An outsider who joined the Toronto Star as a "wartime replacement," Beland (Bee) Honderich worked his way up through the newsroom to become editor, publisher and ultimately chairman of the board of the country's largest and most colourful city newspaper. Its archives can boast staff bylines belonging to Ernest Hemingway (he likened it to "serving in the Prussian army under a bad general"), Pierre Berton, Gordon Sinclair and Peter Newman.
A micromanager and a curmudgeon who was feared more than he was loved, he transformed and modernized the Star, built a legendary newsroom in the late 1950s and 1960s, fought and won a newspaper war with the now defunct Toronto Telegram, bought up its circulation lists and its fleet of community newspapers, crusaded in support of diversity, national unity and cultural nationalism, and acquired Harlequin Enterprises, for many years a substantial cash cow for Torstar Corp.
"He took a paper that mattered and turned it into a great newspaper. I think his impact on Canadian journalism and his craft was huge," said his son, John Honderich, himself a former editor and publisher of the Toronto Star and now a member of the board of directors of Torstar Corp.
He was hard to love, but easy to respect, said Peter Newman, editor-in-chief from 1969 to 1971. "I was always impressed by his wisdom, his determination and his optimistic view of the Canadian future. Unlike most publishers, his ideology went way beyond the bottom line. He never really understood the Canada that stretched beyond the shadow of the CN Tower, but he loved the idea of this country."
Beland (Bee) Hugh Honderich was born in Baden (near Kitchener), Ont., one of six children of John William Honderich, a Mennonite postmaster and railway agent, and Rae Laura (Armstrong), a Presbyterian. Religion was a contentious and omnipresent factor, according to Mr. Honderich's youngest brother, philosopher Edgar (Ted) Honderich. His father liked unusual names. He called his eldest son Loine and he named his second son after a physician named Béland in Montreal.
During the Depression, the family home was sold at auction when the mortgage holder foreclosed. Beland left school after Grade 8 to help support the family and began working as the Baden correspondent for the Kitchener Record (now The Record) in 1935 at the age of 17.
He did well covering two big fires in his community and made the move to the Toronto Star as a wartime replacement in 1943, earning $35 a week. He had been rejected from the armed forces because he had poor eyesight and a bad ear. When he got to the Star, he was told "all the good men were away fighting" and warned that there wouldn't be a job for him when they came back.
Shy, private, and insecure -- the poorly educated country man in the big city-- he "always felt he had to work twice as hard," according to his son, John.
Mr. Honderich told the journalist Doug (now George) Fetherling in a 1983 interview for Saturday Night magazine that "you produced or else," explaining that he covered two speeches a day, delivering a few facts and a couple of "punchy" quotes. "It left a deep impression on my mind . . . what people are interested in is information." This was a lesson he would apply when he had control of the paper.
Far from being dismissed when peace was declared, he was promoted to financial editor in 1945, named editor-in-chief a decade later and elected a director of the company in 1957.
The Toronto Star is a private business like other newspapers in Canada, but it is unusual in that it is owned by a group of families and it operates according to a set of principles established by the late Joseph Atkinson Sr. He became editor in 1899, quickly turned the struggling newspaper around and soon acquired a controlling interest. In 1911, Harry C. Hindmarsh joined the paper. He became Mr. Atkinson's lieutenant and his son-in-law. Together, they turned the newspaper into the home of "razzle-dazzle journalism," ordering saturation coverage of big stories and indulging in huge headlines, full-page pictures and wacky stunts. They also supported the Liberal Party and social-welfare issues such as mothers' allowances, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, minimum wages and the rights of labour unions. The combination of Christian piety, free-wheeling Fabian socialism and popular journalism was good for circulation and advertising revenues. By 1913, the Star was Toronto's largest paper and Mr. Atkinson was its controlling shareholder.
He died in 1948, leaving an estate of more than $8-million, putting the bulk of it, including the ownership of the paper, into the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which he had established six years earlier. In his will, he directed that profits from the paper's operations were "for the promotion and maintenance of social, scientific and economic reforms which are charitable in nature, for the benefit of the people of the province of Ontario" and he stipulated that the paper could be sold only to people who shared his social views.
Mr. Hindmarsh became president of the five-person board established to govern the paper and carry out Mr. Atkinson's wishes. However, the Ontario government, led by Conservative Leslie Frost, and rival newspapers, including The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Telegram, argued that the foundation was merely a device to avoid paying succession duties on Mr. Atkinson's estate.
The Frost government passed a law forbidding charitable foundations from owning more than 10 per cent of a profit-making business. The Star was given seven years to sell its business interests, with the foundation's trustees, officers and directors allowed to buy them, subject to the approval of the Supreme Court of Canada.
While this wrangling was going on, Mr. Hindmarsh dropped dead of a heart attack on Dec. 20, 1956. The new board of the Atkinson Foundation was made up of Joseph S. Atkinson (son of the late Mr. Atkinson), his sister Ruth Hindmarsh (widow of Mr. Hindmarsh), Burnett Thall, William J. Campbell and Mr. Honderich.
In 1958, after swearing before the Supreme Court that they would uphold the principles outlined in Mr. Atkinson's will, they were allowed to buy the newspaper. They paid $25.5-million in a leveraged buyout, which Globe business columnist Eric Reguly has called "the steal of the century." They put down $1-million in cash and secured most of the rest by selling debt and preferred shares to the public.
