Saturday, 22 March 2008

Memories of George

Memories of George "The Baron" Gross, the Toronto Sun's founding sports editor who died of a heart attack Friday at 85. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Mike Filey, Sunday Sun's The Way We Were columnist: "Like George, my wife Yarmila was born in what was then known as Czechoslovakia. Over the years, she taught me a few words and expressions in her native language and whenever I saw George, I would try a few on him. And while I struggled to get them out, George always seemed to appreciate my attempts, although I was never sure what he was saying back to me. From the both of us, Dobrou noc Jiri."

Andy Donato, award winning Day One editorial cartoonist: "The best memory is of George at the old Tely looking at Susan Swan, who was six feet tall and wearing a mini skirt, sitting with her feet up on a desk talking on the phone. George said: 'My grandfather always used to say the longer the tracks, the more luxurious the station.'

I went to George's home on Islington Ave. to a party celebrating his 75th birthday. His wife, Elizabeth, asked if I'd seen his gallery of cartoons in the basement hallway. I went down the stairs to a beautifully finished basement and found a whole wall full of George cartoons, most of which were mine. I'd remembered giving George at least two or three. I'd always wondered what had happened to the others. George would go into the comp room at night and walk off with them.

We'll miss the old Baron. I guess Doug now has a new lunch partner."

John Downing, a Day Oner and former editor/city hall columnist: "George Gross was a wonderful, frustrating mix of these words. Risque! Critical! Sexual! Obsessed! Loyal! Fierce! Twinkling! Mercurial! Thoughtful!

He was tough on enemies and tougher still on friends. If the Sun had had a gross of George Grosses, the Star would be a beaten second.

George was always parked near the door when most of us got to work. He would call you in on the way by and eviscerate quietly some stupid editor or reporter who had screwed up in that day's paper. We used to do it better, he said, and sadly he was often right.

George didn't shy away from committee work, unlike most journalists, realizing that these committees would sometimes give him an edge on getting the story, and that was the most important thing in his life, right up there with Elizabeth.

I served with with him on sports hall of fame boards and CNE committees and found him never bashful about ripping the guts out of the decisions. But he was a great connector. He got a new scoreboard for the ball diamond at the Ex for me out of Paul Beeston and major-league baseball and never got a word of thanks.

His Variety Village work is famous, and deservedly so, but he had friends like Linc Alexander, the former lieutenant-governor, whom he pressed into service in a dozen causes. I remember a party he threw for Linc. It was to be a garden party back of his comfortable Kingsway home, but it rained, a skunk took up light housekeeping in a window well, the fridge broke and most people showed up late, a no no when the Queen's rep is the guest.

So we stood in the mud of the backyard while George told filthy stories and we all laughed and had a wonderful time. Steve Stavro, who was uncomfortable with the press, showed up and George and him talked of the old failures in trying to start pro soccer in Toronto, and probably George reminded us of his record of scoring nine goals in one soccer game. None of us minded because none of us had ever come close. Typical Gross party. Fun with a cross section of people.

His relationship with his pal/boss Doug Creighton was affectionate and stormy. Doug once asked at a black-tie dinner how come George had never followed him out the door when Doug was fired. Doug said that George had always promised that he would leave if Doug ran afoul of the board. I was sitting beside George as his friend sank his bitter spear into his chest. George never blinked and he never explained.

We all knew the answer, and so did Doug. George loved being a reporter and editor too much. He loved being at the centre. He would strut like a peacock with a scoop. So he couldn't quit because his job was his life. And in the end, he got fired from his beloved work by the only force in the world that really matters."

Mark Bonokoski, veteran Toronto Sun columnist: "How rare is it to express shock at the death of someone who is 85? Very rare, I would think. Except for when it comes to George Gross, the Baron.

The shock of his sudden passing is real, because his death was wholly unexpected. He was not ailing, at least not publicly. His energy was to be envied, his love of the newspaper game (and those who played it well) was still intense, his mind was as keen as ever, and his sartorial elegance had never lowered itself a single notch. He was not 85, but he was.

His 85th birthday party in the Sun's sports department in January - cake, etc. - embarrassed him somewhat. He didn't want to be 85, but he was.

So much has already been written about George. So much has already been well said. There is little more I can add except my sadness.

We both arrived at the office early. In fact, on most days, the first person I greet is George. “Good morning, Baron,” I'd say as he strolls past my office. “Good morning, kiddo,” he'd reply.

We were all kiddos to George Gross.

I will miss saying hello on Monday morning, and for many, many mornings to come. But I will hardly be alone.

The newspaper business tends to have the optics of being a young person's game, sometimes to its detriment. The young bucks, rightly eager to move up, sometimes wrongly see the sages of the newsroom standing in their way, forgetting that the old sage didn't get there by fluke or by accident, but by an ability that only got better with each day's experience.

George Gross's abilities had not yet begun to wane.

