Wednesday 19 October 2011

Cal Millar

Memories of the Toronto Sun - Cal Millar

My journey with the Toronto Sun began just after midnight on Saturday, September 18, 1971 when the telephone rang at a hotel room where I was staying in the United States. 

I was hours away from getting married to the most wonderful young woman in the world and realizing the night editor from the Toronto Telegram was calling, I was expecting some sort of prank. But he was dead serious while telling me the owner of the Telegram would be announcing in the morning edition that the newspaper was folding on October 30 after publishing for 95 years. 

Now wide awake, the reality of the situation came into sharp focus. I had just purchased a new house, was getting married, leaving on a 10-day Caribbean honeymoon and facing unemployment upon my return.

Working as a reporter for the Toronto Telegram had been a goal since I was a kid and now my job had evaporated. There were two other major papers in Toronto, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, but I assumed soon to be out of work staffers at the Tely would already be lined up looking for employment with those newspapers. 

Now with an unknown and possibly different future ahead, I met my wife to be at the church and we sailed off together on what has been so far a 40-year adventure.

Arriving home two weeks later, there was a message from Doug Creighton asking if I was interested in joining the team that was planning the birth of the Toronto Sun. Having no other prospects I jumped at the opportunity but at that point had no concept I would become a shareholder of what would become one of the greatest success stories in Canada’s newspaper history, or that I’d just joined the Toronto Sun Family, a fraternity and kinship that my wife Penny and I have treasured through the years.

Spending the last few days at the Toronto Telegram while it was in its death throes was disheartening, but the prospect of a new paper with an emphasis on crime coverage and breaking news eased the pain. 

And when the final edition of the Telegram rolled off the presses on Saturday, October 30, 1971, I left the building for the last time and headed to the Sun’s headquarters in a five-story warehouse structure known as the Eclipse Building at 322 King Street West.

I had a desk and a phone on the third floor where I could listen to police calls on a couple of special frequency radios and rush out to cover anything that sounded serious. I also experienced what could be best described as culture shock. 

At the Telegram, we had a staff of more than 200 reporters and offices around the world. At the Sun, there were five reporters and whatever happened, we had to cover the news across the city while competing with the resources and manpower that the Star and Globe could mobilize.

We obviously came out with a lot of fanfare the first day and we had news stories that the opposition totally missed. It wasn’t by fluke, but a carefully orchestrated initiative to make sure the Toronto Sun had a number of scoops that would catch the attention of radio stations. 

We were getting publicity by having local  newscasters rip and read our exclusive items in that first edition. As reporters, we did have a bank of stories that we were planning for the Telegram, but we were now putting them together for the Sun.

It was a great strategy for the first few days, but there wasn’t a steady stream of on-tap articles and by the end of the week we were scratching for whatever news we could find. 

Fortunately, everyone remembers the bang the Toronto Sun caused when it was born, but they don’t remember how flimsy Friday’s edition looked with a lot more items from the United Press International wire than local coverage.

What was also happening, the 62 people who were putting out the paper had been working day and night to ensure each edition came out. Everyone was tired and the final edition of that week reflected the lack of sleep. But we also achieved a milestone since the general consensus and prediction from the opposition was that the Toronto Sun wouldn’t last a week. 

We won the first battle, but immediately became embroiled in a newspaper war. What the Star and the Globe didn’t realize is that there was tremendous public empathy for the Sun and people were picking up the tabloid at our boxes to show their support for the underdog. 

Also, the Sun staff was extremely harmonious and in only a few days a true family relationship had developed, as well as a determination that our newspaper would not only last a week, but a lifetime. 

We were also driven by what could only be described as a party atmosphere, led by Paul Rimstead, with sponge footballs being thrown through the newsroom, ties cut off, constant food deliveries, a stream of visits ranging from celebrities to down and outers, a soft drink machine that for twenty-five cents would dispense a bottle of beer and countless other disruptions that looking back, I wonder how we ever managed to get a paper out each day.

