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Formidable editor Ginger Byfield left an indelible mark

Virginia, seated left, and Ted Byfield are seen at the Alberta Report reunion party on Sept. 15, 2012, with Preston Manning standing at the right side of the photo. Mr. and Mrs. Byfield founded and edited the right-wing newsmagazine, which until its closing in 2003, stood as a bastion of Prairie conservatism.

Returning from covering a juicy union dust-up in Cornwall, Ont., in 1948, hotshot young reporter Ted Byfield rolled into the Ottawa Journal's newsroom to discover a new and rather interesting young lady in the paper's Women's Department.

"I was absolutely floored by her," Mr. Byfield recalled. "She wasn't necessarily glamorous, but she sure was good-looking. And she could quote poetry. I said to myself, 'I've got to find a way to get her.'"

The object of his attention was Virginia Nairn − known universally as Ginger − a first-year University of Toronto languages student working on a summer contract. Unfortunately, her mother, who'd married into the upper ranks of Ottawa society, was horrified at the relationship and quickly decided the family needed to spend more time at their cottage on the Gatineau River, establishing maximal distance from the newsroom and its unsavoury denizens.

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A summer of clandestine wooing followed, which included Mr. Byfield signalling at night from the west bank of the Gatineau River with a flashlight, at which point Ms. Nairn would hop in a canoe and paddle over from the east bank for a midnight rendezvous.

Once the summer ended, she returned to Toronto, but eventually dropped out of university to follow Mr. Byfield to Timmins, Ont., where he was now working at the Timmins Press. "They wanted to hire her, because they were desperate for writers and she could do the job, but the editor told us we absolutely had to get married first," Mr. Byfield said. A sex scandal involving the publisher and wife of the biggest advertiser had left the paper tender about unsanctioned office romances.

Later that week, after the morning edition of the paper had been put to bed, they were married in a 20-minute ceremony at the manse of the local United church followed by a quick lunch. "Then we rushed back and put out the second edition," Mr. Byfield chortled.

It was the first run of a uniquely productive relationship that's left an indelible mark on Canadian journalism, religion and politics. In their 65 years together, Ted Byfield − old-school newspaperman, bombastic defender of conservative values and muse to the Reform Party − held the limelight, while Ginger Byfield, who died in Edmonton on July 21 of cancer at the age of 85 − was his indispensable editor, counsellor and lodestone. Together their shared legacy includes Alberta Report newsmagazine, a series of history books, a Christian school and a religious order. Along the way, Mrs. Byfield, a fearsome and exacting newsroom presence in her own right, left several generations of rookie journalists frightened out of their parentheses.

Virginia (Ginger) Luella Nairn was born in Albuquerque, N.M. on March 26, 1929, the product of an American demolitions expert and the daughter of a Maritime logging family. When that marriage failed, due in part to an explosion that cost her father a leg, she was raised by her extended family in Greenfield, N.S., while her mother pursued better prospects.

"Her aunts were very pious women and her uncles, being loggers, were not," Mr. Byfield said. The young Mrs. Byfield (she hated the honorific Ms.) was thus imbued with a tough sense of humour, brutal candour and a logger's easy facility with cursing, characteristics that would distinguish her later career.

When her mother finally found a suitable match in Ottawa, to a chemical engineer locally feted as the most eligible bachelor in town, Ginger entered a more refined social milieu, attending a convent school and winning four scholarships to study Latin, Greek and German at the University of Toronto. At university, she wrote for Campus, the school's Communist newsletter. Her mother's connections led to a summer job at the Ottawa Journal, and the fateful collision with her future husband.

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"We had 65 years together. I loved her passionately and we always had a great time," Mr. Byfield said.

Later, in Winnipeg, where Mr. Byfield was working for the Winnipeg Free Press, the couple realized a joint disillusionment with modern secular society. "We came to the conclusion that the Christian church needed to be more active in education and in the general media," he said. To this end they founded the Company of the Cross, a lay order of the Anglican Church; in 1957 the organization opened St. John's Cathedral Boys School in Selkirk, Man. As per their usual partnership, Mr. Byfield supplied the grand idea while Mrs. Byfield delivered the elbow grease, not only teaching classes but organizing the school's accounts as well.

