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A Lot of Beers and 15 Minutes of Fame

How Peter Gzowski got me an afternoon in the spotlight

Unprepossessing. He was scruffy and scrawny. He looked as if his clothes were second-hand or slept in, or both. He had terrible acne and smelled of cigarettes (back then, we all did).

But when you talked with him or, more likely, listened to him, appearances faded away. He crackled with ideas; his charm was immense, probably because his interest – however fleeting – was real.

I met Peter Gzowski at a Canadian University Press convention in Toronto over Christmas in 1956. He was editor of The Varsity, and I was number two on the University of Western Ontario Gazette.

I believe he proposed most of the motions, but I’m vague on what actually happened because I spent most of my time in the Ladies and Escorts room at the Park Plaza Hotel, our unofficial headquarters. (As long as you had one lady – remember this was the ’50s – any number of males could escort her.) It was during one of these off-campus gatherings that Peter and the Gazette editor, Keith Kincaid, came up with the idea of swapping issues. Western students would put out one issue of The Varsity, and Peter and some of his crew would do the same for us. So a handful of us came up from Western a month or two later and did an issue of The Varsity. I wrote a humour column and then to fill a hole on the editorial page, I dug up an editorial I had written at Western.

And that’s how Peter gave me an afternoon of fame.

My editorial called for the abolition of the monarchy. I still remember the last sentence: “For too long have we been blinded by the gleam of jewels in a crown across the sea.” It had created no stir at all at Western, but Peter could smell a good story.

After the issue was shipped off to the printer, I went back to the Park Plaza, but Peter, a stringer for the Telegram, called around and got some incensed reactions to this young whipper-snapper who had dared attack the Queen. His story made the front page of the first edition of the Tely, and in later editions it was jumped on by the Star.

By the time I arrived back in London on the afternoon train, most of my 15 minutes of fame had already flown. But the editorial was reprinted in Time, and one company even pulled its ad.

A week or two later, Peter and some staffers came to London and put out a most respectable issue of the Gazette. Peter came with me to an English class: “Only class I’ve been to this year,” he whispered.

That summer he got a job – degreeless – as city editor of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald. I had a summer job with the CNR, and when I found I would have a one-day stopover there, I sent him a telegram. (We didn’t trust phones; this was the ’50s.) He wired back that I should meet him on the main drag. Saskatchewan, even more draconian than Ontario, had taverns for men only – with a limit of one glass of draft per person at a time. When I walked into the pub on that sweltering July day, Peter – still scruffy, but emanating influence – waved me over to a table festooned with glasses of draft. About 30 of them.

I don’t remember much more about Moose Jaw, although I will long remember much about Peter. As do we all.

Paul Rush attended U of T as a master’s student in 1960 before embarking on a career in newspapers, magazines, radio and television. He is a former chair of the magazine journalism program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

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