Betsy Mosbaugh braved the war era, snowstorms and typos as the first female editor of The Varsity
It was the worst blizzard in Toronto’s history. On Tuesday, Dec. 12, 1944, a storm from the Gulf of Mexico seethed its way north, unleashing 21 inches of snow on the city by noon.
“Whole City Stopped as If by Giant Hand” blazoned the Toronto Daily Star’s late Tuesday edition. Twenty-one people died in the whiteout – including one killed when a Queen St. streetcar keeled over and trapped 170 people inside. Motor traffic was suspended; deliveries of bread and milk halted; and most establishments – including munitions factories – shut down.
The University of Toronto, in the centre of the storm, transformed into what the Varsity called “an Alaskan ghost town.” Its Gothic buildings were partially buried under six-foot drifts, and the few students who had missed the 8 a.m. radio announcement of class cancellations staggered through blinding snow only to find locked doors. Residences were shut off from food supplies, and even Mac’s – the famed campus sweetery – was closed for the first time in its history.
One U of T operation, however, remained open through the two-day paralysis: the Varsity student newspaper. Working from the U of T Press building at St. George and College streets – home of the Varsity’s night office and printing room – the stalwart editors churned out their eight-page Christmas literary edition. Managing editor Ken McRae, who had footslogged his way in, banged out the day’s editorial on an Underwood typewriter. U of T staff compositor Jimmy Taylor worked the Mergenthaler linotype, with the machine’s molten lead heating up the basement room. The crew not only succeeded in printing and delivering the “Green Issue” (named for its festive use of ink colour), but one-upped the Globe and Mail – which failed to publish a Wednesday morning edition at all. “It was the great triumph of the newspaper year,” says McRae (BA 1946 Victoria).
The triumph was due in no small part to Betsy Mosbaugh, the Varsity’s editor-in-chief and one of the issue’s night editors. Mosbaugh, 21, trumped not only the natural elements that year, but the social landscape: she was the first female editor in the paper’s 64-year history. Known affectionately as “the bosswoman,” “the editriss” and “dialectical Betsy,” Mosbaugh was a fourth-year philosophy and English student at University College who had served as an assistant sports editor the year before. A formidable athlete, she wielded a hockey stick with the same dexterity that she spoke the English language: she had an incisive wit and was a natural punster who created high art out of wordplay. In an era when women were fussing over pin curls like starlet Gene Tierney’s and pining for sweater sets, Mosbaugh brushed her wavy brown hair away from her face and sometimes donned a tweed suit and topcoat with raglan sleeves. Broad-shouldered and singularly self-possessed, she entered a space – and assumed control – by presence alone. “We were kind of in awe of her,” says Barbara Michasiw (neé Jones), 83, who served as news editor. “Long before there was a feminist movement she was a very strong woman. And although she probably would not have been editor had it not been war years and there was a shortage of men, it wasn’t because she didn’t have the ability. She certainly did, and she did a great job as editor. You didn’t cross Betsy. But she was fair, she was very fair.”
A stringent editor, Mosbaugh arrived at the office well before 8:30 a.m. classes to check the day’s paper, marking grammatical gaffes and peppering the issue with editorial appraisals. “Ohmygawd” was one of her favourite expressions, which she used after discovering a glaring typo that the night editors had missed. “She was a good, strong taskmaster,” says Alex Cringan (BScF 1948, MSc 1956), 80, who was a junior staffer who wrote sports and news items. “She expected you to do the job assigned, and to do it as well as you could. If she didn’t like it, she told you exactly what she didn’t like about it. She was very frank, very transparent and she was tough. She could hold her own with anybody.”
In the era of Linotypes, when student editors often stayed up until 4 a.m. proofing, final copy was apt to be spattered with minor errors. But the typo that caused the most turmoil struck in one of Betsy’s first editorials. On October 1, 1944, U of T Chancellor Sir William Mulock died at the age of 100. That evening, Mosbaugh tapped out a eulogy entitled “The Fire of Life,” in which she punctiliously relayed his journey from farmer to cabinet minister and chancellor. She ended with a quote from Mulock – “I have warmed both my hands before the fire of life” – then left the piece with the night editors for typesetting and proofing. When she reviewed the issue the following morning, however, she looked at her editorial in horror. The first line of her valedictory read, “Canada’s grand old man is deal” – not dead. “Poor Betsy – she was not a bit happy,” says Michasiw (BA 1945 Victoria, MA 1946, MA 1967, PhD 1974). “He was a great, grey eminence, and it was a major editorial for her. To have her first sentence demolished like that was a very bad thing.” Mosbaugh’s reaction? “Well, perhaps there were some unprintable words said.”
