Shirley Sharzer mentored generations of young reporters, serving as a model of a rare woman executive in a male-dominated business.
As an editor at three daily newspapers in Toronto, including The Globe and Mail, she was a prominent figure in the competitive world of daily print journalism. She maintained a friendly but professional rapport with reporters as she climbed the corporate ladder.
Steely on the floor of a newsroom, she was a gentler figure in her office, where she offered acolytes advice in the byzantine practices of office politics. She also provided succour to those trying to juggle family life with the unpredictable – and unyielding – demands of the newsroom. The advice would be delivered in her recognizable raspy voice, often punctuated by a hearty guffaw.
Ms. Sharzer, who has died at 86, had been a trailblazer herself, a postwar pioneer who covered Winnipeg city hall and the Manitoba legislature in an age when woman were more likely to be relegated to lifestyle stories that male editors thought of interest to housewives.
She faced many obstacles in her career, including being forced from the reporting ranks when she became pregnant. She re-entered the work force after dedicating 10 years to raising her two children. The discrimination faced by working women was not less pronounced at daily newspapers, where hidebound traditions persisted in the newsroom, as well as the boardroom.
"Women have to dress like men, act like ladies and work like dogs," she once said.
Her own desire to become managing editor, or, dare she dream, editor-in-chief of a major daily newspaper was thwarted. She gained an impressive title and an office of her own, but it became clear that she was unlikely to rise further and she left the exciting, although demanding business of daily journalism to become a consultant and an adviser to a newspaper chain.
It was at The Globe that she had her greatest impact and several of the bylines in any edition belong to reporters whom she first hired as summer interns. Under her direction, the newsroom seemed more diverse and less macho.
As a rare woman listed on a newspaper masthead, Ms. Sharzer also endured special scrutiny, as she would be judged on her wardrobe (sharp and stylish, but never flashy) and on her demeanour (collegial, but no-nonsense) in ways her male counterparts were not. She quipped she could attend conferences of newspaper managers and not have to line up to use the washroom.
The isolation of her position was especially pronounced in the daily news meetings of senior editors, "where men bond instantly with a dirty joke or retelling sports scores or … guffawing at some sexist tale or passing around a particularly lewd photo," she once wrote.
Shirley Lev (she had no middle name) was born in Winnipeg on Jan. 23, 1928, to Edith, known as Eda (née Cooperman), and Abraham Lev. Both her parents had been born in Imperial Russia at Pavoloch, a shtetl about 100 kilometres southwest of Kiev. Eda told her daughter terrible tales about pogroms and persecution in the old country. (In 1941, a Nazi death squad massacred the entire Jewish population of Pavoloch, burying them in a mass grave.)
The Depression years were difficult for the family, as their savings had been wiped out, a familiar fate for many in their working-class neighbourhood. Through that tumultuous decade and the following war years, current events were a topic of conversation at the family dinner table and all four children were encouraged to take part.
Her mother enrolled the precocious girl into elementary school at an early age. After skipping grades, she entered the University of Manitoba as an English student at the tender age of 16. Obviously bright and certainly ambitious, she was delighted to be rushed by a sorority, only to have the invitation rescinded when the sisters realized she was Jewish.
"That was my first experience at being ostracized and it hurt. A lot," she told Joan Breckenridge of the Ryerson Review of Journalism student magazine in 1984.
She decided to take a break from schooling and sought a job at the Winnipeg Tribune one Friday in 1945. They told her to come back on Monday. Meanwhile, the printers at the paper and the rival Winnipeg Free Press went on strike. She refused to cross the picket line. The struck newspapers put out a joint edition under both mastheads, an ugly product in which the stories had been composed on a typewriter and slapped onto the page. The striking composing-room workers responded with a publication of their own, dubbed Typo News, and soon renamed the Winnipeg News. Miss Lev offered her services and began working as a reporter at age 17.
After the News ceased publication, she was hired by British United Press to cover breaking news. The job only lasted a few days before she was fired, not for any incompetency but because managers felt she was too young and too inexperienced for the position. She went home and "went down to the basement where I remember sitting on a pile of furnace logs and cried my heart out."
In 1948, she joined the staff of the Winnipeg Citizen, a co-operatively owned daily launched with financial backing from trade unions and the co-op movement. The Citizen attracted staff from across the land eager to work for a newspaper not owned by a newspaper baron. (Among the reporters was an aspiring novelist from nearby Neepawa named Margaret Laurence.) The morning paper was relentlessly red-baited in those early days of the Cold War. While it can be described as left-leaning and offered more favourable coverage to organized workers than that provided by its older rivals, the Citizen was far from being the communist organ described by critics.
