A newspaperman through most of the last century could have done worse than to pitch questions to Richard Nixon, Tim Horton and the Three Stooges.
That last one did not diminish the seriousness with which George E. Mortimore took his craft. He was an early proponent of native rights and his series The Strangers, a searing appraisal of aboriginal life in British Columbia, won a National Newspaper Award in 1958. It ran in Victoria’s Daily Colonist across 52 instalments – a length unheard of today – and described in wrenching detail the miseries and injustices inflicted on First Nations.
In a journalism career that spanned three-quarters of a century, Mr. Mortimore tackled such diverse topics as violence in hockey, environmental advances and myriad social issues. He interviewed comedian Bob Hope aboard entrepreneur Max Bell’s yacht and Louis Armstrong while the jazz great shaved, asked Albert Einstein for a personal favour, scrummed Mr. Nixon (before he was U.S. President) and rode the Toronto Maple Leafs team bus alongside Mr. Horton for a booklet titled What’s Happened to Hockey? distilled from his Globe and Mail articles about violence in the game.
“He wrote morning, noon and night,” his son Michael told an interviewer this month. “That was his passion.”
An old-time two-finger typist who pounded the keyboard mercilessly, perennially surrounded by stacks of paper that threatened to bury him, Mr. Mortimore died in Victoria General Hospital on July 29, five days after turning 94.
Known widely in the newspaper business and among friends as “Gem,” an acronym of his initials, he wrote a regular column for the Goldstream News Gazette in Langford, B.C., well into his 90s, often focusing on the environment. His final column, in July, 2013, was on the benefits of solar power.
“I think you could say that around here he was very well read and he got people talking,” said the paper’s editor, Don Descoteau.
Mr. Mortimore wrote for The Globe and Mail from 1962 through to the early 1970s. “I used to write about social distress and how to fix it,” he said in an interview last year. “I don’t want to give the idea I was big fish at The Globe, because I wasn’t.”
Perhaps, but his work for this paper was marked by colour and directness. “Canada’s Indian policy is largely a failure,” he wrote bluntly in 1967. “The Government and people have fumbled the attempt to deal with three main problems: poverty, separateness, and grudge.”
In a poignant essay about visiting his elderly mother in a nursing home, he related how she had asked a nurse’s aide for a cup of tea for her son. The aide, “a tall, cool young woman, did not answer. She merely tuned my mother out, as if she did not exist.”
His story about the 1963 visit by the Three Stooges to Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition was not as bleak but still had a serious tone: “Does the violence in their shows really harm young minds?” he wondered. “No, says Moe, who is the philosopher of the trio.”
After he left the Globe in his 50s, Mr. Mortimore earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Toronto and taught at universities in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. He learned to use a computer as an editorial writer at the Vancouver Province in the 1980s.
Richard George Ernest Mortimore was born July 24, 1920 in the Joseph Conrad-esque Tanganyika Territory in East Africa, just four days after Britain assumed control of the colony from Germany as part of First World War reparations (his birth certificate was from the “Occupied Territory of German East Africa”). His mother, Myrtle Johnson, was a teacher descended from Anglican missionaries, while his father, Foster Mortimore, was the scion of a wealthy and influential English family that had prospered in the tanning and leather business.
Dispatched to Africa, the senior Mr. Mortimore became an inspector of plantations and a custodian of enemy property following the First World War. Bad business deals saw him fall into hard times, though, and the family’s fortunes spiralled downward to the point where the platinum tea service had to be sold. Their son was just three years old when he contracted malaria, and the clan decamped for London briefly, then to Duncan, B.C.
The teenaged Mr. Mortimore didn’t last long delivering milk for a local dairy, and was bitten by the newspaper bug after joining Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Leader, where he covered high school football games and community events. But when war came, he joined up.
“He was from a family that was very much associated with England and very patriotic,” said his son Michael. “So when war broke out, all the young, fit guys signed up.”
After training as an air navigator, he was assigned to the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command in England. But a case of the mumps sidelined him and he was instead deployed to an anti-submarine patrol in Ceylon and to ferrying aircraft, mainly Lockheed Hudsons, through Africa and India.
He expressed a great deal of regret over never seeing combat in the Second World War. “He wished he had been assigned to drop supplies into Burma, closer to the action,” his son related. “He kind of felt sheepish because he had a leisurely war.”
Back home in 1945, he enrolled at the University of British Columbia, studied English with poet Earle Birney, and graduated with a general arts degree. On joining the Victoria Daily Colonist as a reporter, he wrote profiles of locals, everyone from politicians to tattoo artists. When his column, All Aboard, debuted in 1950, the paper bragged that he covered everyone from “the thieves and drunks of the night beat to visiting celebrities.” Indeed, he befriended hotel managers to get the scoop on which bigwigs were in town.
Among them was Richard Nixon, the former U.S. vice-president who visited Victoria in 1962 on a break from his campaign for the governorship of California, which he would lose. “The bland conversation focused on Euro-Canadian-American relations and lumber-marketing quarrels – stale topics loaded with frustration even then,” Mr. Mortimore recalled in a column in 2010.
“Maybe I could have stretched Nixon’s political charm thinner by asking how he reconciled his peacemaking Quaker faith with California’s war industries, or whether he was financing his campaign partly from poker winnings, as he did in a Congressional campaign,” Mr. Mortimore noted acidly, but conceded: “I winged the interview without proper homework.”
He did note that the future president marvelled at Canadian reporters’ politeness – they actually asked whether they could take his picture. “The Nixon that I remember from that interview was an affable and charming fellow,” Mr. Mortimore would recall a half-century later for a guidebook on Victoria. “Much different from the dark figure he became in political folklore, and the vindictive plotter that one chapter in presidential history showed him to be.”
A scientist he once profiled lent him a letter signed by Albert Einstein. The notoriously disorganized Mr. Mortimore promptly lost it. “The episode really did illustrate his absent-mindedness,” his son said with a chuckle. The lender, though, was not amused, so Mr. Mortimore wrote to Prof. Einstein and persuaded him to send the scientist a replacement letter.
He never stopped writing for newspapers and would branch out to weightier periodicals. “Only political fossils would still prefer fossil fuels to tidal power,” he wrote in a 2004 article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
His wife Peggy (née Rigler) died in 2007. He is survived by his sons Michael, John and Paul Reeve, and four grandchildren.
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