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Veteran reporter George Garrett from Vancouver's CKNW radio station became known for a stream of scoops that left competing organizations scrambling.Supplied

In the days when local radio news was big, few stations anywhere dominated the airwaves like CKNW in Vancouver. And no one was more prominent than its ace reporter George Garrett. During his more than 40 years at the station, newscasts leading with a George Garrett exclusive became as familiar and regular as the city’s rainfall.

Left alone by the station’s legendary news director Warren Barker to prowl the Lower Mainland in his CKNW news cruiser in search of stories, he produced an endless stream of scoops that left competing organizations scrambling.

None was more memorable than the night he was on a police ride-along in 1979 and they came across a stumbling figure beside a crashed vehicle. Mr. Garrett immediately recognized him as B.C. Supreme Court Justice and former federal justice minister E. Davie Fulton. He popped out of the squad car, tape recorder running.

One of the officers told Mr. Fulton his licence would be suspended for 24 hours and his car impounded, on suspicion of driving while drunk. Mr. Garrett caught his reaction on tape: “Very well. I shall not be a judge any more.” When police went to put him into their car to drive him home, he responded: “No, I won’t. Go to hell!”

After Mr. Garrett’s story went to air, The Vancouver Express, the popular newspaper put out by unions on strike against the regular city dailies, rewrote the yarn under a large front page headline: “‘Go to Hell,’ Judge Tells Cops.” It was the beginning of the end of Mr. Fulton’s career on the bench.

Another exclusive report by Mr. Garrett brought down Vancouver police chief Bruce Chambers, revealing the top officer’s own 24-hour licence suspension for impaired driving and a severe morale problem in the force under his leadership. Mr. Garrett was also first to report the shocking “cash for bodies” deal police made with B.C. child killer Clifford Olson, who told them where he had buried his victims in return for large sums paid to his wife.

At the old British Columbia Penitentiary, during a tense standoff with prisoners, authorities nabbed Mr. Garrett snooping where he shouldn’t. Instead of berating him, they asked him if the prisoners’ demands could be broadcast over the air. Mr. Garrett agreed. Pleased, the prisoners went back to their cells. They listened to CKNW, too.

Mr. Garrett, who died of cancer March 18 at the age of 89, had a fondness for exposing scams by going undercover. He learned how to operate a tow truck to get a job with a shady company that was forging permission slips from lot owners, allowing them to remove cars from private parking lots and hold them until a fee was paid. Mr. Garrett confirmed the tactic and the company lost its licence. Another time he sent some Nevada land hucksters packing by pretending to be interested, secretly recording their slick promotions and revealing the truth on air. Eventually he gave up his covert stratagems; he was becoming too well known. Mr. Garrett, however, was not recognized when he went “undercover” to report on a nudist colony.

Not every story was big. Most of the time it was simply a matter of getting it first. Other reporters at the station were often chagrined to attend a news conference only to discover that Mr. Garrett had already aired the announcement. It was a tenaciousness he cloaked under an outward demeanour of genuine geniality and courtesy that belied the image of a hard-nosed reporter thirsting for the jugular.

His niceness encouraged ordinary people to open up to him at times of tragedy. Even those he burned couldn’t dislike him. The owner of the tow truck company Mr. Garrett exposed became friendly and told him when he was charged with fraud. He was dubbed “Gentleman George,” always prepared to share tape with competitors if they arrived late at an event. At a roast celebrating his career, former prime minister Kim Campbell expressed exasperation at her task: “It’s like roasting Kermit the Frog.”

Every now and then an assignment went awry, most seriously in 1992, when Mr. Garrett’s thirst for the big story sent him to Los Angeles to cover the riots that broke out after white officers were acquitted of assaulting Black motorist Rodney King. About to file from the streets, he was set upon by four youths who demanded the keys to his rental car. When Mr. Garrett refused, one punched him in the face, breaking his jaw and leaving his face a bloody mess. A passing motorist scared off the attackers and drove Mr. Garrett to the hospital. Back at his hotel, he filed a story about the assault, blood still dripping from his nose onto his notebook.