Mosbaugh was born in 1923 in Huntsville, Ontario, a small rural community 220 km north of Toronto. The town was a centre for lumbering, and its picturesque harbour often teemed with thatches of freshly cut logs. Huntsville was also one of the last company towns: businessman C.O. Shaw owned just about everything in the area – from the steam train railway, to the Bigwin Inn (a high-class resort frequented by movie stars and politicians), to the residents’ houses. He also owned the prosperous Anglo-Canadian Leather Company, where Mosbaugh’s father, Frank, worked as superintendent and later as director. The family lived directly across from the tannery in their one-storey wooden home – and right next to C.O. Shaw (who lived in the town’s only brick house).
The Mosbaugh family was one of the “leading lights of Huntsville society,” says friend George Garland (BASc 1947, MSc 1948), 80. Frank helped build the town’s first golf course and immersed himself in civic activities. Betsy’s mother, Laura, was a homemaker who encouraged the disparate talents of their four children. The youngest son, Frank Jr., became a CBC producer; he later moved to New York and worked at CBS, and played piano at venues such as the Drake Hotel. Marjorie (BA 1937 St. Michael’s, MD 1940) – eight years older than Betsy – earned her medical degree at U of T and became a tuberculosis specialist. She also worked as a general practitioner in northern Ontario, treating patients throughout Haliburton’s forested areas and living a solitary existence in a trailer stacked high with books. Marjorie continued to practice into her 80s, tugging on her army boots and paddling to remote areas to reach her patients. The oldest brother, George, became the tannery’s superintendent. In 1956, he died in a failed attempt to save two workers overcome by gas fumes after a mechanical malfunction in the tannery. It fell to Marjorie, who was home at the time of the accident, to declare her brother dead.
When Mosbaugh took the Varsity’s helm in September 1944, the newspaper reflected the somber tenor of the Second World War. The tone was apparent from the year’s first edition, which contained a roll call of 94 young U of T men killed in action, missing or presumed dead since April 1, 1944. Issues contained updates on compulsory military training for male students and national service training for women; coverage of U of T’s War Service Drive and blood donor clinics; and news on students overseas, with headlines such as “Once Sports Editor of the Varsity: Now Heroically Downs Nazi Planes.” The masthead included a military editor, and higher wartime printing costs forced Mosbaugh to downsize to a single-sheet issue twice a week. (The paper remained a four-page issue on the remaining three weekdays). “This was the crunch year of the war and the casualties from D-Day had been coming in since the summer, so it was a fairly grim period,” says McRae. “I thought that [working at a newspaper] was a very serious business to be in. We were very privileged not to be in the trenches somewhere.”
The prevailing climate also led to a conservative ethos at the newspaper, and there was little student activism on campus. “The Varsity at that time was more of an information paper,” says McRae. “You covered meetings and associations. There were lots of meetings about the nature of the post-war world and some post-war planning, but there wouldn’t be very much student debate. There wasn’t a lot of student politics at the time, and there wasn’t a lot of student radicalism. The war tamped these things down.”
Despite the conservative atmosphere, Mosbaugh cast a critical eye on the day’s issues in her editorials – and a discerning eye she did cast. She censured U.S. President Roosevelt’s proposed bill for one year of compulsory military training during peacetime; criticized U of T for subjecting returning servicemen to the “undignified humiliations” of freshman initiation rituals; and offered a scathing remonstration of the McGill University Senate for prohibiting students of Japanese descent from taking courses at the university. Mosbaugh also denounced Hart House for barring admission to women (the building remained off limits to females until 1972). She argued that denying females access to Hart House propagated a system of parallel education at U of T, as opposed to an integrated “co-education.” “As long as the exclusive walls of a male harem continue to provide shelter from the responsibilities of a heterosexual world, young men…will not grow into perfect citizens, because they have lacked the opportunity to develop a balanced attitude towards half of their fellow students,” she wrote.
The Varsity, however, proved to be co-education – or co-curricular recreation – at its best, with a clubhouse atmosphere and the high-spirited pell-mell of a newsroom. The staff – 14 editors and 50 part-time writers – worked from a former faculty office in University College, amidst the constant clacking din of typewriters and an ever-present brewing pot of coffee. Late on Friday afternoons, an editor would inevitably issue the standard line – “We will adjourn to the King Cole Room” – and staffers would make their way to the basement beer hall in the Park Plaza Hotel on Bloor Street. “Betsy was not averse at all to joining the boys at the King Cole Room,” says Michasiw. “The Champus Cat” – a tongue-in-cheek Varsity gossip column that carried thinly disguised vignettes about staffers – would carry reports on the goings-on, referring to the venue as the Partly Plastered Hotel. Mosbaugh added to the hijinks with her subversive humour. The Varsity newspaper actually had two daytime offices – one inside the female-averse Hart House. But given Mosbaugh’s position as editor-in-chief, and the high number of women on the masthead that year, the Hart House office was conferred to the Torontonensis yearbook staff – which had a male at its helm. One Varsity editor mourned the situation in that year’s Torontonensis: “A heavily feminized staff forced us to stay in the cramped [University College] office for the second consecutive year, and bequeath our commodious Hart House quarters to Torontonensis.” To protest the misappropriation, Mosbaugh wrangled assistant news editor Frank Rasky (BA 1945 UC) into a photo shoot during the aftermath of the Great Snow. She buried herself neck-deep in the drifts in the University College quadrangle and held a mock editorial conference – claiming the tiny office was so crowded that a snow pile was the only place left to meet.
