Sunday, 14 December 2008

Peter W & Mrs. K

Peter Worthington, co-founder of the Toronto Sun, remembers Margaret Kmiciewicz, aka Mrs. K:

For those who knew her, it’s difficult to believe she is dead.

I knew Margaret for some 45 years – but never knew her last name. That goes for most of us at the old Toronto Telegram, and certainly for those of us at the Toronto Sun.

To clarify, I guess we all sort of knew he last name, but I never met anyone who could pronounce it. You try: Margaret Kmiciewicz. To most people at the Sun she was “Mrs. K.”

In the early days of the Sun, like the latter days of the Tely, Margaret (I could never call her Mrs. K) was both indomitable and indispensable. She ran the switchboard – and I mean ran it, like the skipper of a schooner she demanded competence and got it.

In those days, we had a full complement of telephone operators whose boast was that if a reporter had to reach someone, somewhere in the world, our switchboard operators would find that person.

More about that in a moment.

Thanks to Margaret - Scottish born (Quinn family, I’ve since learned) who never lost her burr – our operators were best in the business. That includes Marge Henry, loyalty personified, who was one of the few who dared argue with Margaret and who every morning was an opinionated sounding board on what that day’s editorial should be about.

Live operators at newspapers are fond memories, now that “calls forward" and voice mails are in ascendancy, damn their electronic gadgetry.

Margaret was the essence of courtesy on the phone. No matter how abusive a caller might be, Margaret was ever polite, never ruffled, the soul of diplomacy. While I admired Margaret’s professionalism, I leaned toward the candour of Marge, who could give as good as she took.

Still, no one could reach people by phone the way Margaret could.

In the early 1970s, I was involved in the possibility that the family of Tsar Nicholas II had not all been murdered at Ekaterinburg in 1918, and that Anastasia and possibly Tsarevich Alexis had escaped.

Supposedly, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and President Nixon’s Security Advisor, knew the truth, but for diplomatic reasons was saying nothing. It was at a time of Watergate and Vietnam, and he was totally unavailable to the media. I appealed to Margaret: “I know you won’t get Kissinger, but could you try?”

Margaret gave me her gimlet eye, and told me to stand by the phone. Maybe 30 minutes later my phone rang in the old Eclipse Whitewear Building where the Sun was located, near the Royal Alex theatre.

“Mr. Kissinger on the line for Mr. Worthington, if he is available,” said Margaret, respect and formality oozing in her voice.

“Vhat iss it?” said Kissinger, clearly intrigued.

I was in momentary panic. With all the world events going on, the assassination of the Tsar 55 years earlier, and the possibility that Anastasia escaped, seemed beyond frivolous.

I blurted out whether or not Mr. Kissinger had information concerning the possible rescue of Anastasia, and did he know if the family had indeed escaped assassination.

His voice dripping incredulity, Kissinger said he hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. I’d interrupted and important meeting and why had he been called out anyway? The line went dead.

I asked Margaret how she’d got him. Apparently Kissinger’s secretary was from the same area of Scotland as Margaret and she sweet-talked her into summoning Kissinger from his meeting to speak to Mr. Worthington, who had sensational information.

That was Margaret K., whose Polish husband Wladyslaw pre-deceased her. Margaret was in her 87th year. Newspapers today would benefit if they still had the likes of Mrs. K helping reporters track down interviews."

1 comment:

  1. Peter is absolutely right about Mrs. K's ability to track down just about anyone — which was invaluable to me as a young reporter who didn't know who "anyone" was, let alone how to reach any of "them."

    Mrs. K was very grandmotherly. She dressed to the nines every day, never had a hair out of place, and never, ever had a bad word to say about anyone. She seemed oblivious to the often ribald language around her and, if she did catch an errant cuss word, she would give you the kind of look that demanded an immediate apology — which you would offer, unconditionally and filled with embarrassment.

    She was a great lady.