When radio broadcaster Bill McVean wasn’t on the air, he was often in it, sometimes at his peril. An experienced pilot who had a lifelong enthusiasm for vintage aircraft, Mr. McVean was flying a replica Nieuport Scout at an air show in North Bay, Ont., in 1975, when the plane stalled because of a snapped rudder pedal and nose-dived hard into the ground from 300 feet.
Mr. McVean survived, but barely. His spine was compressed in four places, his lungs had ruptured, one forearm was broken and a leg was shattered. He was declared dead twice, and spent three weeks in intensive care.
“When I was in agony in hospital,” he later told journalist Jeremy Ferguson, “a padre came into my room, folded his hands over me, and said, ‘My son, you should fall on your knees and thank God.’ ” Mr. McVean managed to sit up before answering. “I can’t, because God has broken both my knees and I’m eagerly awaiting my apology!”
With that, Mr. McVean lapsed into unconsciousness. That he had the compulsion to quip before he conked out would come as no surprise to those who listened to him daily on the powerhouse Toronto AM station CFRB, where his dry wit and gentle reassurances smoothed over any concerns the news of day might cause.
Mr. McVean died on March 21, following complications from multiple strokes. He was 95. He was known to be affable and courteous, on air and off. “He was a gentleman,” recalled Bill Anderson, who sat in for Mr. McVean at CFRB during the postcrash recuperation. “And he was a complete professional.
His 26-year stint at CFRB, the country’s dominant station at the time, began in 1960. An archived clip at radioscrapbook.ca from the spring of 1967 is indicative of the breezy, doggedly inoffensive programming of the day. The playlist featured the three-martini pop of Vic Damone’s Someone to Light Up My Life and a syrupy orchestral arrangement of When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.
Mr. McVean was not a disc jockey, and did not program his music – an engineer in a glassed-in booth would operate the turntable, while the announcer would sit at the microphone. After the song about bob-bob-bobbing, Mr. McVean remarked that spring was coming and that Catherine – his wife, but no need to identify her further, as the audience knew her by name – had called earlier to tell him she had spotted a red-winged blackbird in their backyard.
A cornball commercial for Dominion that followed suggested that the appeal of the national chain of supermarkets was, among other things, its “friendly courtesy.” It could be said that CFRB and Mr. McVean were selling the same thing.
The turbulent late 1960s were anything but kinder and gentler times, but you wouldn’t know it by the dulcet-toned broadcasters and easygoing flow of CFRB and the other mainstream stations of the era. The personality-driven radio was a distraction and a relief from the pressures of life, with the sympathetic Mr. McVean and others serving as the relatable moderators.
“Some broadcasters are technically fine, but they’re just announcers,” said John Donabie, a veteran radio host who, at the beginning of his career, worked with Mr. McVean at CFRB. “Bill was a communicator, though. I’d sit in the room and watch him, and I thought he was talking to me. And I’m sure everybody else thought he was speaking just to them as well.”
During the Second World War, Mr. McVean served with the Royal Canadian Air Force in a Spitfire squadron in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Because of imperfect eyesight, he wasn’t a fighter pilot. He was tasked with testing and repairing the squadron radios every morning before operations. He’d been flying since he was 12 years old, however, and, after the war, became what was believed to be the first traffic reporter to pilot his own plane, while working at Hamilton’s CKOC in the early 1950s.
Later, he was affiliated with Canadian International Air Show at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto for 25 years, beginning as the show’s announcer and rising to the director’s position. He was also part of the team that got Buttonville Municipal Airport, north of Toronto, off the ground at the turn of 1960s.
After retiring from CFRB, Mr. McVean continued to work with his writer-producer wife, Catherine McVean, on a syndicated radio program, Trips’n Tips, dedicated to travel. When they weren’t exploring Africa or trekking to Turkey, the couple enjoyed their designer home in Oakville, west of Toronto.
Created (and initially lived in) by architect A. Bruce Etherington, the glassy, one-of-a-kind bungalow was home to an array of mementos and curios, including a mounted boar’s head from a Scottish castle. Of the acquisitions, Mr. McVean told the Toronto Star in 1981 that while some of the artifacts weren’t highbrow, “they mean something to us.”
It was a sentiment his loyal long-time listeners could understand completely.
Edgar William McVean was born May 5, 1925, in Windsor, Ont., the only child of homemaker Marion McVean (née Jennings) and Ernest McVean, an advertising executive across the river in Detroit. In 1927, the small family moved to Woodstock, Ont., where the elder Mr. McVean became the export manager for LaFrance Textiles. Two years later, calamity struck.
“One of my earliest memories is of the three of us looking out my bedroom window watching a bright glow on the other side of town, as the LaFrance factory – and my families hopes – burned to the ground. This was in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression,” Mr. McVean would later write. “The fire, and loss of work for Dad, wiped out my family’s capital.”
