Thursday, 3 May 2007

Bye: Les Pyette

Remember when the Toronto Sun knew how to say its goodbyes to parting vets? A time when the tabloid had heart and an appreciation of the contributions made by its employees?

We do.

On December 11, 2002, Toronto Sun columnist Mike Strobel gave editor/publisher Les Pyette the sendoff he deserved after almost 30 productive years at the Suns in Toronto and Calgary and the London Free Press

By Mike Strobel
Sip soup with Les Pyette and you sup with a cast of characters. Elvis P.:

"I'm not an Elvis freak," says our departing publisher over a bowl of beef-lentil at the Hot House. "But ...

"I was 12 or 13. I saw him on our little black-and-white. I thought, 'This is gonna be the biggest thing ever.' I've always had a love, a soft spot, for Elvis."

Pyette was editor here when someone walked in with a photo of, apparently, Elvis Presley peeking through a screen door at Graceland, long after his (apparent) death.

Pyette paid three grand. "It was the dog days of summer and I thought we could have some fun." Elvis lives!? He played it big. His boss, Doug Creighton, did not see the humour.

"I think I still have the memo," Pyette, 57, chuckles.

Right next to the memo about his headline announcing Pope John Paul I. HE'S ITALIAN! ("In hindsight, I might have pulled that one back," he grins through his moustache.)

He steps down as publisher this month, after 40 bold and brash years in this business.

The Boy From The Soo: "I grew up poor. Seven kids in a two-bedroom house. You'd wake up with snow blowing in and the only thing giving off heat was the cat."

His dad once drove a '61 Rambler through the front of a barber shop. They were closing and wouldn't cut his hair.

Stormin' Norman Pyette, they called him, long before General Schwarzkopf came along.

"If a guy treats you well, treat him well," says Stormin' Norman's son. "If a guy is a ----head, then get right back at him. I learned that on the streets of the Soo."

Cowboy Les: I met Pyette in Calgary in 1981. He hired me at the new Sun there. He had the Cowtown get-up - hat, boots.

"To be a real cowboy, you have to rope and ride," he tells me. "But I'm a cowboy when it comes to taking chances."

Like the What a Boob! front page. It referred to then-premier Bob Rae, after a big televised speech.

"I knew I was gonna have problems the next morning."

He was right. Radio stations pulled publisher Paul Godfrey out of the shower. Godfrey did not see the humour.

"I still think that front page was a home run," says Pyette.

P.T. Pyette: This guy is one of the greatest showmen our business has seen.

He had a Houdini wannabe escape from a locked safe in The Sun's newsroom. (It jammed. The guy nearly suffocated.)

Remember Billy Ray Cyrus? Lester helped make him a star.

Mostly on a hunch, he had a team down Nashville way before Achy Breaky Heart broke big. Front page. Joe Warmington tailed the guy forever, wrote a book about him.

P.T. Barnum, Elvis - both great showmen - woulda been proud.

"I always could smell things," Pyette says. "I always knew how to catch the wave. What the buzz would be. What was a good story and what wasn't."

The Les Said The Better: Once, in Calgary, the business editor emerged from Lester's office white-faced and befuddled.

His section had come under fire, so he had tried to divert attention to Cynthia Ford, the gossip columnist.

"It's crap," he had said.

"Fine, Rick," Pyette said, and tried to move on.

But the business guy persisted. "Les, Cynthia Ford is gossipy nonsense. What's she doing in the paper?"

On he went, until Lester quietly said. "Okay, Rick, get out."

Out he went. He told secretary Marilynn Figueroa what had happened.

"Don't you know?" she asked. "Les writes that column. He is Cynthia Ford."

Polyester Lester: He got hung with this tag because of his early suits. But in the early '90s, Pyette went corporate. Publisher in Calgary, London. Toronto in 2001.

"The publishing thing is the same as in a newsroom. It's a good story or it's not. It's a good business deal or it's not."

The cowboy boots gave way to oxfords.

"Funny thing. Last weekend I wore my ostrich cowboy boots for the first time in three years. Maybe I'm free to do that now. I've done the corporate schtick."

Well, pretty much. Pyette, a millionaire thanks to Sun stock, will be Sun Media's veep for new products. But he'll work mostly from home in London, with Linda and their four kids.

And he will keep his eyes peeled.

A while back, a guy walked by his house.

"I thought it was Elvis. Honest to God, it looked like him.

"I thought, 'What a scoop! He's alive and he lives around the corner from me.' Then I said, 'Hey, Les, go back to bed.' "

The lunch crowd trickles back out to Church and Front Sts. Pyette's eyes twinkle.

"Maybe before I'm done, we'll bring Elvis back, somehow."

Well, Lester, if anyone can . . .

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