"My dad, as most egocentric geniuses do, has the habit of going off course in new and dangerous directions, while my mom ends up doing most of the work," said son Link Byfield, former editor-publisher at Alberta Report.

"He was the wind in the sails and she was the rudder."

In 1968 another school opened in Edmonton, where the Byfields eventually spun off a companion newsletter: St. John's Edmonton Report. In time, it grew to become Alberta Report.

Until its closing in 2003, Alberta Report stood as a bastion of Prairie conservatism and gave voice to the burgeoning Reform Party movement: Mr. Byfield is generally credited with the phrase "The West Wants In." At the same time, the magazine's liberal employment policy allowed several generations of aspiring writers to hone their craft without need for journalism school or previous experience. Here, Mrs. Byfield established herself as a formidable editor.

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"She was definitely an intimidating presence," said Stephen Hopkins, writer and editor at Alberta Report from 1976 to 1991. "She had this penetrating stare. And when it focused on you, you knew the truth could not hide inside of you."

Countless young journalists (your correspondent included) lived in fear of being called into her office to face her implacable glare, delivered over a pair of reading glasses, as she exposed the numerous failings of the copy in front of her.

"She was the crustiest editor I've ever had" recalled Paul Bunner, another former editor at Alberta Report, one-time speechwriter in Stephen Harper's Office of the Prime Minister and current editor of the online conservative magazine C2C Journal. Her "growls and scowls" were all part of the Byfield education process. "They produced a lot of writers and editors who went on to great success in journalism across Canada," Mr. Bunner said. The alumni list covers nearly every major publication in the country.

But no one valued her editing skills more than Mr. Byfield himself who, as deadline approached, would grow increasingly desperate that his partner read his work, "I can count on two hands the number of stories I've written in the past 40 years that she didn't have a hand in," he said. "She backed up everything I did."

In her own writing, Mrs. Byfield was uncompromising in her critiques of modern Christianity, sexuality and education policy, such as a 1986 Alberta Report cover story declaiming "The Seeming Suicide of the United Church," referring to its acceptance of homosexuality. Yet she also tempered many of her husband's more-extreme inspirations. "One time Ted had the idea that the magazine ought to take pictures of young girls going into an abortion clinic in B.C.," recalled Don Ingram, a long-time family friend and lawyer for Alberta Report from its inception until 2000, when he became a provincial court judge. "But Ginger put her foot down. 'Those girls are suffering enough,' she said. And that was the end of it."

In contrast to her formidable professional reputation, however, Mrs. Byfield was also a warm and enthusiastic hostess. The Byfield home often served as bunkhouse for newly arrived writers, or anyone else in need of a roof. Of particular note were the famous Boar's Head dinners on Boxing Day, featuring a riotous procession of song and food throughout their Edmonton house.

Grandson Colman Byfield, himself a columnist with the Edmonton Sun, recalled the unencumbered hospitality. "The house would be filled with strange and interesting people: judges, politicians, priests, social misfits, the homeless guy my Grandpa picked up hitchhiking and invited home." As always, it was up to Mrs. Byfield to give coherence to her husband's fountain of ideas. And, as Justice Ingram noted, "the alcohol always flowed freely. They weren't the kind of religious people who avoided liquor."

Eventually the Byfields grew uncomfortable with the perceived spiritual indulgences of Anglicanism and converted to the Orthodox Church. ("How many Orthodox priests does it take to change a light bulb?" Mrs. Byfield once joked. Answer: "Change, what's that?") The Byfields' final project was a sprawling 12-volume history of Christianity, completed last year, which Mrs. Byfield edited.

In addition to their many journalistic and educational endeavours, Mrs. Byfield also raised six children: Michael, Link, Philippa (who died in 2007), Mary Fran, Vincent and Thomas. She leaves behind 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. An overflow crowd at her July 26 funeral service at St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Edmonton heard a sermon equally critical of radical Islam and secularism, but appropriately unsentimental about Mrs. Byfield's life, gifts and faults.

"After 65 years together, there is no getting used to it," Mr. Byfield said, reflecting on the loss of his constant editor and enabler. "It's like a hole has been ripped right out of you."

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