Over the course of a 75-year career, Valentine (Val) Werier was a Winnipeg newsprint warrior. His prose, although written in the style of an easy-going, well-informed neighbour, dealt with civil liberties, social justice, city architecture, the importance of family, the delights of Lake Winnipeg and, particularly, the need to protect water and forests. In many ways Mr. Werier was prescient, calling his readers’ attention to environmental issues long before they became mainstream concerns. His 1985 columns were instrumental in the cessation of logging in Atikaki Provincial Park, a place he described as “an area of rushing rivers and pristine beauty.”
Mr. Werier admired urban activist Jane Jacobs, interviewed his hero, the socialist politician Tommy Douglas, was admitted to both the Order of Canada and Order of Manitoba and won numerous awards. In 2012, he received The Winnipeg Press Club Presidents Award for Someone Who Made a Difference. He said, “I’ve received over 30 honours in my life. This one really touched me. My peers decided I was something special.” He died on April 21. His final column in the Winnipeg Free Press, a year before his death at the age of 96, was a rumination on his own unusual moniker, and the humorous occasions when Val was mistakenly thought to be short for the female name Valerie.
Valentine Werier was born in Winnipeg on June 29, 1917. He said he was named, “after some Russian poet.” Teased by schoolmates, he soon shortened his name to Val, although thereafter claimed Valentine’s Day as his own.
Social conscience flourished within the Werier family. Mischa Werier, Val’s Russian father, had attempted to organize a union for barrel makers in Odessa. When he was sentenced to exile in Siberia for his activities, he fled to Canada. In 1908, accompanied by his wife, Mary, Mischa Werier settled in the north end of Winnipeg. He opened a grocery store on Selkirk Avenue, extending credit to families in need and rarely collecting money. When the store failed, he eked out a living as a travelling salesman. Val’s mother, one of the few professional women of her day, trained as a nurse and midwife. She eventually had her own brood of six, of which Val was the fourth.
Mr. Werier’s parents were rich in culture, speaking several languages between them and appreciating books and music. In one of his columns, Mr. Werier wrote, “neighbours gossiped about my mother who bought a second-hand upright Heintzman piano before she bought any furniture for the dining room.”
Without funds for university, Val Werier dropped the idea of becoming an architect and turned to an early passion. He wrote, “I caught the writer’s bug when I initiated a classroom paper at Machray School at the age of 13 and later as editor of the Aberdeen Voice at Aberdeen High School.” In 1939, he began submitting articles to The Winnipeg Tribune. He felt he had a better shot at the city’s underdog populist paper than the more widely circulated Winnipeg Free Press. His strategy to crack the reporter game was to cover nocturnal arrivals of people travelling by train. Until then, the papers covered only daytime arrivals in what was referred to as the hotels and rails beat. The young Mr. Werier made friends with CPR and CNR passenger agents and desk clerks at the city’s two swankiest hotels. He finagled interviews. One of them was with Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Mr. Werier described him as “a short man with a goatee and big ego, fortified by his family’s fortune in Beecham Liver Pills.” Despite being warned by Sir Thomas not to disturb a passenger listed as Lady Cunard, Mr. Werier went ahead and knocked at her door. He wrote, “it was opened by Sir Thomas Beecham who, in a bluster of rage, slammed the door shut. ‘Lady Cunard,’ a fictitious name, was his mistress accompanying him from England.”
Initially, Mr. Werier was paid 20 cents a column inch, hardly, he said, “a munificent income.” His finances improved in 1941 with one of the happiest calls of his life. The city editor of the Tribune hired him as a reporter. He wrote, “I was in raptures.”
The rapture of reporting was interrupted by the Second World War. Mr. Werier joined the RCAF as a navigator with the rank of flying officer. His Lancaster bomber, hit by enemy fire over Germany, crashed on return to base, killing two members of the crew. The impact left Mr. Werier with lifelong back and leg injuries. The date was Nov. 11, 1944. In a Remembrance Day column written 59 years later, Mr. Werier cautioned, “we must take care not to impart nobility and glory to war for war is an institution that sanctions death and destruction.” He went on to add that there were exceptional circumstances when war was necessary but praised Canada for its refusal to be stampeded into war with Iraq. He wrote, “the Canadian position was one of integrity.”
After the war, Mr. Werier resumed his reporting position at the Tribune, rising to become city editor, news editor, associate editor and columnist. For 15 years, he wrote a daily column titled Behind the News. He was his own boss, choosing topics that appealed to him. He believed that the press was a powerful platform for improving life in a community. He proved it by helping bring about a bylaw requiring landscaping around commercial parking lots. Known as a tree lover, he advocated that the province cover an ugly parking lot with trees. He was proud when the trees were planted. As they matured, he referred to them as “my trees.” The quickest reform for which Mr. Werier was responsible occurred after he criticized the Manitoba Telephone System for charging $1.50 for a special light to alert the hard of hearing to a call. The day after the column appeared, MTS removed the charge.
Mr. Werier was a slight, attractive man with a thick head of curly hair and bushy eyebrows. Somewhere along the way, he acquired the rakishly tilted beret that became his signature look.
In January, 1949, he married Eve Lev, a slim, delicate, dark-haired secretary and the love of his life. The couple had three children, Michael, Jonathon and Judy. As parents they were even-tempered and tolerant, enjoying each other’s company, reading books, discussing politics and encouraging their children’s ambitions. Their daughter, Judy, says her father never used profanity but occasionally her parents swore at each other in Yiddish.
During the postwar years life was good, but then Eve’s frequent headaches turned out to have a sinister cause. In 1974 she died, at the age of 52, of a brain tumour. Michael Werier says his father got through the tragedy with incredible strength. Daughter Judy says he never really recovered.
In 1980, the Tribune unexpectedly folded. Judy Werier recalls that day, Aug. 27, as being almost like another death in the family. “Dad came home and we all just sat there in shocked silence. The Tribune had been his life for 40 years.” Mr. Werier rebounded from the blow by freelancing for The Winnipeg Free Press. By then in his 60s, he cut his output down from five columns to three columns a week, allowing himself more leisure time. He loved to walk. He turned outings, no matter how bad the weather, into a science by calculating routes based on wind direction and avoiding head-on gales. He delighted in greeting people and stopping for a chat. At age 70, he bought a cottage and transported readers to it with words bordering on the poetic. “I gaze at the lake from my cottage and enjoy the rapture of nature. The lake is soothing and theatrical, the fluid of existence.”
Though a keen observer, Mr. Werier remained undaunted by the onset of macular degeneration. By his mid-70s, he was blind. His daughter helped research and transcribe the columns that he continued to thump out on an old-fashioned typewriter. She says he was a total Luddite, unable even to set an alarm clock. Her father remained a stickler for accuracy and for language, however. “He disliked words like ‘stakeholder’ and qualifiers for adjectives like unique,” she said. He told her, “Something can’t be ‘very’ unique. It’s either unique or it’s not.” Despite his blindness, Val Werier continued to walk in his beloved neighbourhood by Winnipeg Beach. He knew it by heart. In 2007 he told a reporter, “I’ve had a pretty good life and it’s all been in Winnipeg. We don’t appreciate what we have here.”
Val Werier lived independently until age 94. Judy Werier said, “He was determined to the end. Even as his health deteriorated and his energy waned, he was still thinking up ideas for yet another column.”