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.
He returned to his first love in 1958 as a freelance Washington correspondent, just in time to snag a front-row seat on an explosive decade: the triumphs and assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, race riots and numerous political conventions.
In Prime Time at Ten, Mr. Nash wrote that he became a journalist “perhaps, for the same reason people become cowboys: too lazy to work and too nervous to steal.” That was too modest by half, for he was both tireless and unflappable – traits that served him well in the field but also meant sometimes fraught personal relations.
Mr. Nash married his first wife, Kathleen Barron, in the summer of 1949; their daughter Anne Elizabeth was born the following May. Within two years, the couple divorced; Knowlton and his daughter were estranged until she was 16 years old. The loss, he wrote, was “a soul-tearing wound, especially since I was still cursed by that damnable WASP credo of not sharing or showing my feelings.”
In July, 1955, he married Alicia Banos, the daughter of a retired Mexican diplomat. She worked, she told The Globe in 1961, as “a leg man” for her husband, chasing down stories he then reported for CBC and the Financial Post. The couple divorced in 1964.
Later, he married Sylvia DeCunha, the ex-wife of the CTV executive Tom Gould. They divorced in 1972. By that point, he was living in Toronto and heading up the CBC’s information programming, working to merge the current affairs and news departments.
He did not always deftly handle the job’s mix of politics and journalism.
During the 1970 October Crisis, on a request from CBC president George Davidson, he directed his journalists to not engage in “speculative discussions” about the crisis. Two hours later, he rescinded the order, realizing it amounted to self-censorship. Later, he said he had let his “nationalism override my journalistic values.” He took the mistake as a lesson.
He also learned from mistakes in his personal life. In the 1970s, he met Lorraine Thomson while serving as chairman of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Toronto branch. A former ballerina and dancer on early CBC-TV variety shows, she was a CMHA board member and fundraiser who had become an on-air radio and TV interviewer, as well as a program co-ordinator of the broadcaster’s Front Page Challenge. The two moved in together in 1976, and married April 22, 1982. She had two children, Francesa and James, from a previous marriage; they each married and had children of their own, giving Mr. Nash another shot at a full family life. All told, he and Lorraine had three grandchildren. “He was very interested in the lives of his grandchildren,” said Susan Mallin, the wife of his stepson James. “He had a great warmth for them.”
Ms. Thomson encouraged him to pursue the job of chief correspondent of CBC’s national news, which he won in 1978.
A little more than three years later, Mr. Nash championed another project that brought together news and current affairs: a one-hour flagship newscast, airing at 10 p.m., known as The National and The Journal. It was a bold and risky experiment that paid off in both a sharp ratings increase and a renewed relevance for CBC News.
While Mr. Nash was a strong proponent of public broadcasting, his personal views on other matters rarely shone through: He kept them hidden even from family members. One of the few times he dropped his objectivity was while reporting the results of the 1980 Quebec referendum vote: Rather than ending the broadcast with his usual “Goodnight,” he bid viewers a smiling “Bon soir.”
And he was indefatigable. “He didn’t finish work after The National,” Ms. Mallin recalls. “He’d come home around midnight, and the first thing he’d do would be to go and get a giant glass of milk and about five cookies. He was a very, very slow eater. His mother told him to chew his food properly, so he’d always take a bite and chew it and chew it. He was always the last one to finish eating.
“He would come home and have his milk and cookies and read a few articles in the paper. That was his [way of] winding down.”
In 1988, Mr. Nash became aware that Peter Mansbridge, then one of the network’s brightest stars, was being wooed by a U.S. network. Mr. Nash suggested to CBC management that he offer the anchor chair to Mr. Mansbridge – a deal that was later sealed at his home, while Ms. Thomson served hot chocolate and cookies to the two newsmen.
Mr. Nash’s final turn on The National came on Nov. 28, 1992, when he stepped away to anchor CBC’s documentary program Witness, to teach and to write more books: nine in all. In his last minute on-air, he struck a hopeful note about the changes the news business had undergone over the previous four decades, as the world had entered what he called “the Information Age – a golden age, really, for journalism.” He added a personal reflection: “Technology has driven us, I suppose, but there is, too, a growing public hunger and need for knowledge about what’s going on. And for me, there simply has been, and there is no more fulfilling, no more joyous role, than being one of the journalists helping to satisfy that hunger and that need for news.”
Then, as he bid viewers an understated “Goodnight,” the camera pulled back, showing the studio crew crowding around his anchor table to shake his hand. Taking it all in, he smiled broadly and exclaimed, “Holy mackerel!”
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