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Newfoundland satirist Ray Guy was loved and feared

Ray Guy at a book signing in Halifax in 1978.

It was a terrible thing, Ray Guy would say, to have a reputation for being funny. "This satire business, that was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. I was certified funny. From then on, I had to be funny – people expected it. Twice the work for the same pay."

But with his talent, it probably couldn't be helped. A consummate wordsmith with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Newfoundland, a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a rock-solid sense of place, he was an almost breathlessly good writer, and very, very funny.

Still, like all satirists, his wasn't motivated by a desire to amuse so much as a quest for justice.

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He always claimed his career came from simply being in the right place at the right time. When he graduated from Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and was hired by St. John's-based The Evening Telegram in the early 1960s, first as a general reporter and then legislative reporter, the rival The Daily News had a column on the Newfoundland House of Assembly. So the Telegram needed one, too. Mr. Guy was given the assignment.

Premier Joseph Smallwood's government held a huge majority. In fact, in Mr. Smallwood's first six terms, he never faced more than eight opposition members. Documented accountability was in short supply, too. As Mr. Guy recalled, Hansard had not been published in seven years.

"I had this image in my mind that there was a seesaw with an 800-pound gorilla on one end of it, and a snivelling little youngster way up on the other end, so if you had a bit of weight, where would you put it?" he said in a Telegram interview in 2011.

Mr. Guy produced 1,200 words, five days a week. He became the unofficial opposition – and a household name. Many of his readers – and the paper had a circulation then of about 25,000 – can quote lines verbatim, just as they can sing a few lines from Ron Hynes's Sonny's Dream.

"His early mockery of Smallwood, when Smallwood had morphed into some grim parody of a premier, was fired by anger, lit by a dark outport genius and devastatingly powerful because it was done in an authentic Newfoundland voice," Rex Murphy wrote in a Telegram tribute. "World-class journalistic battery that had people, every afternoon, literally, waiting in the small towns from Whitbourne to Burin for The Telegram to show up. That's popularity, that's writing."

He was compared to great writers such as Jonathan Swift and James Joyce. "He is unsurpassed when he turns his sights on local life," an earlier book reviewer noted, "[and] can most likely be given the lion's share of credit for the failure of the Newfoundland electorate to re-elect Smallwood in 1972."

But Mr. Guy was always self-effacing about his reputation. "Smallwood was so good at mounting a circus that all you had to do was be there," he once told The Herald. And, as far as politics in Newfoundland went, plus ça change. … He felt that premier Frank Moores soon found any guidebooks to absolute power Mr. Smallwood had left behind, that Brian Tobin's administration was "all engine and no brakes" and, when Danny Williams broke Mr. Smallwood's record in popular vote, it was a kind of Smallwood redux.

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"I always had this feeling when writing about all politics … that when it's so lopsided, that if a newspaper or news organization has any weight whatsoever, it should automatically go to the other side," he wrote.

Needless to say, this all raised some hackles.

"Got a dead cat in the mail once," he told The Herald. "I still get a few dirty looks over the racks in the supermarket, but nobody kicks me in the shins on Water Street. I've made sort of a point, apart from being a social dud, not to fraternize with the people I write about. Sure we're all decent human beings and kind to dogs and children, but I think I've kept some objectivity by not rubbing shoulders with these people. … It also made it easier … if you're going to try and cut somebody's throat you don't want to know that their mother is dying of cancer or something. It kind of cramps your style a little bit."

Still, there was drama. He was fired, or resigned from, The Telegram a half dozen times. He was the subject of letters to the editor and calls to radio and TV producers that expressed outrage and demanded his immediate removal. He was sued.

But he also had editors and producers who defended him; supporters like Harry Steele, who owned The Sunday Express, and backed him up when Mr. Guy's commentary on (in that instance) the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal – the sexual and physical abuse of several hundred residents of the orphanage over many years – infuriated some prominent figures.

And his writing wasn't all politics. Mr. Guy also created, as "bits of filter and fluff, to make a change," recurring characters like Aunt Cissie Roach, and a memoir-like series exploring "Juvenile Outharbour Delights."

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Of his craft he said, "Writing is like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. It always feels good when you finish."

Ray Guy died May 14, of liver cancer. He was 74.

He was born April 22, 1939, to George Hynes Guy and Alice Louisa (Adams) in Arnold's Cove (pop. 182), Placentia Bay. He had one younger sister, Iris. He grew up with a kerosene lamp, outhouse and the kitchen stove as the sole source of heat for the house. He thought Newfoundland changed 200 years in the next few decades.

In the mid-1970s, after he left The Telegram, he contributed scripts for several CBC productions, including All Around the Circle, a popular TV variety series.

He had also appeared in skits on the show. "I call it making faces," he said. His self-deprecation covered his relentless shyness, and his efforts to conquer it. "I took it as therapy, better than making baskets or key tabs, to try and get over this almost pathological bashfulness I'm cursed with."

In later roles, he played Jack House in the TV show Up At Ours, a miniseries created by Gordon Pinsent that debuted in 1979, and the Telegram editor in the feature film Secret Nation (1992).

He was also a playwright. Stunned, Stung, Bitter and Twisted: The Ray Guy Revue and Capelin Supper (1982) was distilled from his columns, and he wrote Young Triffie's Been Made Away With (1985), which was made into a feature film (2006), Frogpond (1988), and The Swinton Massacre (1992).

He freelanced extensively, including with Canadian Geographic and Atlantic Insight, and became a regular columnist with The Sunday Express, The Sunday Independent and The Northeast Avalon Times. And for several years he was a regular commentator on CBC-TV's Here & Now.

He won a National Newspaper Award (1967) and entered the Canadian News Hall of Fame in 1984. He won the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council Ted Russell Award (1985), a National Magazine Award for Humour and the Leacock Medal for Humour for That Far Greater Bay (1977).

Mr. Guy's other books include You May Know Them As Sea Urchins, Ma'am (1975), Outhouses of the East (1978, with photography by Sherman Hines), Beneficial Vapours (1981), This Dear and Fine Country (1985) and two collections of his columns from the 1960s and 70s.

Nothing – threats of a lawsuit, an illness, a hangover – prevented him from working. Once, for example, while working for The Sunday Express, he became so frustrated when a computer devoured his column that he smashed the keyboard with a tape dispenser. Then he wrote another. He wrote until this past March, when he said he was retiring, submitting his last column for The Northeast Avalon Times.

When he was set on something, he was very determined. This was true in matters of the heart, as well.

In 1975, a young producer named Kathie Housser had recently moved to St. John's to produce the morning show on CBC-radio and Mr. Guy often sent in a column to be read on Friday morning. One morning, he left not a script but a note of a couple of points he wanted to make. And one of them was that he "wanted to marry Kathie Housser of Port Alberni, B.C."

Then he had taken off for Arnold's Cove, where he didn't even have a phone. After some thought, Ms. Housser followed. Two days later, they announced they would be married Sept. 22 – the next week. Their marriage lasted 38 years, until his death, and produced daughters Rachel and Anne, who also survive him.

Still, Mr. Guy would not romanticize, as he distrusted mythologizing, whether of Newfoundland, or of himself. It is true he was targeted, fired and quit in frustration. But he would say it was also true he was encouraged, respected and given space for his voice.

In 2004, he told The Sunday Independent about listening to Superman on the radio as a boy. "I thought he was a muscle-bound jerk in blue long johns, but I thought Clark Kent was really nice. I felt like Clark Kent."

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