‘I believed in Toronto before it was fashionable to believe in Toronto.’ Longtime Star publisher John Honderich honored with key to the city

Longtime Toronto Star editor and publisher John Honderich, who died in February, was hailed on Wednesday as a giant of journalism, a fierce advocate of social justice, a man who found joy in life, and a world-class friend.

Four hundred people attended the celebration of Honderich’s life at a gathering at the Carlu, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Toronto Mayor John Tory, and current and former employees, many of whom spent their careers at the Toronto Star, developing a deep affection for the passionate newspaperman at the helm.

“John was the alpha and omega of the Toronto Star, always will be,” said Star columnist Rosie DiManno.

Honderich, who died suddenly of a heart attack on Feb. 5, age 75, was chair of Torstar when it was sold to NordStar Capital in 2020, following a long decline in advertising revenues.

“I believed in social justice, progressive ideas, and fighting for those whose voices were not heard,” said Trudeau, in a statement emailed to the Star before the event.

He said that “Canada is a better place today” because Honderich fought for those principles.

Toronto Mayor John Tory presented John Hondrich's children, Emily and Robin, with the key to the city in honor of their father.  Tory said he wished he had done it while John Honderich was still alive.

Mayor Tory bestowed Honderich’s son, Robin, with a key to the city, something he said he wished he’d done when John Honderich was still alive.

“I believed in Toronto before it was fashionable to believe in Toronto,” said Tory.

Honderich’s crusade against racism and discrimination led to important reforms in the city, Tory added, including the creation of crisis response teams staffed by health professionals instead of armed and uniformed police officers.

Mary-Deanne Shears, a former managing editor at the Star, worked with Honderich for more than 20 years.

“John wasn’t perfect and could be quite angry if he felt the Star was slipping. He didn’t just drop by the newsroom. I’ve barged into it,” said Shears.

“He was the powerhouse behind the Star’s crusades, whether fighting for a new deal for cities or an amalgamated Toronto.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said John Honderich "believed in social justice, progressive ideas, and fighting for those whose voices were not heard."

Robin Honderich said his father was devoted to the newspaper, calling it his real partner. And while John Honderich was fully immersed in his work at the Star when Robin and his sister, Emily, were growing up, he endowed on his grandchildren.

“Not having him to see them grow is the hardest part,” said Honderich, who has two children.

“John was at his core, a newspaperman,” said Kevin Donovan, the Star’s chief investigative reporter, who worked closely with Honderich over 30 years. “He lived for the front page and everything that came with it.”

Lifelong friend and former city councilor Gordon Cressy remembered his childhood years with Honderich at Bedford Park Public School, and noted that while Honderich grew up in privilege, he wanted to level the playing field for those who grew up in hardship.

Former Toronto Mayor David Crombie, centre, listens to speeches alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory at the Carlu on Wednesday.

Although John’s father, Beland Honderich, was publisher of the Toronto Star from 1966-1988, and was chairman and CEO of Torstar Corp from 1976-1988, Honderich felt it was important to start at the bottom and learn the trade. He joined the Ottawa Citizen as a copy boy in 1973.

He joined the Star in 1976, serving as bureau chief in Ottawa and Washington and as deputy city editor and editorial page editor before becoming editor-in-chief in 1988.

Former Star television critic Tony Wong, who retired from the Star in 2020, said Honderich earned the respect of journalists by starting at the bottom.

“I have so much respect for him. He was the last of a breed.”

John Honderich's grandsons take to the stage at the end of the night.  Robin Honderich said that his father always doted on his grandchildren.

In a video produced for the Honderich family and aired at the celebration, Trudeau, along with former Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella and former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, lauded Honderich.

He had a “sense of joy in life,” said Wynne.

Abella called him “Toronto’s ultimate parent” and a “world-class friend.”

Honderich was a member of the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario and was recognized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation in 2019 for lifetime achievement in journalism.

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF


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