous.
Once the summer ended, she returned to Toronto, but eventually dropped out of university to follow Mr. Byfield to Timmins, Ont., where he was now working at the Timmins Press. “They wanted to hire her, because they were desperate for writers and she could do the job, but the editor told us we absolutely had to get married first,” Mr. Byfield said. A sex scandal involving the publisher and wife of the biggest advertiser had left the paper tender about unsanctioned office romances.
Later that week, after the morning edition of the paper had been put to bed, they were married in a 20-minute ceremony at the manse of the local United church followed by a quick lunch. “Then we rushed back and put out the second edition,” Mr. Byfield chortled.
It was the first run of a uniquely productive relationship that’s left an indelible mark on Canadian journalism, religion and politics. In their 65 years together, Ted Byfield − old-school newspaperman, bombastic defender of conservative values and muse to the Reform Party − held the limelight, while Ginger Byfield, who died in Edmonton on July 21 of cancer at the age of 85 − was his indispensable editor, counsellor and lodestone. Together their shared legacy includes Alberta Report newsmagazine, a series of history books, a Christian school and a religious order. Along the way, Mrs. Byfield, a fearsome and exacting newsroom presence in her own right, left several generations of rookie journalists frightened out of their parentheses.
Virginia (Ginger) Luella Nairn was born in Albuquerque, N.M. on March 26, 1929, the product of an American demolitions expert and the daughter of a Maritime logging family. When that marriage failed, due in part to an explosion that cost her father a leg, she was raised by her extended family in Greenfield, N.S., while her mother pursued better prospects.
“Her aunts were very pious women and her uncles, being loggers, were not,” Mr. Byfield said. The young Mrs. Byfield (she hated the honorific Ms.) was thus imbued with a tough sense of humour, brutal candour and a logger’s easy facility with cursing, characteristics that would distinguish her later career.
When her mother finally found a suitable match in Ottawa, to a chemical engineer locally feted as the most eligible bachelor in town, Ginger entered a more refined social milieu, attending a convent school and winning four scholarships to study Latin, Greek and German at the University of Toronto. At university, she wrote for Campus, the school’s Communist newsletter. Her mother’s connections led to a summer job at the Ottawa Journal, and the fateful collision with her future husband.
“We had 65 years together. I loved her passionately and we always had a great time,” Mr. Byfield said.
Later, in Winnipeg, where Mr. Byfield was working for the Winnipeg Free Press, the couple realized a joint disillusionment with modern secular society. “We came to the conclusion that the Christian church needed to be more active in education and in the general media,” he said. To this end they founded the Company of the Cross, a lay order of the Anglican Church; in 1957 the organization opened St. John’s Cathedral Boys School in Selkirk, Man. As per their usual partnership, Mr. Byfield supplied the grand idea while Mrs. Byfield delivered the elbow grease, not only teaching classes but organizing the school’s accounts as well.
“My dad, as most egocentric geniuses do, has the habit of going off course in new and dangerous directions, while my mom ends up doing most of the work,” said son Link Byfield, former editor-publisher at Alberta Report.