There was no such thing as a schedule. You got in as early as you could and stayed as long as necessary to do whatever was needed to make sure the next edition of the Toronto Sun would be in our newspaper boxes for morning commuters. 

We covered fires, fender-benders, burglaries and beatings. We had quite a few pages to fill and needed all the stories we could find. A large portion of the front page was most often filled with a photograph depicting a local sports event, spot news or a prominent individual.

In the first few months, only a major political story or a murder would warrant a headline to replace the oversized photograph on the front page. But our small band of reporters would go after each story as though they were gathering facts for a headline epic and gave readers details of events that weren’t available in Toronto’s other daily newspapers.

A great deal of the exclusive information came from people who looked at the Sun as the underdog and were encouraging our success by giving their cooperation, especially those involved with the city’s emergency services.

When I look back at the articles we had they range from offbeat and bizarre to heartwarming and also tragic. We gave coverage to a young woman who had been on a four-year quest to find her Prince Charming, who she’d met on a bus from Toronto to Montreal during Canada’s Expo 67. She knew the man lived on Huron Street and the brand of cigarette he smoked, but I can’t recall if there was a follow-up story that had them happily riding off into the sunset. 

There were exclusive stories:

A mix-up by Canadian Immigration that prevented police from arresting two men on the U.S. 10 Most Wanted list. 

Interviews with the crew of an Air Canada jet that had been hijacked to Cuba during a flight from Thunder Bay to Toronto. 

The slaying of a young woman in Rochdale College while arguing with her estranged husband about her escalating drug habit. 

And our front page told about Mississauga Mayor Robert Speck receiving the heart of a 14-year-old Toronto boy who was accidentally killed when struck by a subway train. The boy’s family, who had to make the agonizing decision to take him off life support and donate his heart so another person could live, described Richard Wolniewicz as a person who was always doing something for others. 

Some of the early articles from Toronto Sun are featured among exhibits of the Police Museum at Toronto Police Headquarters on College Street. Included is the saga of four young people who found a woman’s body in a freezer after sitting one evening in a man’s Vendome Place apartment and wondering what was hiding inside. 

There was the mafia-ordered bombing of a St. Clair Avenue West building, which killed a 45-year-old cleaning lady and one of the suspects who travelled from Italy to carry out the plot. That was one of numerous stories I wrote related to traditional organized crime violence that erupted in Toronto in the early 1960s and continued through the 70s. 

There was coverage of the first helicopter flight landing on the roof of the Hospital for Sick Children with a critically ill newborn who had been flown here from Thunder Bay for life-saving surgery. 

And the senseless slayings of Detectives Michael Irwin and Douglas Sinclair on February 27, 1972, when gunned down in an upper hallway of a Roywood Drive apartment building by a rifle-wielding man after being called to investigate a report of a pellet gun being fired. 

Until their deaths, there hadn’t been a Toronto police officer murdered in the line duty since Constable David Goldsworthy was fatally shot in November 1969. A Toronto police officer was killed in an on duty traffic mishap 16 days before the deaths of the two detectives.

Before 12 months had passed, Constable James Lothian and Constable Leslie Maitland were shot to death in separate incidents. It is remembered as the darkest year-long period in the history of the Toronto Police Service.

Being at the Sun from the day of its birth is a time I will treasure and there are memories I will never forget. It was definitely a roller coaster ride, but one I’d take again in an instant if ever given the opportunity.

It was a journey that not only allowed me to record events as they unfolded in the city, but to carry the moniker “day-oner” and play a part in Toronto’s newspaper history. 

Looking back, the Toronto Sun had a rocky start, but today is a success story and the tabloid has lived up to its motto of the Little Paper that Grew.

Cal Millar
Burlington, ON

TSF note: Doug Creighton was a fan of Millar's work at the Tely and Sun.

 If you are a Day Oner or one of the hundreds of men and women in all departments who followed The 62 and want to share your memories of the Toronto Sun in the next two weeks, email TSF.

We want to give everyone the opportunity to mark the 40th.

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