In the seconds leading up to each 6 p.m. newscast, Ottawa broadcaster Max Keeping would secure a red rose firmly on his lapel, then look into the camera and imagine the faces of the million people he reached in the National Capital Region. For 37 years, he spoke to every one of them.
As an evening news anchor at CTV Ottawa, the TV station formerly called CJOH, Mr. Keeping told stories about the ambitions and struggles of ordinary Canadians and pioneered a unique brand of community journalism.
Through his enormous community presence and prodigious fundraising for sick children, he met with tens of thousands of Canadians during his time at the station, becoming a beloved and trusted public figure in the Ottawa region.
"He knew people in every village in every town and rarely had a meal at home," said Scott Hannant, a close friend who worked with Mr. Keeping. "He commanded a lot of love."
Mr. Keeping's upbeat nature, journalistic rigour and ability to connect with viewers made his news show the favourite in the region for 37 years, an almost unheard of success in a local TV media market. Meanwhile, he maintained a quirky style that included a rat tail, paisley ties, a Mickey Mouse watch and fingers laden with gold rings.
"Everything about Max was 100-per-cent real," said CTV Ottawa sports director Terry Marcotte. "If he was angry, you could see it, if he had a sparkle in his eye, you could see it."
Mr. Keeping died of cancer on Thursday. He was 73.
The youngest of three children, Winston Maxwell Keeping was born April 1, 1942, in Grand Bank, Nfld., to Polly and Heber Keeping. His mother was a housewife and his father a schooner captain who spent months at sea. When he was just nine years old, his mother died of cancer, and the next year, his brother, Bert, was swept overboard at sea and died. So Max was raised by his sister, Margaret.
In 1993, she told The Ottawa Citizen, "It was a hard life for a little boy."
When Max was 14, he began work as a sports writer at the St. John's Evening Telegram, and by 17, became the paper's sports editor. He then moved into radio, and in 1963 got a job with CTV affiliate CJCH in Halifax, where he worked alongside a reporter named Mike Duffy, who is now a senator.
Mr. Duffy told The Ottawa Citizen in 2010 that Mr. Keeping "was a human dynamo" at the station, and "showed me how to cover three stories in an hour."
In 1965, Mr. Keeping landed a job at the Ottawa radio station CFRA, as its first parliamentary correspondent, and the next year became a parliamentary reporter for CTV. He began covering national news during a volatile time for Canada that saw the rise of Quebec separatism, the invocation of the War Measures Act and a national identity tug-of-war.
In 1972, he ran for a federal seat as a Progressive Conservative in Newfoundland, but came in a distant second behind Liberal Don Jamieson.
That same year, Mr. Keeping took a new job at CJOH, a CTV affiliate that covered the National Capital Region. He soon became the 6 o'clock news anchor on Newsline.
His success in the chair was indisputable. It rested on his ability to link the disparate audiences that CJOH served – from villagers to federal legislators to international diplomats – with stories that brought them together.
"People would say, 'There is a good story at City Hall,'" Mr. Marcotte remembered, "and he'd say, 'The story is with the people.'"
Starting in 1975 on a show called Regional Contact, he told the stories of the region's people, from Kinburn, Ont., to Shawville, Que. In 1986, he took cameras into the operating room to film the implantation of Canada's first artificial heart. In 1989, he sent reporters to the Berlin Wall. And for every municipal, provincial and federal election, he worked around the clock preparing in-depth coverage.
"He just took that station and turned it into a very powerful force within national politics and regional politics," said former Liberal MPP Sean Conway, a frequent guest on the newscast.
In 1996, he sent Mr. Marcotte, then a young reporter, on a cross-country hitchhiking adventure to capture the mood of the nation. It was a perfect example of Mr. Keeping's vision of telling stories in new ways, long before such outside-the-box thinking was fashionable in the industry.
"We did things that local stations didn't do," Mr. Marcotte said, "because Max believed in it."
His newscast's dominance was also a result of his dedication to hard work and emphasis on rigorous journalistic standards, which he softened for no one. If he was unsatisfied with copy before it went to air, he would demand a rewrite.
"He was always very gruff," Mr. Hannant said, but, "you'd get the Max treatment and come back on the other end of it a close and trusted friend."
His uncompromising nature was due in part to his desire to train young journalists in whom he saw a spark. Under his guidance, many rookie journalists became dogged reporters and went on to enjoy careers at some of the most respected newsrooms around the world.
James Duthie, who arrived at CJOH as an intern in 1989 and is now a TSN host, said he remembers Mr. Keeping fighting hard to keep him at the station when other editors considered him too green.
