Sunday 14 December 2008

Mrs. K memories

More memories of Margaret Kmiciewicz: Updated 12/16/08 for Moira MacDonald

Moira MacDonald, former newsroom rat, Sun reporter, current columnist: "I owe my entire reputation as a top Girl Guide cookie-seller to Margaret K. I was introduced to her as Mrs. K, but it didn't take long for her to get me into the habit of calling her just Margaret. Many PD days from school I headed down to the Eclipse Building with my father to spend the day with her and the rest of the switchboard crew. I loved it. I marvelled at the important names - and more important phone numbers - listed in those neatly typed (!) tiny cards filed on a metal swing-stand behind the switchboard counter. I can still hear Margaret's warm, yet authoritative, "Toronto Sun" greeting on the phone as the calls streamed in. After the Sun moved to 333 King, Margaret would take me to the diner down the street where she introduced me to the concept of ordering "chips," instead of mere french fries. And when it came to Girl Guide cookie season, she helped me beat the regulation brown underpants off every other girl in my Brownie pack. As a holder of the keys to the communication kingdom, no one at the Sun dared cross Margaret. So when she asked if she could put them down for a box or more of cookies for Bob MacDonald's daughter Moira, everybody said yes. I bear no responsibility for the subsequent heart attacks that befell Sun staffers. I am so sad to say farewell to Margaret from this world. But I am blessed to have had this person, who was every inch a lady, as an encouraging and loving friend in my young life."

Ken Robertson, Day Oner and former Toronto Sun city editor: "I was so sorry to hear of Mrs K's passing. To the public who came a-calling, she was the gateway to the Sun from Day One to her retirement. She was the first person everyone met when they stepped off Fanny the elevator (at the Eclipse building) and her personality and welcoming sparkle sort of set the pace for the visit. She was also incredibly adept at finding reporters for an impatient city editor wherever they were just about anywhere in the world. In my post-Sun days, I often ran into Mrs. K and Mr. K in Sherway Gardens and we always stopped for a coffee and a chat. I miss her terribly already. And won't we all?"

John Downing, Toronto Sun Day Oner, former editor/columnist: "I was at the Library's book sale last Thursday and looked at all the empty spaces inhabited only by the ghosts of yesteryear. And each day brings more. The Sun family has responded well to the loss of another original, Margaret K. And all of her pleasant ways have been remembered. But what must be stressed is not just her ability to reach our leaders, but that dependable daily service and the fact that she knew everything that was going on. Who was in trouble at home, whose kid had just flunked, who had just goofed. She kept sampling the flow of words around her, and when it wasn't clear, there was always a careful, cheery question about what had really gone on. "You know, John, that's really not the way it should have happened. Doug will not be pleased," she would say, and some of the fun would leak out of the tomfoolery. It wasn't exactly a tame place, and the goal sometimes was just not to hiccup when you checked in with Mrs. K, but she presided as one of the gatekeepers of a three-ring circus. Part sleuth, part confessor, part mother, Margaret K was one of the humble glues that kept us together. She was in the grand tradition of the switchboard operators of big city newspapers. They spoiled us. In recent years, when you chased people yourself by phone, I recalled when it all began for me as a kid reporter and the switchboard was a big vertical blinking board in a glassed-off room where women who could seem as tough as a cranky city editor would plug in cables and there would be the mayor of some town who would tell you all about the big fire on Main Street. Or a startled man saying why his government had just fallen. There were few goofs. The Tely switchboard operator grumbled at me once that the reason she couldn't get me Harry Smith at the Garden Hotel in Paris was because there were no hotels in Paris. I realized I had forgotten to say Paris, France. We almost expected Margaret K and the kindly but formidable women who came before to be mind readers. Beat reporters came to realize that Margaret K, or Marg, or Maude Stickells, were far more familiar voices to mayors and premiers and cabinet ministers than the newcomers to the beat. Premiers like Leslie Frost and John Robarts didn't hide behind shields of aides but were used to daily brief chats with Margaret K and Marg before a veteran rewrite man like Jim Emmerson would come on to check out a story in the opposition. The way Bill Davis made it sound, he chatted more with Emmerson over breakfast than his wife. At this nostalgic time of year, Joan Sutton would have the little band of Sun writers and editors in for carols, and there, smiling continually, would be Mrs. K, remembering the names of spouses and kids and enjoying again how the 62 grew and prospered until the clouds rolled in. The good newspapers need more people like Margaret K than they do shooting-star columnists. So the Sun was blessed, for a time. Regards."