No one wanted George Gross to move over, or get out of the way. Who else but George Gross, at 85, got the “scoop” that Mats Sundin was staying put with the Leafs?" And it was not a one-off.

That tattered contact booklet that George famously carried in his jacket pocket, the one with every important phone number in the sports world, and in politics and beyond, should be treasured and treated as a treasure.

It should also be enshrined in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, as part of the exhibit already honouring this remarkable man and human being.

But copied, first.

Len Fortune, former Sun graphics whiz vet: "I loved George - I have known him for more than three decades.

He always had a way of making me feel good about myself. He was extremely supportive during my stay at the Sun. Yes, there were times in the early days, when the fur flew, but nothing ever lingered. Differences with George were always settled quickly and fairly.

He always called me "Handsome," which I imagined he called every other male staffer in editorial, but all the same, I appreciated the handle.

It's a ironic that just last week, I was talking to ex-Tely great Chic MacGregor and George's name came up. I told Chic about the day that George and I drove far into the country for the funeral of our good friend, Mike McCabe. As it turned out, George and I were editorial's only representatives. That was a shame, Mike was an excellent man.

For some of you who didn't know Mike, he was Doug Creighton's chauffeur and confidant.

Throughout the drive, George recounted one great story after another of the twists and turns of his amazing life, and we both could see the possibility of an exciting book.

Well, we buried our friend Mike that day and neither of us ever mentioned the prospect of a book again. And that was another shame.

I send my respects to Elizabeth, a brave woman and Sheila Chidley, George's right hand in the sports department, who for years, made certain that The Baron could continue to contribute effectively.

And hats off to the newsroom for today's paper. A fitting and perfect front!"

Les Pyette, former Toronto Sun city editor to CEO: "George was a winner, tons of scoops for the Tely and Sun, a major contributor to the success of the Sun.

The Baron had a great sense of timing and flair. He was fun to travel with because everyone knew him, from the waiter to the president. We had a lot of fun lunches over the year and at breakfast just a short month ago, he was in top form.

It is a shock to see him go, but he would have preferred it that way and I guess we all can't stop what's coming.

Proud to have worked with and have known George for the past 35 years. The Sun has lost of of its original treasures."

Kaye Corbett, a Day Oner and former sports desk vet: The most unforgettable 'teacher' in my life.

George Gross was one of a kind. He was wise sometimes. He was humourous sometimes. He was even hard driving at other times. And I can say all these things, for I was his right-hand man at the very beginning of the Toronto Sun in November 1971.

Actually, I learned from this debonair man of the world during my days with the late and great Toronto Telegram. And what a learning experience that was.

When the Tely went the way of the dodo bird, George Gross was an integral member of the team which began working on wooden crates in that early Canadian foundry - the Eclipse Whitewear Building. And I was the fortunate one, being named the first assistant sports editor under his leadership.

Those days were filled with apprehension and wonderment at the Little Paper That Grew as it blossomed into a newspaper, which actually hit the streets every day. It was a miracle. There were nights at his home, planning the look and essence of those sports pages. It was like looking over the shoulder of a master at work.

Then there were the "chats," if his right-man man stepped out of line and words such as "okay, kiddo," which always seemed to conclude every so-called "lecture."

In those days, we were family, so when I decided to leave to become sports editor of the Edmonton Sun and later its executive editor, this man I considered to be my father in the business realm was mildly annoyed. And the communication between us became somewhat strained.

A few years late, in the mid-80s, George Gross came back into my life after my relationship with the Edmonton Sun disintegrated. That's when the "real" George Gross came to the forefront and he welcomed me back into the Toronto Sun fold, for which I will be eternally grateful.

While I retired in 1994, this wise and generous man continued to be such an influence with his writings and his generous ways. When I heard of his passing Friday, I went into shock, for he definitely was one of a kind."

John Cosway, former reporter/rewrite guy: The Toronto Sun newsroom has never had a dress code, a freedom appreciated by most staffers. We felt comfortable in our casual attire - until George Gross walked in dressed for royalty. Then we felt like slobs.

But the shine on George's shoes and the neatness of his flawless attire reflected the way he ran his sports department from Day One in 1971. Spit and polish and a work ethic that would put most people to shame. He planted a seed of excellence on Day One that quickly set the Toronto Sun's sports department apart from most North American sports desks.

More than a few novice sports reporters and deskers would call George an SOB along the way, but those who were open to his no nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone guidance reaped the benefits of his invaluable tutoring. He has numerous appreciative current and former staffers.

When you consider the parade of talent that worked in the sports department with George at the helm, you know he was the only man for the job as founding sports editor.

Ted Reeve, Jim Hunt, Trent Frayne, John Iaboni, Scott Morrison, Pat Grier, Rick Fraser, Jane O'Hara, Kaye Corbett and many others shared in his success.

As others have said, George was 85, but he wasn't. He was forever young."

Do you have memories of George? E-mail them to TSF.

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