After only 13 months, the Citizen folded. Meanwhile, Miss Lev joined the staff of the Free Press, where she displayed a wry touch in news stories. She profiled food inspectors, neighbourhood welcoming groups, and garbage crews, whose discretion in collecting refuse led her to describe them as the "city's backyard diplomatic corps." An article on failing marriage rates was published under the headline: "Marriage drop puzzles city hall; local gals 'just as good looking.' "
In 1950, she married Myer Sharzer, a divorced father of two who had been city editor at the Citizen. (He was also one of the paper's creditors, owed $80 in back pay.) The bride was 22, the groom 36.
When she became pregnant four years later, she was assigned to the copy desk. After the birth of her son, she stayed home to care for him and a daughter to follow. Meanwhile, her husband, who had been editor of the Israelite Press, a weekly Yiddish-English newspaper, took a position with the Canadian Jewish Congress as a regional executive director in Toronto.
After a decade away from newspapering, Ms. Sharzer was hired by the Toronto Telegram to write the captions for photographs, cutlines in newspaper jargon, an unchallenging job for someone who had covered a provincial legislature. She woke at 3 a.m., preparing lunches for her children before going to the newsroom, and was home by the end of the school day. She began a long, slow rise through the ranks, which stalled when a senior editor balked at putting a woman on the news desk, a high-pressure job. According to the Ryerson Review profile, the reluctant editor was eventually overruled by managing editor Andrew MacFarlane.
"Like other women in an all-male workplace, I developed a deaf, dumb, and blind reflex that carried me through awkward situations – I didn't get the vulgar jokes exchanged in the press room," she once told the author Judith Finlayson.
After the Telegram folded in 1971, she hopped over to the Toronto Star, where she was a features editor. Her management style had been developed at the Tely, where she was regarded as a den mother who cared about the welfare of those who answered to her, a welcome change from the traditional cutthroat atmosphere of a newsroom.
One of her odder responsibilities at the Star involved proofreading cartoons by Duncan Macpherson, who had once been caught trying to slip a Yiddish vulgarity in his work.
When her career stalled at the Star, she abandoned daily newspapers for academia in 1974, eventually becoming assistant dean in the journalism program at the University of Western Ontario in London.
The Globe hired Ms. Sharzer as an assistant managing editor in 1979. She was promoted to associate managing editor within two years and, in 1987, was promoted again to deputy managing editor, a new title in the newsroom flow chart in which she was responsible for the features department, including arts and entertainment, the Op-Ed page, and the Saturday Focus section.
On Boxing Day in 1988, Norman Webster was fired as editor-in-chief by publisher Roy Megarry, a decision not immediately announced. After the news leaked over the holiday season, the publisher named editorial writer William Thorsell as the replacement. Mr. Thorsell in turn named Timothy Pritchard as managing editor. (The man Mr. Pritchard replaced, Geoffrey Stevens, later was awarded a settlement in provincial court for wrongful dismissal.) Among those to leave the paper following the untidy shakeup was Ms. Sharzer, who took a position as editorial training co-ordinator for the Southam Newspaper Group.
One of her first tasks for her new employer was to write a report about the advancement of women throughout the chain of 17 newspapers. The result, titled "Whither the Revolution," told "a depressing tale" where the chain employed four male journalists for every female journalist, despite the readership being slightly more than half female.
"In my opinion, so-called women's issues, which are really society's issues, tended to be on Page One when women were on the news desk," she wrote.
Ms. Sharzer retired in 1993 and, seven years later, was named to the Order of Canada for her contributions to journalism. A Globe article on the latest honourees highlighted the ascension to the Order of columnist Jeffrey Simpson while entirely ignoring Ms. Sharzer's important history with the newspaper. Journalism professor John Miller spanked the newspaper for its neglect in a letter to the editor published a few days later.
Ms. Sharzer's ambition was captured in a telling quote in the Ryerson Review article: "I don't want an epitaph that reads 'ever insistent,' which is what it's clearly going to be," she said. "I want it to say I really did run the show once."
She did not dwell on her own disappointment, preferring instead to encourage other women to press against the glass ceiling.
She maintained contact with the many journalists she had mentored, served as a judge for journalism awards, served on the board of governors of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and was a member of the advisory council for the journalism school at the University of Regina.
Ms. Sharzer died in Ottawa on Aug. 20, following surgery for an infection. She had earlier endured two cancer surgeries, both followed by respiratory arrest which she survived. She leaves a son, a daughter, two granddaughters and a stepson. She was predeceased by her husband, who died of heart failure in 1972, aged 57. She was also predeceased by a stepson, two sisters and a brother.
Her paid obituary notice concluded with a valediction an unknowing reader might mistake for a typographical glitch. Those familiar with the lore of newspapering will readily recognize "- 30 -" as the traditional – and now obsolete – signal to a typographer that a story is at end.
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