Christina Blizzard, Toronto Sun Day Oner, Queen's Park columnist: "What a sad day. What a great lady. Margaret K was the Toronto Sun's very own royalty. I remember her telling me she started her working life in her native Scotland. She was the switchboard operator at the village GPO near Balmoral Castle. All the calls had to go through her exchange. It was her greatest pleasure when one of the royals phoned one of the other royals. She would announce them: Your Royal Highness, I have His Royal Highness on the line. Go ahead, your Royal Highnesses. Only Margaret K could do that with so much class and dignity. When the Sun first started, we went from a fairly sophisticated switchboard at the old Tely to a Laugh-in style plug-in switchboard at the Sun. The switchboard was flooded, but Mrs. K and Jean Osborne somehow managed to keep it under control. It was like an eight-hour wrestling match with an octopus, but somehow they managed. Mrs. K was no-nonsense, yet always impeccably polite. I can't remember the number of people I spoke to who asked, "Who was that lady on switchboard?" She wasn't just the voice of the Sun, she was often the voice of sanity."

Joan Sutton Straus, Day One Toronto Sun Lifestyle editor: "Do Margaret one last great favour: forget that her age was mentioned in the obit. Whenever I celebrated my birthday in print, Margaret would scold me, "A lady doesn't tell her age." My first real conversation with her was at the Tely. For some reason, I had to visit the switchboard and, with that universal newspaper ability to read everything on someone else's desk (upside down), I saw that she had a letter of resignation in front of her. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was resigning from the Tely. I pointed out to her none of us were resigning from the Tely, it was being closed by the management and if she resigned, she might not be eligible for severance pay. "Mr. Bassett wouldn't do that to me," she said. Perhaps not, but some of the hatchet men around at the closing certainly tried. I was one of those who did not sign letters of resignation. On the last day of the Tely, I got a wire telling me I was fired. Margaret lived on the Kingsway, near George Gross and me, so at least once a week I would give her a ride home. Once, I took her to a bar. She had never been in a bar before and fretted the whole time about what her husband would think. If my memory is correct, he was stationed in Scotland during World War 2 and that is where they met and fell in love. He was very jealous of her - she never gave him any reason, but then, passionate love is not susceptible to reason. The night of the bar visit, I went into the house with her to explain our late arrival and take all the blame. I am surprised that Peter (Worthington) found her lacking in candour - to me, Margaret was always forthright and never hesitated to express her views. More than once she came marching down to my office to set me straight about something and she was furious with me when I left the Sun to go to the Star. But she was the essence of discretion - she did not gossip. Margaret knew about my love affair with Eddie Goodman, probably before it even started (as she knew about the private lives of all of us.) She probably disapproved of a lot what she saw and heard, but she was never judgmental. She was feminine, and warm, but not a flirt. She was a lady, to the center of her being. I loved her. Her passing really brings home to me the richness of what we had and what we have lost. Dear Margaret: thank you for being my friend."

Linda Barnard, former Toronto Sun reporter: "Mrs. K was the voice of the Sun. When she answered the phone in her sweet Scottish burr - "Hello, the Tor-ron-to Sun," even the most frantic crackpot calling to report robotic cockroaches spying on him from his cupboards seemed to calm down. She could find anybody at any time - even Rimstead. Mrs. K was pleasant to everybody and always had a smile at the ready when you walked past her into the newsroom. In these days of switchboards serviced by morons and mouth breathers - or machines - Mrs. K was the pleasant, measured voice of reason. I'm sure she's the head operator on the celestial switch today. She was a grand lady."

