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Peter Calamai.Vince Talotta/Toronto Star

Veteran journalist Peter Calamai, whose in-depth work on adult literacy in Canada shocked the country and earned a Michener Award for Southam News Service, died on Jan. 22 at his home in Stratford, Ont. He was 75.

In 1987, Mr. Calamai wrote a 30,000-word series on literacy, based on a survey he helped design, which was answered by 2,400 people. The survey, the first of its kind in this country, found that 24 per cent of adult Canadians were functionally illiterate, and put literacy on the national agenda. A year after Mr. Calamai’s series, then prime minister Brian Mulroney officially launched the National Literacy Secretariat and the following year, Statistics Canada launched the first of its national literacy surveys. Mr. Calamai subsequently continued to advocate for adult literacy education.

Another highlight of his 40-year newspaper career, during which he worked for Southam, the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star and other papers, was his memorable series debunking the claims of climate-change deniers, written from the CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker and research vessel. He was the first science reporter invited aboard.

Mr. Calamai won three National Newspaper Awards, received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2016. McMaster University, his alma mater, gave him an honorary PhD.

Peter Norman Calamai was born on June 23, 1943, in Berwick, Pa. His father, Enrico, was an engineer. The family, which included mother Jean (née Kennedy) and younger brothers Michael and Paul, moved to Brantford, Ont., when Enrico was hired as a manager at a piano manufacturer there.

Young Peter was always interested in science and astronomy, but also photography. At one point, he converted the playroom he shared with his brothers into a darkroom. Middle brother Michael, who was four years younger, recalls his first day in math class in Grade 9. “Calamai? Oh no,” the teacher said as he went through the attendance list. “Peter must have given him a hard time. He’d question people about things,” Michael says.

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Mr. Calamai won three National Newspaper Awards, received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2016.Courtesy of the Family

While pursuing his undergraduate degree in physics at McMaster, Mr. Calamai began taking pictures for the school paper, The Silhouette. He became the paper’s associate editor and then editor. Sandy McFarlane, a colleague at the paper who went on to a career in journalism, recalls his friend developing a strong code of ethics that he adhered to throughout his career. Mr. McFarlane said Mr. Calamai was “fair and fearless."

Under Mr. Calamai’s editorship, The Silhouette won several national awards, Mr. McFarlane recalls, beating out more established papers at larger schools.

Mr. Calamai met Mary Donald through the paper and the two married in 1967. “From his university days until just recently, he was the same person who loved to chase down a story. He was curious and it never stopped,” she says.

After finishing his BSc in 1965, Mr. Calamai got a job at the Brantford Expositor and then The Hamilton Spectator. He covered several beats, including labour. “He was very fair and balanced in his reporting, and got on well with management as well as unions,” Mr. McFarlane says.

At the time, Southam owned The Hamilton Spectator, and the company promoted Mr. Calamai to national correspondent, a job he did out of Ottawa. He then did stints in Southam’s bureaus, working in London, Vancouver, Nairobi and Washington. Ms. Calamai, who had worked as a teacher, travelled with him and ran the administrative side of the bureaus.

Mr. Calamai was working in Ottawa in the mid-eighties when someone at Southam suggested he look into literacy. “He started to research it and realized he had a really good possibility of making a difference,” says Ms. Calamai, who noted he “convinced the paper to spend a lot of money” to do proper surveys and literacy tests to provide the content for the series.

Later, Mr. Calamai worked at the Ottawa Citizen, running its editorial pages. “He introduced the radical notion that the editorial opinion should be a community opinion,” Mr. McFarlane says. “That it could be a sort of salon of thinkers of the entire city.”

Mr. Calamai set up an editorial board of prominent citizens of Ottawa who met regularly to give feedback on what issues were important to them.

In 1996, Conrad Black bought Southam and soon after fired Mr. Calamai and his colleague Jim Travers. “They ran afoul of Conrad Black,” Mr. McFarlane says. “They were two of the most distinguished journalists that Canada has ever seen.”

Mr. Calamai then took a job covering the science beat at the Toronto Star, working out of Ottawa – a job he held from 1998 to 2008. It was during his time at the Star that he ventured aboard the Amundsen and sent dispatches about disappearing sea ice and the effects of the changing climate on polar bears. He wrote that the massive predators had become "the Arctic equivalent of the caged canary used by miners to detect danger.”

Mr. McFarlane described the series as breathtaking. "His service to journalism and society sealed his career with that project,” he says.

Starting in 2001, Mr. Calamai was an adjunct professor at Carleton University, teaching classes on a part-time basis and supervising thesis projects. Previously, he’d held short-term positions teaching journalism at the University of Regina and Carleton.

After leaving the Star, Mr. Calamai continued his work at Carleton and did freelance writing. The long-time Sherlock Holmes fan began writing about the British press and navy during Victorian and Edwardian times for various Sherlockian publications. He became a member of The Bootmakers of Toronto and the Baker Street Irregulars, the latter of which is by invitation only.

Every year, he wrote a Christmas letter to family and friends in the style of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, in which his wife, whom he called Dame Mary, was a key character.

In 2016, the Calamais moved to Stratford for retirement and to be closer to family. There, he continued his Sherlockian work, sang in the local choir and played tennis and golf.

“He was a larger-than-life character,” Mr. McFarlane says. “But he had a way of concentrating on you when he was with you.”

Mr. Calamai leaves his wife, two brothers and a large extended family.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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