He was an eyewitness to world history; a globe-trotting pioneer who covered the tumult of the 1950s and 60s on TV, radio and in print; an executive who united a balkanized broadcaster; and a reassuring presence on the evening news: a Canadian Cronkite.
In the days since Knowlton Nash’s death on May 24, at age 86 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, generations of Canadians have paid tribute to his unflappable nature, his modesty, his devotion to objectivity, his selflessness, and his almost unparalleled stamina. On Wednesday afternoon, friends, family, former colleagues and members of the public gathered at Toronto’s Grace Church On-The-Hill for a funeral service overflowing with memories. Inevitably, some stories went untold.
Like the one about Sesame Street.
In the early 1970s, after he’d stepped away from reporting to head up CBC’s information programming, Mr. Nash’s bailiwick included children’s television. Sesame Street, a new import, was popular, but he saw room for improvement. “We wanted to insert our own segments … teaching preschoolers basic French and showing them the lakes and oceans, mountains and prairies and the fishermen, hunters, city dwellers and farmers of Canada,” he recalled in his 1987 memoir, Prime Time at Ten: Behind-the-Camera Battles of Canadian TV.
“I also wanted to get rid of the American pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet as ‘zee’ instead of the Canadian ‘zed,’” he added. “It was a small point but it drove me nuts to think of a nation of Canadian children growing up saying ‘zee.’ ”
In the summer of 1972, Mr. Nash finally secured permission to add Canadian content – marking one of the first times the Children’s Television Workshop permitted local adaptations of its show. “Although I clearly felt very strongly about ‘Canadianizing’ Sesame Street, it wasn’t until a decade and a half later, sitting with my three-and-a-half-year-old grandson watching Sesame, that I truly understood how important it was,” he wrote.
Mr. Nash believed in the ideal of television as an educational medium, insisting that its extraordinary power came freighted with special responsibilities. He worked to open up the Canadian Parliament to broadcast cameras. And he was proud of the historical documentaries and series produced by his department, such as 1971’s The Tenth Decade, about John Diefenbaker and Lester B. Pearson.
He didn’t begin with such estimable goals. Cyril Knowlton Nash was born in Toronto on Nov. 18, 1927, the only son of a racetrack manager (also named Cyril Knowlton Nash) and Alice Worsley. At age eight, he was producing an eight-page paper of neighbourhood news and goings-on at Forest Hill Public School, complete with ads from local merchants – at a cost of “one quarter page for five licorice whips,” he wrote in his first memoir, 1984’s History on the Run: The Trenchcoat Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent. By age 12, he was standing at the corner of Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue after school, hawking Toronto Stars and Toronto Telegrams.
Then he saw the dashing trenchcoated reporter played by Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent (1940), and he realized how he wanted to spend his life. He began with grunt work, rewriting newspaper reports for the British United Press wire service, first in Halifax and later in Vancouver and Toronto. Soon, he began writing his own stories. It was satisfying work but paid only $50 per week: so little that, when his father passed away in November, 1949, the only way Mr. Nash could afford to travel back home to Toronto was hitching a lift on the plane of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose visit to Vancouver he was covering.
It was money, in fact, that drew him away from journalism for a time. In 1951, he took a job as the director of information for the Washington, D.C.-based International Federation of Agricultural Producers, an industry lobby group. But while his day job was public relations, which some see as the enemy of journalism, it was while attending a 1954 IFAP conference in Kenya that he filed his first radio reports as a foreign correspondent, for CBC and BBC, on Mau Mau terrorism.