Nanaimo newspaper closure sparks copyboy memories

You meet all kinds in a newspaper’s editorial office — even in the humble role of copy boy.

Last Friday marked the last edition of the Nanaimo Daily News (originally the Free Press) after 141 years of publication. Its loss and the ongoing challenges to all newspapers in this digital age set me to looking back on my own humble start in journalism more than half a century ago…

You meet all kinds in a newspaper’s editorial office — even in the humble role of copy boy. Here, in the cluttered arena of editors and reporters, amidst the blue of cigarette smoke and the chatter of typewriters and teletypes (I’m writing of the 1960s), the great and not-so-great, the famous and the infamous and the forgotten come to call.

Some come by request, others come seeking publicity, from the athletic club secretary with the latest scores to the man with the squirming canvas bag who, upon being asked what it contained, blithely replied, “Rattlesnakes.” He wasn’t kidding!

There was the handsome old gentleman in army greatcoat, shopping bag in hand, who would drop by to chat with a reporter friend, a cup of coffee, then be on his way. And so it went, every few months for a year or so and he came no more. Then the Section Page carried the obituary of the man who once had been internationally famous as a wrestler and great Canadian athlete — Chief Thunderbird.

The front lobby and staircase invariably proved a blessing to bored reporters, newspaper doors being seldom locked (in those days) and an irresistible magnet to those the worse for drink. Then an urgent call from an alarmed switchboard operator would bring copy boy and idle reporter running to the rescue. All too often the real hero of the emergency would be the janitor whose unhappy task it was to repair the damage to tile and paint.

In the early afternoon of a morning newspaper before the first reporters made their appearance, the littered office would be empty but for the editorial secretary and several editors secure in their offices, and the hapless copy boy, at work tearing and classifying the wire copy disgorged overnight from the teletypes.

Then another menace to switchboard operator and secretary would appear, this time in the guise of a harmless little man in heavy overcoat, peak cap and invisible gold-rimmed glasses who, upon being passed from switchboard to secretary to copy boy, would seize the final, unescaping link in this panic-stricken chain by the wrist, to whisper with great melodrama all of the previous day’s headlines into an unwilling ear.

To a 17-year-old innocent straight out of high school, the most exotic character to show in the newsroom was not a member of the public but a fellow employee from downstairs whose intriguing reputation had long preceded her. But wishful think, alas! moved no mountains and the fascinating lady proceeded about her business without the slightest notice of a blushing boy peeking from behind a teletype.

Another who never seemed to notice him was the good lady who, every so often, would bring in mouth-watering tidbits she’d baked, to serve them with great fanfare to each and every reporter, editor and secretary. But never to the lowly copy boy who made his rounds with face of stone while silently vowing that, even if offered one, he’d rather starve.

In his uniform of pea-jacket and jeans, the big man with the dogs became another regular visitor. The shaggy blonde hair, bright blue eyes and high cheekbones gave him an unmistakably Scandinavian appearance, confirmed by his heavily accented English. But it was his companions who drew the most attention, the full-sized black Labradors which accompanied him everywhere, even to the editorial room. At least they were well behaved. Their welfare became a brief topic of conversation when the gentle giant was found dead from an apparent brain tumour in his room.

The old crone who camped almost nightly in the lobby and drove the switchboard operators to distraction also had a story to tell. She was the living embodiment of a hag, with her hook nose, toothless grin, loud cackle and leering eyes. Loneliness drew her to the Colonist, that was obvious even to an ingenuous copyboy. But for all her prattle and wink-wink, nudge-nudge, never a word about her illustrious career as madame of the largest brothel in wartime Prince Rupert!

Another unforgettable character was no visitor to the newsroom but, regrettably, a staffer. An editor of recognized ability who’d served with “Monty” in Africa, his greatest delight was to torment his juniors. And none was more junior than the copy boy.

No ordinary bully, his malice exceeded all “acceptable” bounds of the workplace, even in an age before harassment became a legal issue. Like the apocryphal scorpion he bit everyone and everything.

Rebellion was out of the question but vengeance, if achieved ever so subtly, was possible. An order to fetch him dinner from the corner drive-in presented such an opportunity. Only minutes away and insulated in aluminum foil, the chicken ‘n’ chips were piping hot upon delivery to the press building. But not after a detour through the darkroom and 10-minutes’ lingering in a steel-cold sink.

Too late a co-worker ended his reign of terror with a well applied and much applauded headlock!

Finally, on a sombre winter’s afternoon, there came a quiet young man in beard and horn-rimmed glasses with what appeared to be a placard under his arm, to cool his heels at the switchboard for two hours before a reporter could see him. Their conversation was brief, his picture snapped and he went his way. The paper dutifully reported in the shortest space that a young entertainer from Australia had arrived in town.

The years passed and times changed — and considerably for the better, I’m sure — for Rolf Harris of “Wiffle Board” fame.