He was not yet a teenager when he received his first flying lessons in an Alexander Eaglerock biplane. His instructor was First World War ace Tommy Williams, who had a farm-based air strip in Sweaburg, Ont.
In high school he met the love of his life at a corn roast. “Our eyes met over the flames of a bonfire,” Catherine McVean (née Flood) told The Globe and Mail.
After joining the Air Cadets in 1940, Mr. McVean enlisted in the RCAF, specializing in radio, radar and flight control. He was ashore in Normandy soon after D-Day. He volunteered once for grisly duty, retrieving dog tags from soldiers in body bags. “He was so squeamish,” his wife said. “I was surprised he did that.”
Stuck in postwar Germany until his repatriation number came up, a bored Mr. McVean became the feature editor for an RCAF newspaper.
After his return to Canada, he studied journalism at University of Western Ontario and became news editor at radio station CKNX in Wingham, Ont. In 1948, he got married and the couple moved to Hamilton, where he worked at CKOC and CHML for more than a decade.
At the same time, he emceed shows at the Brant Inn in Burlington, Ont., where world-renowned acts such as Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington entertained. The Saturday-night events at the lakefront hot spot were broadcast coast to coast on CBC’s Dominion Radio Network.
“We knew them all and we partied with them all,” Ms. McVean said, referring to the visiting superstar performers in the 1950s. “One night when Bill was on stage, Louis Armstrong kept trying to pinch Ella Fitzgerald’s bottom.”
During his long career at CFRB, he worked various shifts, including the overnight Owl’s Nest show, but is most remembered for his afternoon gig. He often interviewed newsmakers, including prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Toronto mayor David Crombie.
Gordon Sinclair also chose him to fill in on his Let’s Be Personal radio column when Mr. Sinclair was away. Mr. McVean took it over after Mr. Sinclair’s death.
In 1962, the McVeans’ love affair with their Oakville house got off to a false start. Because of its unorthodox design, the house had languished on the market for years. They put in a lowball offer and began to plan their furniture arrangements. It was a shock two days later when they were told the bungalow had been purchased by somebody else.
“I told Bill, ‘That’s my house, and I’m getting it back,’ ” Ms. McVean recalled.
The buyer was an army officer. Arguing that he could get transferred at any time, the McVeans persuaded him to let them buy the home. He agreed, on one condition. Because he’d be living temporarily in a trailer, he stipulated the use of the house’s bathtub until he found somewhere else to live. The deal was struck; he showed up a few days later with towel and shaving kit when the McVeans moved in.
In 1975, less than a month after Mr. McVean’s horrific plane crash, he broadcasted remotely from his hospital bed. Later, still recuperating, he used a small room in the Oakville home to fulfill his radio duties. Though a dining-room table pad was stuck on the wall to deaden the echo, occasionally a garbage truck’s rumble or the bark of a neighbourhood dog would bleed into the broadcast.
Despite the accident, Mr. McVean wanted back into the cockpit. “Sure, I want to fly again,” he told a reporter at the time. “I want to check out the film on this crash of mine, so I can analyze it.”
Such was Mr. McVean’s passion for planes that he also taught his wife to fly. “There was a lot of backseat flying, I can tell you that,” she said.
At CFRB, Mr. McVean shared the airwaves with prominent broadcasters who were predominately men of Anglo-Saxon origins, with baritone voices and stubborn worldviews. Betty Kennedy was the exception on a testosterone-heavy team that included stalwarts Wally Crouter, Earl Warren, Bill Deegan and the venerable Mr. Sinclair.
According to one young broadcaster who got her start at CFRB in the 1970s, Mr. McVean distinguished himself among some of the other men. “Management took me off the air at one point because they said my voice was too shrill,” recalled television host and journalist Valerie Pringle, who for a time set up interviews for the on-air talent.
“Some of the guys were grumpy and felt I was interrupting their snoozy programming with my ideas,” Ms. Pringle said. “But Bill was decent and caring, and interested in the discussions I was setting up.”
Andy Barrie remembered Mr. McVean as a man of his time – “he was resolutely Oakville” – and someone who represented the end of a radio era. “He was incredibly warm,” said the retired broadcaster, who worked at CJAD in Montreal and CFRB before moving to CBC’s Metro Morning. “You didn’t have to say much on air back then, but the way you said it was very important.”
Mr. McVean retired from CFRB in 1986. In addition to his afternoon slot, he would tape a half-hour show for broadcast on weekdays at 11:30 p.m. His nightly sign off was signature: “Good night, and get a good night’s sleep.”
Mr. McVean leaves his wife, Catherine; sons, Michael and Jaimie; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.