It was hard to say “no” to the young Geoffrey Stevens.
Dannie Stevens (née Underhill) recalled the day in 1962 when her soon-to-be husband, the fresh 22-year-old honours graduate of the University of Western Ontario, went to The Globe and Mail offices in the downtown Toronto financial district to ask for a reporting job.
“Geoff had made an appointment with the managing editor, Clark Davey,” she said. “And he took a portfolio of articles he had written for The Gazette,” Western’s student paper. Mr. Davey had a look at them and told him that he had “no future in journalism” and “better find another career.”
Geoff, she said, then left Mr. Davey’s office and went down the hall to the office of The Globe’s editor-in-chief, Dic Doyle. He talked his way past Mr. Doyle’s secretary and was then ushered into the office.
The editor looked through Mr. Steven’s portfolio and told him his articles were “pretty good,” said Ms. Stevens. “I guess he also admired Geoff’s persistence and the way he had gotten into the editor’s office,” because he offered him a reporter job. It would be “part-time, to start,” Mr. Doyle told him.
“‘Sorry, but I can’t accept that,’ Geoff said. He told the editor he had to get married very soon and needed enough to support a family.”
“Mr. Doyle agreed: ‘OK, full-time,’ he said.”
Thomas Geoffrey Stewart Stevens was born January 30, 1940 in London, Ont., and died June 18 in Cambridge, Ont., at the age of 83 of a heart attack.
As he launched his career, Mr. Stevens’s persistence held him in good stead as a reporter, especially in The Globe’s parliamentary bureau in Ottawa where he was dispatched in 1965. He was a natural at cultivating sources during an exceptionally interesting time in the capital: the start of Medicare, the new national flag, unification of the Armed Forces, the Centennial, the Progressive Conservative Party’s selection of Robert Stanfield as leader.
And then there was Pierre Trudeau – his justice reforms, his election as Liberal Party leader and the landslide election victory in 1968. They all happened on Mr. Stevens watch those first few years. He loved it.
“Geoff was one of the finest journalists of his generation,” said Bob Lewis, a colleague in the Ottawa bureau and later editor of Maclean’s magazine. “His reporting was exceptional.”
The Globe and Mail thought so highly of him and his future at the paper, they sent him, his wife and son Christopher to Paris for five months so he could become fluent in French, the language he was expected to use a great deal in the future, the editors reasoned.
“We had a great time there,” Ms. Stevens said, “and we were very excited about the national stories that lay ahead.” This made it all the more disappointing when Mr. Stevens was posted back to Toronto to serve as chief of The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau.
“Geoff hated the job,” Ms. Stevens said. “He couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
And out he went – after less than two years – to Time Magazine’s Canadian edition. There, among many other things, he covered 1972′s very close federal election, when Mr. Stanfield’s PC’s nearly unseated Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals.
Mr. Stevens then took a leave of absence to write his first book, Stanfield, a biography of the Tory leader about whom most Canadians knew very little.
To those who might accuse him of being politically biased, Mr. Stevens said: “I am not a Conservative and feel in no peril of ever becoming one. I do, however, like and respect Mr. Stanfield. I suspect he might make an exceptionally capable prime minister, although I have some reservations about the depth and ability of a number of people” who might be in his cabinet.
In 1973, Mr. Stevens had to make a pivotal decision: The Globe said it wanted him back and offered him the prestigious editorial page national column then being written by George Bain, who wished to retire; while Time offered him a job in their esteemed Washington bureau.
“The Page 6 Globe column proved too much of a lure,” Mr. Lewis said.
And Mr. Stevens made the column his own. “The analysis was penetrating and devastating,” said Mr. Lewis, who added that “Geoff also could be whimsical and lighthearted” as often was the case in his Saturday columns structured as a mock letter of advice to a national or international leader.
In his daily column, Mr. Stevens paid close attention to what he considered to be the three most important issues of that time: national unity, which concerned him as an ardent federalist; regional disparity, about which he was a frequent critic, and multiculturalism, of which he was proud.
“His was the official perspective of what was going on in Ottawa,” said Michael Adams, president of the Environics Institute. “His voice was that of a detached observer who cared very much for his country and the politics that defined it.”
He also paid close attention to international attempts to develop a comprehensive Law of the Sea to which all countries would be bound. With its lengthy coastlines, large continental shelves, extensive fisheries, vital mineral resources and important waterways, Canada was one of the countries most actively seeking the protection of a UN treaty.
Though many found the subject a bit dry, Mr. Stevens persevered, sometimes expressing his views in a series of columns. This once drew a retort from Val Sears of the Toronto Star: “The two most dreaded words in the English language are ‘more tomorrow’ at the bottom of a Stevens column on the Law of the Sea.” No one laughed harder than Mr. Stevens himself.
Throughout these years of his column (1973-81) Mr. Stevens was in high demand – as a frequent panelist on CTV’s Sunday Question Period program and on CBC Radio’s Capital Report and Sunday Morning programs.
