On the morning of June 12, 1990, Globe and Mail readers discovered a new feature in their newspapers. It was “a daily miscellany of information” called Social Studies, a collection of information that could be important or inconsequential, but always intriguing. Essentially, it was a social media feed before social media, reflecting the vast knowledge and various interests of the man who would compile it for the next 23 years, Michael Kesterton.
Mr. Kesterton, who died on Dec. 5 at the age of 72, was the shy, quick-witted writer behind one of The Globe and Mail’s most popular features. By the time Social Studies ended on Canada Day, 2013, Mr. Kesterton had compiled more than three kilometres of arcana, world history, scientific breakthroughs, anniversaries and odd news, such as the time Sophia Loren apprehended a handbag thief.
The colleague who calculated the length of Social Studies – and impressed Mr. Kesterton with the factoid at a lunch celebrating the column’s 20th birthday – was the column’s first editor, Philip Jackman. “Readers really loved that column,” Mr. Jackman said. “They’d say it was the first thing they read in the morning. It was a snapshot of society, sometimes trivial, sometimes very deep.”
The column began as it would continue, with a high-low mix including items about the amount of hazardous waste being shipped to the Third World, and headlines from that week’s supermarket tabloids (“Dog lands plane after pilot has heart attack.”) The “thought du jour”, a daily aphorism that Mr. Kesterton disliked but which he resignedly recognized as a fan favourite, was introduced in 1991.
In the newspaper industry, even the most consequential decisions are often lost in fog, but the choice of Mr. Kesterton as Social Studies’ creator – the perfect match of writer and subject – is well-remembered. At that time, Mr. Kesterton, who had been hired as a proofreader at The Globe, was working on a column called Diversions for Report on Business magazine. William Thorsell, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief in 1990, had been thinking about introducing a daily compendium of fascinating items when he walked past Mr. Kesterton’s cubicle and noticed the dizzying array of newspaper clipping fastened to its walls. “I knew I had found my man,” Mr. Thorsell wrote in an e-mail after learning of Mr. Kesterton’s death.
Finding items for the column, which ran five days a week, was a Herculean effort in the pre-Internet era. Mr. Kesterton (or a copy boy) would make daily runs to Lichtman’s Books in downtown Toronto, returning to the newsroom with bags of newspapers and magazines. He would clip articles, group them by category and file them away for future use. His meticulously sourced items reflected his eclectic interests: UFO Magazine, the Harvard Mental Health Letter, sometimes simply “staff.”
Social Studies documented the trends of a changing world. In 1999, for example, Mr. Kesterton revealed that 10 per cent of people found romantic partners online. It also reflected Mr. Kesterton’s wry and quiet personality. “On April 21,” he wrote, “civilized people will celebrate International Noise Awareness Day.” Often it was ahead of its time, as when it reported in 1990 on a Canadian campaign to ban the penny. Sometimes it just went for bad jokes: “Mom, can I have a dog for Christmas? No, you’re having turkey like everyone else.”
Readers were deeply fond of the column, and would argue about it in the Globe’s letters page: What, for example, was the best way to drink single-malt scotch? When the column was moved off the back page and into the Life section, outraged fans deluged the editor’s office with letters and phone calls. The columns were collected in two books, Social Studies and The Twelve Best Months of the Year.
“When Social Studies came along, it was Michael writ large,” said Bob McArthur, a high school friend from the gifted program at Richview Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke, Ont. Mr. McArthur remembered their gang as the nerdy and smart kids – with Mr. Kesterton being the brightest of the lot. “He was a voracious seeker of knowledge, which in those days meant a voracious reader. He told us things we had never heard about.”
Michael Kesterton was born on April 12, 1946, in Hythe, England. His parents were Maurice “Mike” Kesterton, a Canadian RAF radar technician, and his wife, the former Kathleen Marshall, who had served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the Second World War. When he was five months old, Mr. Kesterton sailed with his mother for Halifax on the Empire Brent, a ship full of war brides and their children.
The Kestertons settled in Regina, where another son, David, was born two years later. Journalism ran in the family: Mike Kesterton was a photojournalist who would use his sons as models in shoots that were published in magazines and newspapers in Canada and the United States. A paternal uncle, Wilfrid Kesterton, was a founding member of the journalism school at Carleton University and author of books such as A History of Journalism in Canada.
Perhaps equally important, the boys’ grandfather was the manager of the Underwood typewriter factory in Regina. “Other kids had toys,” David Kesterton said, “but we had typewriters to play with.” As children, the brothers wrote duelling newspapers – David’s was The Venus, and Michael’s was The Telescope – which they used to write scandalous stories about each other.
Michael was a diminutive child – as an adult he would reach a height of 5-foot-4 – and shy, which meant he attracted the attention of bullies. “Michael was smart,” his brother recalled. “He learned that if you’re like the willow tree, you bend and don’t break.” Michael also discovered that he could command the attention and respect of his peers through sharing information. “He learned that by reading books he could tell people things they didn’t know, and they’d be interested,” David said.
The family moved to Michigan and then to Ontario, where they settled in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. Mr. Kesterton’s love of newspapers continued at the University of Toronto where he worked at the campus paper, The Varsity, alongside other promising young students: future Maclean’s film-critic Brian D. Johnson, and future politicians Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae.''
“It’s fair to say that Kesterton was beloved by all of us at The Varsity,” said his friend from those days, former Globe and Mail journalist Rod Mickleburgh. “He was just so unusual and funny.” He was also more hip than his colleagues, Mr. Mickleburgh said, introducing them to blues music and the British humour of Private Eye magazine.
Colleagues at The Globe and Mail also remembered Mr. Kesterton’s sense of humour, alongside his eccentricity, fondness for a drink, and fierce competitiveness on the squash court. His career reflected an earlier era in journalism, when it was not uncommon to keep a bottle in the drawer and spend all day poring over clippings in the library.
Shortly after Mr. Kesterton retired in 2013, he became ill with Parkinson’s. He spent his retirement reading, writing fiction and tending to his vast library. He also had a bad fall which contributed to his health problems. His death was attributed to Parkinson’s-related pneumonia.
Michael Kesterton leaves his brother, David, and sister-in-law, Pilar.