Mr. Honderich, who had been editor for three years and on the board for one, had no family money or other resources to draw upon. He was living in a duplex with his wife and three children. "We had one couch and one chair," said his son John. "The Bank of Commerce virtually put up all the money, but the security was the shares of the largest newspaper in the country."
In addition, Mr. Honderich took a personal loan for his 15-per-cent share, helped by advice and references from accountant, cultural nationalist and later politician, Walter Gordon. Today, Torstar Corp., the media conglomerate that owns the Star, is worth about $1.7-billion.
As editor and then publisher, Mr. Honderich built the great Toronto Star newsroom of the late 1950s and 1960s. He transformed the paper from a flashy, scoop-an-edition news sheet into an information-based vehicle for columnists and critics. He quickly realized, according to journalist Val Sears, that the real market in the postwar period lay in finding readers among the young middle class in the suburbs who were moving up through the social strata.
They wanted context and information, not just headlines. Ron Haggart worked as a columnist for the Star in the sixties. Mr. Honderich had the right ideas about how to change the Star, which was a stodgy, old-fashioned paper, according to Mr. Haggart. "It was still a paper that believed the most recent event deserved a headline because it had happened in the last hour."
Among the stable of writers and editors Mr. Honderich enlisted or celebrated were: Pierre Berton as a daily columnist, Charles Templeton as managing editor, Nathan Cohen as drama critic, Milt Dunnell on sports, Gwyn (Jocko) Thomas on crime and Peter Newman as Ottawa editor and editor-in-chief.
He loved to hire people, said journalist Robert Fulford, who worked for the Star twice (from 1958 to 1962 and from 1964 to 1968), but he quickly grew bored with them. Managing editors were a notoriously endangered species, according to Mr. Fulford, who once joked that after more than two years on the job, managing editors took on the look of "hunted animals." When he was having trouble sleeping at night, police reporter Jocko Thomas was said to recite the names of the more than 40 city editors who served during his long career at the paper.
Mr. Newman spent seven years at the Star, leaving in 1971 in "frustration because [Mr. Honderich]was always stone-cold certain about what he didn't want, but not good at suggesting practical options."
He could be a bully. "He wasn't a particularly big man, but he looked big to his employees. He tended to tower," said Mr. Sears, who worked for Mr. Honderich for about 25 years in a number of capacities, including Ottawa bureau chief and Washington correspondent. "He spoke low, but he made his position very clear. On the other hand, he was certainly the best publisher I ever worked for because he knew what he wanted and he would back you up."
Saying that he and Mr. Honderich fought a lot, especially when he was editor of the editorial page, Mr. Sears said he always thought it was a mistake to try to outguess his boss. Mr. Honderich seemed aware of his power. "He once said to me, 'If I walk through that newsroom and I say to someone it is a nice day, by the final edition I have two full pages on the weather," said Mr. Sears.
Stories abound about Mr. Honderich's tendency to micromanage. When he was editor, he behaved as though he was the publisher and when he became publisher and president in 1966, "he acted as though he owned the paper outright," Mr. Fulford said.
Staffers were obsessed with anticipating his wishes, often with bizarre results. Somebody heard that "Bee" believed that a colour photograph had to have red in it, so Star photographers took to stowing red jackets in their cars and asking people to put them on before snapping their pictures, or so the story goes.
"Bee had a phobia about accompanying each picture in his paper with explanatory cutlines," recalled Mr. Newman. "I got hell once for running an illustration of Gina Lollobrigida, the Italian film star, standing beside a male dwarf, because I had left out the 'left' and 'right' identifications."
During his years at the newspaper, Mr. Honderich oversaw the introduction of colour, the shift from an afternoon to a morning paper, a Sunday edition and the appointment of the first ombudsman at any paper in Canada. He was also a driving force behind the establishment of the Ontario Press Council. In 1976, he was appointed chairman and chief executive officer of Torstar Corp. He continued to serve as publisher until September, 1988.
Mr. Honderich married three times. His and his first wife Florence divorced in 1962. He married Agnes King in 1968. Star legend has it that he called the paper from the airport as he and his bride were leaving on their honeymoon and asked for the front page to be read to him. She died of cancer in 1999 after a long and painful illness. "He was amazingly diligent in the way he cared for her," said his son John.
That same year he became engaged to Rina Whelan, a widow he had met many years before (when both were married to other people) in the barbershop of the Hotel Vancouver, where she worked as a manicurist. "This is one of the great love stories," John Honderich said, "I have had the honour of standing up for him at two of his three weddings."
The Honderichs lived in the penthouse of La Carina (Rina's House), a condominium she had developed and built on English Bay. "He was a wealthy man and she was a wealthy woman," commented Mr. Honderich's brother Ted, "and so both were under suspicion of being gold diggers."
Mr. Honderich became more left wing in his politics as he became older, said his brother. "All newspaper publishers are accused of being ruthless, but actually they are activists," he said. "They want to make things happen and they don't like things hanging on in an indecisive way."
Beland Hugh Honderich was born on Nov. 25, 1918, in Baden, Ont. He died yesterday in St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver after a massive stroke. He was 86. He is survived by his first wife Florence, his third wife Rina, three children, six grandchildren and one brother.