Saturday, 26 May 2007

Remembering Rimmer

Toronto newspaper columnists of every depth come and go, but few are remembered as often, and as affectionately, as Paul Rimstead.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of The Rimmer's death in Florida, an anniversary lamented by most Toronto Sun colleagues and longtime readers who admired the man and his priceless prose.

Paul, along with Max Haines, Gary Dunford, the Page 3 SUNshine Girl, a crack sports department, a top notch police desk, a photo desk team to die for and management's unwavering belief in freedom of expression all contributed to the Sun's phenomenal success in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Paul, a Day Oner, was the Sun's candle in the wind, gone much too soon at 52 from the ravages of alcohol.

Much has been said and written about Paul before and after his death in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on May 26, 1987, his second wife Myrna (Miss Hinky) at his side. (Google "Paul Rimstead" and you will find several hundred references.")

The Toronto Sun's front page headline the day after he died read: "A Legend Dies."

Politicians, sports legends, musicians, celebrities and media veterans all praised Paul for his unique writing style and his contribution to the community and to journalism.

Simcoe MPP Allan McLean told the Legislature: "Ontario has lost a great ambassador . . . For many of us, the Rimmer was, in an abstract way, a modern-day Stephen Leacock."

Paul, born in Sudbury and raised with six siblings in the Bracebridge area, was rarely idle in his 52 years. He was a student newspaper publisher, pool hustler, brush salesman, softball player, Globe and Mail reporter, Canadian Magazine writer, Telegram sports writer, Sun columnist, owner of Annabelle the race horse, Toronto mayoralty candidate, broadcaster, professional jazz band drummer etc.

The soft spoken newsman was many things to many people.

To some of his Sun editors, he was often a royal pain in the butt, but to his loyal readers he was always Rimmer, and dammit, he up and died on them in his prime.

Nobody at the Sun developed a stronger bond with readers. Paul wrote about the man on the street and celebrities with the same flare and insight. Readers identified with Paul and his cast of column characters, including Miss Hinky, Flashbulb Freddie and even his car, Rusty Rita.

Readers savoured his every word and for Paul, the gathering of those words often involved drinking: on assignment, as a jazz band drummer, at media gatherings, in bars, at parties etc.

It was getting his words into the paper that was often a challenge. The Page 5 columnist was MIA more often than Sun editors would have preferred, but when he was on the phone to rewrite, spinning his tales from scratch with a drink in hand somewhere in the night, he was brilliant.

Absolutely brilliant.

Newsroom staffers took turns taking Paul's columns over the phone and whenever Ed Monteith, the managing editor, shouted from his office, "Fire him if he's been drinking," we would always respond "Nope, he sounds perfectly straight."

Like a sad-eyed puppy, you just couldn't help but support and admire the affable word master.

Readers felt the same way and would do anything for him. Paul would invite readers to drop by the Sun and thousands would line up at 333 King Street East to pay a visit.

Rimmer clearly cared about his readers and the city, thus prompting him to run for mayor in 1972.

In May of 2006, veteran Sun staffer Mark Bonokoski wrote a column about Paul's campaign for mayor.

"Thirty-four years ago, long before the young murder victims and gangbangers in this city were born, Paul Rimstead, this newspaper's most notorious columnist, and the franchise player of his day, decided to add his name to the ballot for mayor - his decision to run initially based on the city politicians of the day brazenly voting themselves a huge pay increase without first taking the pulse of the people. Sound familiar?

"What began as a lark, however, soon began to take on a more serious tone within Rimstead's inner-self," Mark wrote. "Rimmer, in fact, had a lot to say as his protest campaign ramped up. And, although he was a long shot at best, and totally ignored by the mainstream media, a great many of the words he wrote back in that 1972 election campaign seem both wise and prophetic today."

Paul, 37 at the time, finished fourth in the election, with 7,807 votes, and retired from politics. David Crombie became mayor. Life's comfort zone for Paul throughout the remainder of the 1970s: booze, a typewriter, an audience and his lady.

His doctors, unfortunately, were accurate in 1980 when they told Paul he would die a premature death from cirrhosis of the liver if he didn't stop drinking immediately.

Actually, the day he was told "you can not drink again for the rest of your life" was Feb. 11, 1980 - his 45th birthday.

In the first chapter of his first book, Cocktails & Jockstraps, published later the same year, Paul wrote: "Dr. Jim Bailey, the liver specialist, explained it quite simply. If I continued drinking the way I had - in excess of 26 ounces of whisky a day for 25 years - I would die. I might live seven more years, but no longer and quite possibly not even that long."

