Olaf Solheim, who was as old as the century in 1986, spent a lifetime working as a logger and pile-driver. For 62 of those years, on and off, he had lived at the Patricia Hotel in Vancouver, only to be evicted by the owners to make way for tourists attending the Expo 86 world’s fair.
The reporter Bob Sarti met Mr. Solheim in his new room at Columbia House, where “his suitcase sits by the door, still packed.” Old Olaf, as he was known, a soft-spoken man with a long, scraggly white beard, wanted to go back to his former home. His friends did not know where he was. He soon after starved to death. His story, first told by Mr. Sarti in the Vancouver Sun, appeared in newspapers around the world, including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Hong Kong-based Wall Street Journal Asia.
Mr. Sarti, who has died at 77, was a rabble-rousing reporter with a deep concern for the poor and downtrodden. He was known as a stickler for accuracy, though he held a less-stringent adherence to notions of journalistic objectivity.
He covered issues related to poverty for the Sun and wrote articles decades ago warning of a future homelessness crisis as the skid-road neighbourhood known as the Downtown Eastside began to gentrify. In 1994, he shared with colleague Larry Pynn a prestigious Jack Webster Award for a series about the lives of poor children.
The people about whom Mr. Sarti wrote were for him more than mere fodder for a daily newspaper’s insatiable need for copy. He described people struggling to survive on limited resources in the face of an economic and political system that was indifferent, or worse, to their plight.
He also covered stories about prisoners' rights, the burgeoning environmental movement and the lack of justice for Indigenous people.
A thorn in the side of bureaucrats and politicians (not to mention editors), Mr. Sarti was far from a scold. He joked politics should be “more Groucho, less Marxist.”
While he had a well-paying job at the Sun, where membership in the Newspaper Guild protected him from retaliation by management, Mr. Sarti often surreptitiously contributed to counterculture publications, including The Georgia Straight and its rival offshoot, the Georgia Grape. He also wrote for the Vancouver Express, a newspaper produced by fellow union members on strike. His articles in the radical magazine Open Road sometimes carried the byline Ann Arkist. And he had a hand in producing B.C. Blackout, a fortnightly newsletter of anarchist news which scooped major news outlets by reporting on the $100,000 payment to mass murderer Clifford Olson for revealing the locations of his victims' bodies.
The reporter, who had been a liberal Democrat in his native United States, arrived in Vancouver just as the working-class port city roiled with protest, as a conservative mayor called on police to harass hippies and draft dodgers.
On assignment for the Sun, Mr. Sarti profiled a group of activists and pranksters who called themselves the Northern Lunatic Fringe of the Youth International Party. The Yippies, who lived in communal houses with tongue-in-cheek names such as Dog House and Charlie Mansion, choreographed several memorable protests, culminating in the 1971 Grasstown Smoke-In, during which hippie dope fiends and gawking tourists alike were beaten by police. Mr. Sarti would later admit to having been a “white-collar worker by day, white-collar Yippie by night.”
For many years, he was a volunteer at the Carnegie Community Centre, a gathering place in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, where he was known for cooking and serving chili con carne.
A playful anti-authoritarianism came naturally to the New York native. A popular character among fellow reporters in a newsroom not known for collegiality, Mr. Sarti was regarded with suspicion by management. For a time, he wrote a popular column about taking long walks in the city. He liked to tell a story about getting a warning from one of his editors: “We know there’s something subversive in the column, Bob,” he would say the editor told him. “And once we find it, you’re done.”
Robert Joseph Sarti was born on March 13, 1943, in New York to the former Yolanda Moriconi and Paolino (Paul) Sarti, a Brazilian-born short-order cook of Italian parentage. The couple lived in a family-owned brownstone in Greenwich Village. The elder Mr. Sarti signed up with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to fight for the besieged Spanish Republic after civil war broke out. He was shot in the leg. Back in New York, he was threatened with deportation for having used a false name to travel to Spain, according to an article by his grandson. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to continue his war against fascism, as well as to attain citizenship.
Bob Sarti graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he styled his hair to imitate the smouldering delinquency of Sal Mineo, who had starred in Rebel Without a Cause. In 1963, Mr. Sarti graduated from Queens College, a hotbed of student radicals. That same year, he married Marilyn Ann La Sala. Mr. Sarti got a job at the Long Island Daily Press, where he interviewed the civil-rights activist Stokely Carmichael.
In the summer of 1966, Mr. Sarti was lured to Phoenix by The Arizona Republic. He worked the education beat and interviewed such celebrities as artist Andy Warhol and his companion, the actress known as Viva.
He found former heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali shooting hoops with neighbourhood children in a park. The fighter, who had been convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title, suspended from boxing and sentenced to prison, said he planned to study the Koran in jail.
“All of God’s prophets have gone to jail,” he told Mr. Sarti. “I’m a prisoner now. I can’t work, I can’t leave the country. The Negroes have been in prison for 400 years. You can’t put me in some place that I’m already at.”
In 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Sartis decided to leave their homeland, settling in Vancouver.
Mr. Sarti spent 30 years as a reporter at the Sun. When he expressed interest in the newspaper’s buyout package, he was told he had missed the deadline. At his next performance review, when asked his goals for the coming year, he replied he planned to become more active in his union. He soon after had an acceptable offer, retiring to bucolic Hornby Island in the Strait of Georgia.
After leaving journalism, Mr. Sarti wrote three stage musicals about his experiences, including Yippies in Love, a fictional account of heady days of head shops and theatrical protest.
The musicals were a victory lap for Mr. Sarti, who felt history had vindicated those on the barricades.
“We were right. They were wrong,” Mr. Sarti told The Globe nine years ago. “The bad guys were wrong. The war was wrong. Drug paranoia was wrong.”
Mr. Sarti, who suffered a stroke six years ago and had been in deteriorating health this year, died at his home on Oct. 12. He leaves Muggs Sigurgeirson, his long-time companion. He also leaves a son, Douglas Sarti, an author and journalist, from his marriage to Marilyn Sarti; a grandson, Francis, known as Frankie; and a sister.
In 1992, a seven-storey, 86-unit building of social housing opened five blocks from the Patricia Hotel. It is named Solheim Place after Old Olaf, the evicted logger. The photographer Bill Keay, who accompanied Mr. Sarti on the day he interviewed Mr. Solheim, recalled recently how the reporter sat with the heartbroken man, his arm around him, listening to his stories, offering comfort as best he could.