Wednesday 11 April 2007

Re John Downing

This posting is a salute to John Downing, a Toronto Sun Day Oner and former editor who has called it quits after 5,400 columns and 4,000 editorials.

Colleagues and readers who know John and have read his columns for 35 years are invited to e-mail their comments to Toronto Sun Family.

Don Hawkes, former Toronto Sun associate editor
"John and I go back, more than 50 years. We met in 1955 when we were both first-year students in the journalism program at the then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. We had a lot of fun during our three years at Rye High. Years later, we had a lot of fun at the Toronto Sun where, since we were both bulky and bearded, Doug Creighton called us The Bookends. John was editor, I was associate editor. What struck me then was the fact that few people knew how thoughtful John was - about life, politics and the Sun. We laughed a lot - except during those times when John provoked me to wanting to kill him. I never did."

Les Pyette, former publisher of the Toronto/Calgary Suns:
"As we all aged, John's writing got better and better. He was extremely well-informed about Toronto, its people and its history, but best of all about John? He wasn't afraid to proudly wear his Sun colours on his rather large chest."

Andy Donato, editorial cartoonist, fellow Day Oner:
"I consider John Downing to be a good friend, but of all the editors I worked with, he was the biggest pain in the ass of all of them. Worthington, Amiel, Goldstein, Williamson and Granastein were all angels compared to Downing. He would always put on his game face when I took in a cartoon for his approval. Never a laugh or a smile, just said OK. That's all. Oh, he did, on a couple of occasions, make a suggestion as to subject and offer a few ideas on what to draw. I'd always ignore the ideas, but when I took in the cartoon, Downing would think it was all his doing and the laughter was deafening. He had the memory of an elephant and was, in many ways, a great guy to work with and I must admit I do miss him. I still love the guy, but he was tough to work with at times. I think he was treated pretty shabby when he left, as many others have. I'll be next."

Sean McCann, former Toronto/Calgary reporter/editor:
When Les Pyette, City Editor, told me I was going to City Hall as the municipal reporter covering Metro and Toronto up against the Star's five , it meant I was outta the Sun newsroom. I didn't really know John Downing that well. Well, he was old, of course. A Tely person, him and Doug Creighton, buddies, obviously old. What was I, 30 or so? Anyway, I get there and the Sun City Hall office was impressive. Overlooked the square, not too shabby, I thought in my arrogant days. And, I'm the City Hall reporter. Big title. Downing? Who's he? He, in fact, I was to learn was the dean of municipal politics in Toronto. There was no one better. And I had the benefit of John Downing - and all his knowledge. As mentioned in my (TSF) profile, I never had more line stories in the Toronto Sun than when I was at City Hall. John, the Baptist, fed me. He opened so many doors at Toronto City Hall for me it made me shine. And by doing so, I was able to get the Toronto Sun some great lines in a very competitive newspaper town. One learns from others and John Downing taught me a lot about Toronto and its municipal history. And about municipal politics in general, which was to serve me well in my journalist career. When I came West, I continued to read John's columns because they always told me how old TO was doing. Bottom line is John Downing, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the rocks of the Toronto Sun. He's also a very nice man. And John, wherever you are in Etobicoke, than you. And say hello to Mary."

Joan Sutton Straus, former Sun Lifestyle editor:
"It was John who hired me at the Toronto Telegram. Marni Grobba was leaving the Telegram and she approached me to take her place as fashion editor. I said I was interested (very!) and an appointment was set up with John Downing. He quizzed me long and hard about my background in public relations (making it clear that this was not the best way to enter a newspaper) and then gave me an imaginary assignment - to write an article on standard sizing, which didn't, and still doesn't, really exist. On that basis, he hired me. Over the years, I came to respect him as one journalist who owed no favors to anyone, who called it as he saw it, who was totally fair-minded about staff, and really understood the meaning of loyalty and integrity and how sometimes those two things could unhappily collide. There is a story that he once challenged Isabel's (can't remember her name before she married Bassett) spelling on a Friday and over the weekend, she married John Bassett. She is supposed to have then stopped at his office to say, 'I don't think we'll be worrying about my spelling anymore.' I will always be grateful for the chance he took on me. John Downing is a superb newspaperman. The best."