Mark Bonokoski, Toronto Sun columnist: Peter (Worthington) 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."

Lorrie Goldstein, Toronto Sun associate editor: "This is such sad news. The beloved Mrs. K, as she will always be remembered by those of us lucky enough to have known her at the Sun, was a woman of warmth, dignity and professionalism. To a young reporter new to the paper, she was the already legendary and somewhat intimidating (by reputation only) manager of the Sun switchboard, storied for her ability, along with her crack staff, to get anyone by phone, anywhere, at any time. If Mrs. K and her team could not reach the individual in question, then you could rest assured said individual could not be gotten - always comforting to a rookie reporter fearful of being scooped by the dreaded Toronto Star. She was the best of both worlds, never suffering fools gladly but witty, compassionate, kind, well-spoken, genuinely interested in our lives and filled with wise advice. Her main advice to me was not to work myself sick, and if I'd been smarter back in the day, I would have listened to her more and saved myself considerable grief later on in life. My condolences to her family for the loss of this lovely lady, who always reminded me of a combination of Queen Elizabeth and my own late mother - a formidable pair. Indeed, I'm smiling over my own memories of Mrs. K even as I write this. I'm so sorry that I won't be able to attend her visitation or funeral due to holiday scheduling here at the Sun, but these days I do, finally, try to follow her advice by keeping my days to a reasonable length. I know she would understand. And I can assure all those who loved her that here at the Sun, she will be sorely missed and not forgotten."

John Iaboni, former Toronto Sun sports reporter: "The world has lost a truly great lady with the passing of Margaret Kmiciewicz, respectfully known to all of us as Mrs. K. To have met her was to instantly have liked her - and such was the case for me when I first met this delightful switchboard operator and terrific human being at the Toronto Telegram. Yes, modern world, "switchboard operator!" In those days they were our best friends, somehow capable of tracking people down in an instant, putting calls through to us or taking messages. While we got the bylines and the credit, they were essentially a part of us getting our jobs done as well as we did and for that, I/we are eternally grateful. How fortunate we were at the Sun, with the likes of originals Mrs. K and Jean Osborne and (later) Marjorie Henry, that we had such superbly warm and efficient ladies at such a vital position. Mrs. K was like my 'Mom' away from home, while Jean and Marj were like my 'Aunts' away from home. Yeah, believe it or not, the Tely and Sun operated with that type of 'family' spirit, that's why those days were wonderful. Proud of her own family as well as he work family, Mrs. K was also devoted to her religious beliefs. It is reassuring to know in life she prepared herself for her final call because of her strong faith in God. As an aside, she was also a sort of match-maker always looking out for me in my single days, pointing out, with that smile and sparkle in her eyes, the lovely lasses - and there were many - that just might turn out to be the girl of my dreams. Mrs. K was a constant, comforting daily strength in our work lives. Her obituary is perfect in stating that she will be missed for her 'charm, tact and integrity.' Goodbye, Mrs. K."

John Cosway, former Toronto Sun reporter/rewrite guy: "The highly visible editorial switchboard ladies were always an integral part of the Sun newsroom. The presence of Margaret, Jean, Mary, Marj, Dawne and others over the years represented a comfort zone for reporters, columnists and editors in need of quick calls, locally or half way around the world. The fact that the Sun switchboard was always located within the newsroom and not tucked away in a back room reflected the respect for its contribution to the tabloid's daily operations. Mrs. K oozed confidence, warmth and good character, sometimes to the discomfort of those who were naughty in deed or language. She was always there when we needed her to make a call, to chat or for advice. Like most of the switchboard operators, she was a goodwill ambassador, a conduit between thousands of callers and Sun employees. No mean feat at times when dealing with irate callers. The rising Sun was a better place thanks to Margaret Kmiciewicz and we are better people for having known her."

E-mail memories of Mrs. K to TSF

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