A Toronto Telegram article that profiled Mosbaugh when she became Varsity editor stated her youthful ambitions: earn a master of journalism at Columbia University, New York, and write a novel in social satire style. In the 1945 yearbook, she further outlined her expectations: “Anticipates rough knocks in journalism and politics, then hopes to retire on proceeds of memories.”
Her roughest battles, however, would not be fought during a Fleet Street–style newspaper war or a parliamentary debate – and could not be anticipated by a 21-year-old.
On June 5, 1945, Mosbaugh married Ralph Mackay – director of information at the Wartime Prices Board and Trade and a former Vancouver Sun staffer – in a simple ceremony in front of 30 guests in Ottawa. Mosbaugh worked in the National Film Board of Canada’s information section, and wrote an article for Saturday Night magazine in 1946 about the film board’s female directors and location managers. She expanded into writing dialogue for Crawley Films in Ottawa, which made educational films for such clients as McGraw-Hill Text Films.
Mosbaugh and Mackay bought a small farm overlooking the Gatineau River. The rustic farmhouse had no plumbing, and the couple cooked on a wood-burning stove, tended a vegetable patch and commuted to their jobs each day by railway. The couple lived there for about three years, and had two daughters, Ellen and Ann. The seemingly Norman Rockwell existence quickly splintered.
The couple separated, and Mosbaugh returned to Toronto with her young daughters. Eventually, Mackay and the girls would move to Vancouver. Mosbaugh was battling increasingly against alcoholism – a fight that would continue throughout her life. “She was close to death several times,” says her niece Mary Spence-Thomas, 60. In her mid-50s, Mosbaugh decided to try a new medical implant in its testing stages. The “anti-alcohol” device was embedded in her abdomen, and yielded dosages of medication that created an adverse physical reaction when she drank. “When she had the implant, she found herself again,” says Spence-Thomas. “I believe at that point she had nothing to lose, and she responded tremendously well to it.”
In the years following the medical procedure, Mosbaugh’s life prospered. She took a job as an editor at a printing company in downtown Toronto, and lived in an apartment on Carlton Street – around the corner from the historical Cabbagetown neighbourhood. Enamoured with architecture and history, Mosbaugh delighted in taking walks with Spence-Thomas through the area and pointing out design details of the Victorian homes. However, Mosbaugh lost her footing again after the printing company moved to the suburbs and brought in new, young management. “Everything changed. There was no longer the sense of camaraderie or teamwork. She couldn’t keep it together. And yet at that point she thought she was strong enough to live without the implant and she had it taken out,” says Spence-Thomas. “It set her on a bad path and by the end she had to pick herself up once again.”
The winter of 1992 stood in contrast to the violent season that plagued Toronto and the Varsity editors almost half-a-century earlier. Ferocious snow squalls were replaced with gentle temperatures and light dustings of snow on the streets. Early one December morning, in her high-rise apartment in the St. Jamestown neighbourhood, Mosbaugh faced her last struggle. While she was cooking breakfast, her nylon nightgown tipped too close to the burner’s edge, and caught fire. In the flash of a moment, in what writer Joan Didion refers to as an “ordinary instant,” Mosbaugh acted in her ordinary manner: she battled back. She rolled on the floor, extinguishing the flames, and struggled to the phone to call an ambulance. She was taken to the Wellesley Hospital with third-degree burns on her face and chest. Mosbaugh continued to fight for two more months, but – despite initial periods of consciousness – she remained in a coma. She died in the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Wellesley Hospital on Thursday, February 25, 1993.
“I know that those times at the Varsity were good times for her. I think that she was in full stride at that time in her life. Who knows how it all got sidetracked,” says Spence-Thomas. “I remember we found writings of hers, and they were passionate – beautifully passionate – and that was a side of Betsy that much later in life we didn’t really see.” “Betsy was in an ever-constant battle, and I think it’s hard to criticize because everybody has struggles whether they choose to admit them or not,” she adds. “She would fall but then she would get back up – and that’s the important part. She did it time and time again, which showed that there was a spirit there that wanted to make it happen. She kept coming back, and kept coming back, despite tumbling again. Betsy would always come back.”
Stacey Gibson is managing editor of U of T Magazine.