He left the column in 1981 to return to The Globe as a member of management. His good friend and colleague Norman Webster had just been named assistant editor and was positioned to become editor-in-chief. The two men had talked often and mused over the years about what they would do should they both end up at the top of the editorial department.
Mr. Webster wanted Mr. Stevens to be his managing editor but until that day came, the two agreed, Mr. Stevens should get to know some of the paper’s various news departments. He started at Sports.
“When Geoff was appointed Sports Editor at The Globe, I, like many, was flabbergasted,” said former Globe sports writer Nora McCabe. “Knowing Geoff only from his ever-so-serious, nose-in-the-air political column, I had no idea he was a mad keen CFL fan.”
Mr. Stevens did however quickly move on to be the National (News) Editor.
By 1983, with Mr. Webster in the Editor-in-Chief’s chair, Mr. Stevens was appointed Managing Editor. It all came together at the right time.
The Progressive Conservative party had just chosen Brian Mulroney as its new leader, and he would lead a new majority government in 1984. Quebec’s separatist Premier René Lévesque had refused to sign the 1982 Constitution Act and constitutional storms were gathering across the country. The Meech Lake Accord was the order of the day.
At the same time, Mr. Stevens turned to other matters in the office. “Geoff will be remembered for promoting women to senior positions in the newsroom,” said Gwen Smith, a national editor during Mr. Stevens’ time. “And for reigniting investigative reporting.”
While Clark Davey had first raised the investigative bar in the 1970s, it had been eight years since The Globe had won a Michener Award for its investigative work. In three of the four Stevens years, it garnered several Micheners including three separate awards in the last year, an unprecedented number.
The awards were for a range of subjects that included problems facing immigrants, an amendment to the Criminal Code that impacted freedom of the press, real estate corruption, failures in “business-class” immigration and failures to enforce safety regulations in boxing.
It would be five years before The Globe won its next Michener, and 11 years after that before it received another.
All this came to a halt at the of end of 1988, when Mr. Webster was removed as The Globe’s editor-in-chief and, shortly after, Mr. Stevens was dismissed.
Mr. Stevens successfully sued The Globe and Mail for wrongful dismissal, and received some monetary compensation, but he struggled to find a new professional niche.
He wrote his second book, Leaders and Lesser Mortals, with professional campaign manager John Laschinger, telling the story of what makes a successful political campaign.
And, to everyone’s surprise, he co-founded a weekly newspaper called the Sun-Times of Canada, marketed to Canadians in the U.S. South. The secret to its success lay in being able to provide Canadian news to citizens in Florida and other states, who had no timely access to news from home. The advent of the Internet would put a damper on those designs.
In 1996, Bob Lewis, editor of Maclean’s, attracted Mr. Stevens back to Toronto with an offer that he become managing editor of the magazine. “I thought his being down South was a waste of good journalism,” Mr. Lewis said.
At Maclean’s, Mr. Stevens “oversaw a series of investigative reports, notably a series on sexual assault in the Canadian military” and “he brought discipline in pursuit of a story with a steely determination to get to the truth.”
Mr. Stevens third book was published in 1997 – No Holds Barred – a biography of the ebullient Newfoundland politician John Crosbie
His time at Maclean’s ended in 2001, when Mr. Lewis retired and a new editor chose to appoint his own managing editor.
Mr. Stevens then wrote his fourth book, The Player – The Life and Times of Dalton Camp, a terrific read about the influential adman-politician-power-broker-journalist. The book won the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize.
Flush from that success, Mr. Stevens and family moved to Cambridge, Ont., where he took up teaching courses on politics and media at nearby Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and the University of Guelph.
He also co-wrote his fifth book, again with John Laschinger, called Campaign Confessions – Tales From the War Rooms of Politics, published in 2016, as well as his sixth book, Flora – A Woman in a Man’s World, published in 2021.
“Geoff felt political culture expressed itself most evocatively in the character and actions of those who chose public life,” said Michael Adams. “He had great empathy for exceptional people who made great contributions to Canadian public life even those who ended up in opposition rather than in government.”
Most interestingly, Mr. Stevens also resumed writing a political column, this time for Torstar publications in Waterloo and Hamilton, Ont. And he circulated it by e-mail to interested old friends and associates who had enjoyed his Ottawa column back in the 1970s. It was a secret club, wildly popular by retiree standards.
Joey Slinger dubbed Mr. Stevens “The Sage of Cambridge” as he tackled a range of subjects, most recently about failing health care.
Wilfrid Laurier University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree for his “unique and outstanding lifelong contribution to political reporting and public discourse across Canada.”
Fittingly, his final column this past week offered sagely advice to the Prime Minister, in the manner of Mr. Steven’s humorous Saturday columns of old.
And, like any good newspaper reporter, Geoff Stevens filed his final column on time, an hour before his time expired.