George Reno Garrett was born Nov. 16, 1934 in the rural hamlet of Mortlach, Sask. His father, Peter, was a farmworker; his mother, Ruth, was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Mr. Garrett was curious from the outset. In his rollicking memoir, Intrepid Reporter, he tells of how, as a nine-year old, he pestered a cranky neighbouring farmer with so many questions, the farmer pleaded with his parents over the phone to come and get him: “He asks too many questions.”

He went to high school in Moose Jaw, dropping out before graduation to pursue his dream of becoming a radio reporter – hatched by listening, spellbound, to broadcasts during the Second World War. Hearing of an opening at station CJNB in North Battleford, Sask., he hitchhiked the 400 kilometres and got the job. He was 17. His first interview, microphone shaking, was with the winner of the 4-H Club calf competition.

At CJNB, he also met a local teenager, Joan McIntyre. Smitten, Mr. Garrett asked her to the movies. She agreed, despite her mother’s dismissal of her date. (“He’s not a man. He’s just a scrawny kid,” Mr. Garrett recalled her mother saying.) It was the beginning of a long, loving relationship that ended only with Joan’s death from Alzheimer’s disease in 2021.

After bouncing around other stations, Mr. Garrett found his first job as a full-time news reporter in 1956, hired for $300 a month at CKNW, based in New Westminster, B.C., but broadcasting throughout the Lower Mainland.

It was a time of goofy station mascots, quiz shows and small-time crime, such as the police officers who went bad by robbing a Dad’s Cookie warehouse, becoming known as “the Dad’s Cookie Gang.” Promotional news cruisers had “Speedy Alka-Seltzer” and, later, loaves of Sunbeam Bread depicted on the door. (“This is George Garrett in the Sunbeam Bread News Cruiser.”)

But Vancouver was growing, and so were the stories. Mr. Garrett took to heart the advice he received from his first news director, Jim Cox: “Get out there, get the story and move on while the other guy is still sitting there.”

By hanging around the police station, City Hall and the courts – and responding to seemingly every accident and crime in the city – Mr. Garrett built up an enviable coterie of police contacts who trusted him. With his concise, authoritative reports filed over a crackling phone line, he soon established himself as the person to beat on cops and crime.

Mr. Garrett’s working life was not without personal tragedy. In 1987, his 25-year-old son Ken drowned in a northern B.C. canoeing accident. Mr. Garrett called it “the saddest day of my life.”

There were also rare failures. A short foray into advertising at CKNW didn’t go well, and a stint as station manager of CJAT in the B.C. smelter city of Trail ended with his firing after barely more than five months. CKNW quickly hired him back.

Reflecting in the pages of his memoir, Mr. Garrett owned up to some misgivings, as well. Once, he observed a racist cop badly mistreating an Indigenous person. Mr. Garrett chose to report the incident to a police sergeant rather than make it public “as I should have.” When word began circulating about John Farris, then Chief Justice of British Columbia, cavorting with sex workers, Mr. Garrett could not bring himself to knock on his door and ask whether the rumours were true. “I just didn’t have the guts to do it. Ultimately it cost me a story.”

On his last day at CKNW, after 43 years, he expected to put up his feet and bask in the accolades of his colleagues. Instead, he got a tip and broke one of the top political stories of the year. Gordon Wilson, leader of the small Progressive Democratic Alliance Party, was going to cross the floor and join the cabinet of the governing NDP as minister of B.C. Ferries and Aboriginal Affairs. “I had my one last scoop,” he wrote later. “The perfect ending to a perfect career.”

In retirement, he became a driver for the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society, which shepherded patients to medical appointments. When the society ran out of money, Mr. Garrett lobbied service organizations and many of his former contacts, including government, and raised $100,000 to keep it going.

Mr. Garrett received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Radio Television News Directors Association (now the Radio Television Digital News Association) in 2004 and the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jack Webster Foundation in 1996.

Predeceased by his wife, Joan, and son, Kenneth, Mr. Garrett leaves his brother, Jim; sisters, Muriel and Elinor; daughters, Linda and Lorrie; plus four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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