Ian Harvey, former Toronto Sun reporter:
"John, because of size and strong opinions, could intimidate you, but once you got past that he was a big teddy bear. He always gave me good advice and always had an ear for a frustrated city side reporter who was trying to break free of the shackles imposed by the demands of a city desk working to put out a daily newspaper. John's pages were a place you could pitch ideas and columns which fell outside of the day-to-day news gathering operation and the kind of fodder which the writer in every reporter yearned to explore. As such, John was always the voice of reason in my ear - and needed too since most of you will recall I had quite the hair trigger in those hectic days, especially when it came to dealing with editors. On a personal note, I got to know John well while at city hall and later when he was editor. I also remember being invited to his cottage on several occasions at Burnt Point on the Trent System , where he and Mary were gracious hosts. (Cam Norton had a place next door). I do remember whatever the conversation was, it was hilariously funny. "

John Cosway, former reporter/columnist/rewrite guy
"My first newsroom memory of John Downing stems from an early feature on the hazards of driving the freeways in the GTA. Thought my story was word perfect until this giant of a man approached and handed me a copy of the Sun with circles around several spelling errors. That GTA road story taught me two things: don't speed and triple check your spelling because JD was reading every word. A favourite newsroom ritual while working the rewrite desk was an almost daily story from John as he stood overlooking the city desk. The man had an office, but he enjoyed mingling with reporters and editors. So he would stand at the city desk and tell these fascinating and often hilarious stories about his newspaper years and the people he met along the way. His voice carried and staffers at other nearby desks often listened to John's stories. Some of John's 5,400 columns included a series on Vietnamese boat people who arrived in Canada in the 1970s with the support of the Toronto Sun. Sun people did those things in the glory days. They cared and they shared. It was a tabloid with a huge heart and John Downing was a major contributor to the Sun's success. Boat people who settled in Toronto were among John's most loyal readers. His contribution to the Sun and his loyalty are noted on 15 different pages of Jean Sonmor's The Little Paper That Grew book. All the best, John, and thanks loads for all of your stories and spelling corrections."


  1. It's a unique experience to read about yourself as if you had just died. I think I'm still alive, and that I didn't call it quits after 5,000 columns but that they called it quits for me after 5,400 columns. Not that I feel extinguished. I'm in my anecdotage, and my sons say they still love to hear the old stories because they want to see how they turn out "this time." So I will keep writing and talking. The comments from my friends are intriguing. Apparently Hawkes wanted to kill me on occasion. Now he knows how I felt. Les is another chap I felt like doing that to on occasion but as it turned out after we had adjoining offices, he had a much better grasp of our form of tabloid journalism than any of the current jerks. Then there is this grudging tribute from Donato. You would never know from his cherubic exterior but this is a golfer who draws rather than the other way round. He hated to come to the office, so his picture of me greeting his latest effort with no enthusiasm seldom happened. I was too busy trying to find the curses and obscenities hidden in the cartoon to laugh. Actually the curses are the only words he knew how to spell correctly. Since I continually had to defend his cartoons before the press council and the rest of the media, I looked on him as a talented loose cannon who could shoot off in all directions. As a cartoonist,he's a great golfer, but never play with him because he will criticize every part of your swing while gleefully pocketing all your cash. A great talent who is one of the last vestiges of the original Sun. It's nice to have kind words from the foot soldiers, McCann, Harvey and Cosway who know how much of the business is perspiration rather than inspiration and how most editors are nuts. Then there are the kind words from Joan Sutton Straus about how I hired her after a wine-fueled lunch when I returned to the office and found that Creighton had hired someone else. Thank heavens I won that fight. Joan was always one of the great ladies of the Sun,much more than the one who gets all the publicity,named by Page 6 at the Black Witch of King St., and that was before many of us lost money by being stupid enough to invest in Hollinger. When the Tely finished, and I was the editor in charge of the last edition, I felt saddened by how many of the 1,200 we would never see again because only 62 came to the Sun. All these friends who we had bowled with and curled with and drank with at weddings and christenings and just because we felt like it were now going their way. And the Sun has been a sad sequel. If only we could call up Bob MacDonald for a celestial hockey game where he could drive his elbows and his hockey stick into that well-tailored suit and see if there is a heart and brain inside. We used to know how to fight in the corners of journalism, before the suits took over who know only how to turn success into failure. Happy to hear from anyone at 416 233 3183 or
    Don't be like Hawkes who the last time I called him in Quebec to chat wanted to know "who died?"
    Well, it's happening to a newspaper but they can never kill our memories.
    john downing

  2. Or as you used to be so fond of saying, John - "I don't give a tinker's damn."


    Bernadette Wardman
    Editorial Assistant
    Toronto Sun