"He saw something in me that I'm not even sure I saw," Mr. Duthie said.
Mr. Keeping was also immensely compassionate with his station colleagues, and pulled his team together in difficult times. In 1995, he brought calm to the newsroom the day CJOH sports anchor Brian Smith was fatally shot by a deranged man.
"I was just shaking," said Mr. Duthie, who filled in for Mr. Smith that night, and Mr. Keeping "was a rock."
But although he was one of the most high-profile individuals in Ottawa, Mr. Keeping chose to associate with ordinary people. Every Christmas, he returned to Parliament Hill and danced with the charladies, offering roses for kisses on the cheek. He made a point of speaking with the security guards and cooks at the functions he attended, and was as comfortable in conversation with them as he was chatting with Canada's elite, whose ear he also had.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson remembers when Mr. Keeping called former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty in 2003 requesting he save the cardiac unit at Ottawa's Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) once elected. In the end, the unit was saved.
"He was probably the single biggest community booster the city has ever seen," Mr. Watson said. "He had a massive heart."
When he wasn't putting together a newscast or on air, Mr. Keeping was at a fundraising event, community breakfast, bingo hall, church sale, black tie formal or concert. He dedicated most of his time to raising money for sick children. Starting in 1984, he hosted annual telethons for the children's hospital, laughing and hugging his young guests as confetti sprayed over them to signal each fundraising milestone.
His work beyond the TV screen included visiting sick children in the hospital, unannounced and often with gifts, and in one instance, he financed a trip to New York for a dying girl and her mother.
Mr. Keeping gave away so much of his own money that his friends grew concerned that he was going broke. Consequently, the Max Keeping Foundation was created in 1994. According to Al MacKay, a colleague and long-time friend, Mr. Keeping helped raise about $100-million for charity, much of it for the children's hospital, which named a wing after him in 2003.
He was an "unstoppable machine" doing good, said his friend Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a fellow Ottawa broadcaster.
In addition to hosting a top-rated news show and attending more than 200 events each year, the energetic, fun loving anchor also displayed a legendary stamina while partying. He especially loved concerts and nightclubs.
In the early years of his career at CJOH, Mr. Keeping was known for heavy smoking and drinking; a Friday ritual in the newsroom with staff involved a bottle of rum in his desk drawer. On at least two occasions in the mid-1970s, he was caught driving while impaired. By the late 1980s, Mr. Keeping's drinking slowed, but his socializing didn't.
"He probably danced in every nightclub there is in Eastern Ontario," said former Liberal cabinet minister Ed Lumley, a close friend of Mr. Keeping's. "Max lived life."
With all of Mr. Keeping's great joys came great pains. Raised largely without parents, Mr. Keeping was a private man who suffered from bouts of loneliness and depression. Over the decades, he attended many funerals for his young friends from CHEO. He also experienced heartbreak in 1986 when his second cousin was convicted of murder and was murdered in jail. And in 2008 he lost his sister, Margaret, who died after being hit by a car in Burlington, Ont.
"I think Max battled his own demons," said John Beattie, a close friend and former CJOH colleague, "but my God, he mastered them."
Mr. Keeping often said his greatest honour was being a father figure to three young men he mentored over the decades, steering them from trouble and into healthy, stable lives. Never married and with no biological children of his own, Mr. Keeping referred to these men as his sons and their children as his grandchildren.
Shane Holley, one of Mr. Keeping's adopted sons, who took care of him in the last years of his life, on Twitter calls Mr. Keeping "my superhero father."
In 2004, Mr. Keeping was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but his prognosis was favourable. In 2010, he retired from CTV as one of the longest-serving news anchors in Canadian history. For his last broadcast, Mr. Keeping stressed that his goodbye closed a chapter on the history of a community – not just the career of one man.
In 2012, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and had four organs removed. In March of last year, he announced live on his former newscast that he was diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer, and urged people to seek early screening.
"He wanted to use [his illness] to increase awareness," Mr. MacKay said. "He has shown amazing courage in dealing with these health issues."
In May of last year, doctors discovered a tumour in Mr. Keeping's brain. Although the tumour was removed, it caused him partial paralysis, and by August, he had lost nearly all ability to speak.
Still, he never lost his zest for life. In his last months, Mr. Keeping went to a Motley Crue concert, a fireworks show and to his favourite barbecue restaurant, which played gospel music in the Byward Market. He handed out orange buttons there with his life motto: "Live life to the max."
In a 2012 interview before Mr. Keeping had his surgery, he explained that he lived his life on the basis that "any day that starts with waking up is a good day to dance."
And he did.