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Arts Nature inspired Stephen Dewar’s TV work, and later, a revolutionary invention

Stephen Dewar in 2018.

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At one point during Stephen Dewar’s highly successful and multifaceted career, his reputation for hard-core investigative journalism was such that Pierre Trudeau refused an interview with him for CTV’s end-of-year A Conversation with the Prime Minister.

Mr. Dewar considered the rebuff a compliment.

A man of keen intellect and boundless creative energy, Mr. Dewar moved behind the camera as a producer and director for CTV’s flagship current affairs show, W5. He live-edited film of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, dug deep into his stories, such as when a paper mill dumped mercury into a river thereby inflicting illness on First Nations people eating the river’s fish, and he filmed U.S deserters being turned away illegally at Canada’s border while war raged in Vietnam. The latter report forced a leading cabinet minister to apologize to the House.

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Mr. Dewar, who died last month at the age of 76, produced hundreds of documentaries for CBC, CTV, the National Film Board and others. The topics were as diverse as his own personal interests in politics, philosophy, science and the environment. He wove visual stories around a variety of subjects, such as the competition between scientists nominated for the Nobel Prize, bodybuilders pumping up a sweat at Gold’s Gym in Toronto, wildlife under environmental siege in the Arctic and boxing phenomenon Muhammad Ali.

With his long-time business partner and friend Chuck Greene, son of Canadian actor Lorne Greene, Mr. Dewar co-created and produced a nature series titled Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness. Mr. Dewar devised an innovative concept for the show: Tell stories from the point of view of animals. The aim was to demonstrate how humans negatively affect the environment, putting pressure on different species.

Each half-hour episode presented the latest science in an entertaining way to appeal to a wide audience. Syndicated throughout the United States and around the world, the series was wildly successful. Running from 1982 to 1987, it garnered huge ratings for CTV and won three Daytime Emmy Awards plus a Gemini. Mr. Dewar however, was not impressed by accolades from his industry. “Watch out,” he would say to friends and colleagues, “they’ll pat you on the head to death.”

Concerned that videotape of New Wilderness and other projects would disintegrate over time, Mr. Dewar came up with a solution. He filed for his first patent in the early 1990s, having devised a way to store information on optical discs written with parallel lasers. He called his company Paralight.

As the 21st century dawned and audiences for conventional television dwindled, Mr. Dewar focused on another invention in a field called biomimetics. In this field, natural phenomena are studied in order to create solutions to human problems. Having read that bumps along the edge of humpback whale flippers make the mammoth creatures extremely agile, Mr. Dewar was keen to find out if this information had practical applications for rotary engines (pumps, compressors, fans and turbines). He and his partners, aeronautical engineer Philip Watts and U.S. biologist Frank Fish, set out to challenge the common belief that wind turbine blades had to have smooth and straight edges. They developed blades with three-dimensional bumps, referred to as tubercles, along the edges. The addition improved the aerodynamics in rotary engines, resulting in quieter operation and greater efficiency. The blades of their modified wind turbine increased annual energy production by 20 per cent.

In 2004, Mr. Dewar used money from the sale of Paralight to co-found WhalePower Corp. WhalePower’s first product, a high-volume, low-speed fan for industrial and agricultural use, continues to sell worldwide.

Mr. Dewar’s patent for a biomimetic turbine blade design, based on the “bumpy” flippers of humpback whales, was one of only three patents outside Europe to be honoured by the 2018 European Inventor Awards.

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“Dewar, Watts and Fish’s invention has the potential to make an impact on worldwide energy consumption, particularly as we increasingly rely on green technology,” European Patent Office president Benoît Battistelli said.

Even though he was ill when news of the award reached him, Mr. Dewar smiled. This was one acknowledgment he wasn’t going to dismiss.

“Stephen was always interested in making something,” his wife, Elaine, said. “He didn’t focus on, ‘How do I make myself rich?’ He didn’t give a damn about that.”

Tall and athletic, Mr. Dewar was always up for a challenge. Recreationally, that challenge was tennis. Facilitated by access to Lorne Greene’s tennis court at his home in California, as well as Mr. Greene’s personal trainer, Mr. Dewar’s devotion to the sport became as ferocious as everything else he undertook from the moment he entered the world.

Weighing in at a whopping 10 pounds, Stephen Winston Dewar arrived on Jan. 5, 1943, at a hospital in Saskatoon. It was the closest hospital to Watrous, the community 100 kilometres to the east where his parents lived. His father, Winston, a banker, and his mother, Thorun, a teacher, later had a second son, Stewart, who died suddenly at the age of 14 from an infection of the heart lining. His death was rarely mentioned.

The Dewars eventually moved to Saskatoon, where Stephen completed high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate.

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A whiz both athletically and academically, Stephen excelled at math, science and football. On weekends, he played guitar with a folk group called the Flatland Ramblers. Joni Anderson, one member of the group, went on to international stardom as Joni Mitchell. Stephen maintained his interest in music and performing, but enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan to study chemistry. He later switched to political science, graduating with a bachelor of arts in 1964.

Graduate school at McGill University beckoned. Montreal was a vibrant, artsy city in which to study both international relations and political philosophy. To earn rent money, Mr. Dewar played guitar in clubs at night, hanging out with blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and an up-and-coming poet and singer named Leonard Cohen.

After two years at McGill, Mr. Dewar decided that academic life was not for him. He wanted to both inform and entertain. He hitchhiked to Toronto and wrangled his way into the CBC as a public affairs radio producer. Just 23, he was hired to produce a daily 15-minute national documentary about anything that caught his interest. Along with some other young hotshots, he helped launch As It Happens, a CBC Radio staple that’s still on the air more than 50 years later.

On the personal front, Mr. Dewar reconnected with Elaine Landa, a young woman he knew from Saskatoon. He’d briefly dated her older sister, so her first sighting of him was when she was 12. Now 18, she was attending York University studying political science. She had taken a single summer course in philosophy. It was enough, she thought, to take on the handsome young intellectual who had just begun working at the CBC. On their first date they engaged in a vigorous exchange about Plato versus Heraclitus. “We were yelling at each other,” author and journalist Elaine Dewar said. “I still think I won.” They married in 1969.

Debates, frequently heated, continued while Ms. Dewar worked alongside her husband as a TV writer and story editor on various projects, including New Wilderness. “Growing up, we had difficulty finding someone who’d take on the full force of our personalities and not bend,” Ms. Dewar said. “We had so much fun together.”

“If you didn’t know them, you’d swear they were going to kill each other,” Mr. Greene said. “But they’d finish one topic, then move to the next one. They were people who cared deeply and respected each other enormously.”

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The couple’s two daughters remember a playful, creative father who would entertain them with extemporaneous stories, even after a long day at work. The whimsical narrative always contained some nugget of scientific information. Invariably it began with, “I had a wacky day today. I was bumped by a bus and got knocked into next Tuesday.” He’d end the story with " … and that was my wacky day.”

Mr. Dewar would sometimes wake his young daughters at 5 a.m. during summer vacations and drive them to the wilderness to look for wildlife. Danielle Dewar recalls one occasion when they tiptoed after a giant elk. It led them to a clearing where other elk were hanging out in the mist of a morning sunrise. “Dad had a way of figuring out how to get the world to unfold for him. He knew he didn’t create the show, but he felt lucky if he got to catch a bit of it and share it with others,” she said.

Mr. Dewar died of lung cancer in the palliative care unit of Bridgepoint rehabilitation hospital in Toronto on April 20. He leaves his wife, Elaine; daughters, Danielle and Anna; and granddaughters, Lilah and Grace.

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