Paul said he told the doctors he would try a life of sobriety "but I did reserve the right to make a choice if I don't like it. I told the doctors that if I was absolutely bored and unable to cope, I would start drinking again and enjoy two or three good years instead of twenty boring ones."

Paul did try. He quit cold turkey, without going to Alcoholics Anonymous.

In the final chapter of Cocktails & Jockstraps, an entry dated July 11, 1980, he wrote about being sober for six months. Reading between the lines, you could sense the inevitable, that he missed the booze too much to make sobriety a lifetime commitment.

He wrote: ". . . it isn't very difficult to stop drinking when you consider my alternative. As somebody once said, nothing is as bad as dying. I'm still against my abstinence. Nobody ever loved booze more than me. I still use a tone of reverence in my voice when I mention scotch, Cointreau, or any of those other joys of life."

In the end, Paul opted to make his exit as a drinker, writing Sun columns from Florida and working on a couple of books. He told friends and colleagues he just couldn't write his style of writing while sober.

It was painful for friends and Sun staffers to see him drink again and approach the inevitable.

Les Pyette, a Toronto Sun city editor in the 1970s and later publisher, vividly remembers Paul's final days in Florida.

"When Rimmer was near the end, Toronto Sun publisher and CEO, the legendary Doug Creighton, who was the champ of all human rights, especially his own staff, asked me and Joanne Richard to fly to Florida and be with Rimmer and his wife," Les told TSF.

"We arrived at Broward County Hospital in the middle of the night," he said. "Rimmer was plugged with tubes, but his eyes were shining as bright as ever. I held his swollen hands and prayed for him, which I wasn't too sure he appreciated. Anyway, it was sad to see the great columnist, Paul Rimstead, in that condition. He died a couple of days later and the world of journalism lost one of its originals."

Says Les: "Rimmer was the champ. Everyone loved him. The book we did on his 52 best columns - Rimmer, Damnit! - was snapped up very quickly. Jim Yates actually named the book. I miss the Rimmer and I miss Jim, who was my right arm for so many years in the news biz."

Paul might have said the booze destined to kill him made him the newspaperman he was for almost three decades. His legacy: two books, hundreds of newspaper columns, a Ryerson journalism award in his name, bar stories that are still being told today and smiles whenever Rimmer is remembered.

Gone for 20 years, but definitely not forgotten. Not by Sun readers, veteran staffers, his mother and siblings, including his brother Rolf, now fighting to get his Toronto Sun sports desk job back after being laid off last summer after 30 years on the job, and his sister Diane, a veteran writer based in Bracebridge.

In a 35th anniversary Sun column in November of 2006, Peter Worthington wrote:

"Who is our Rimstead today? No one. He was one of a kind, though Joe Warmington has shades of Rimmer when he organizes rallies for our troops, and (Mike) Strobel has echoes of Rimmer when he paints himself blue in the Amazon jungle, or cuddles up to the Shaky Lady, flirts with a Playboy Bunny, or emulates a drag queen."

Peter, co-founder of the Toronto Sun, writes in great detail about the Paul Rimstead he knew and admired again in his Saturday Sun column.

Peter opens with: "Today is the 20th anniversary of Paul Rimstead's death - an anniversary that may not mean much to younger readers of the Sun newspapers, but a loss still felt deeply by those who knew him."

And he closes with: "Lord, but I miss him, as do those lucky enough to have known him."

We do miss Paul. He was a legend in his own time and at the right time.

While he would be humbled by the attention given him 20 years after his death, he would be disappointed with the changes at his beloved tabloid and today's management.

We're sure he would write a priceless probing column about his Quebecor bosses, but unlike the open and tolerant Doug Creighton years, when he often took Sun management to task, it's doubtful it would be published.

Paul was a character, a one of a kind journalist whose fans still reminisce about him in blogs and newsgroups two decades after his death.

A few of the many Paul Rimstead web links:

Paul's column in the first Toronto Sun from Nov. 1, 1971;

Sports Media Canada tribute by Tim Wharnsby

A detailed 1998 Ryerson Review of Journalism tribute by Julie McCann;

Cruising with Paul, memories of fellow musician Jim Galloway;

Judi McLeod remembers losing Paul's phone-in column;

Wikipedia entries about The Rimmer.

1 comment:

  1. I was just a kid when Paul was around. I read every column he wrote and Cocktails and Jockstraps too. I even watched his tv show (What ever happened to The Barfly and his dog Miss Sniffy Wigglebum?)

    Wish I could have met him in the flesh, then again, I knew him through his words.

    A great man, a character, an occasional sinner and a frequent saint.