Thirty years ago, I lost a father but to his many readers they lost a “friend they had never met.”
Toronto Star columnist Gary Lautens passed away suddenly, on Feb. 1, 1992, and looking for some way to say goodbye, his readers lined up for three days in the lobby of the Star to sign books of condolence. Dad would have been embarrassed by the heartfelt messages people wrote about how much he had meant to them and how much they would miss their “daily walk with Gary.”
Dad was in many ways at the top of his writing game when he died. He was born in Fort William (now Thunder Bay) into a newspaper family. His father worked for Canadian Press for 50 years maintaining their wire service. His mother worked at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Hired by the Hamilton Spectator as a sportswriter fresh out of McMaster University (the first in the family to go to university), his unique ability to connect with people made him a natural interviewer and storyteller. Just five years into his career he won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing. His light touch was appreciated by the Star, who was looking for someone to replace departing writer Pierre Berton. Gary wrote his first column for the paper on Jan. 29, 1963, and would remain a mainstay of Star readers for the next 29 years.
In an age before podcasts, Dad did extensive radio work with CHML and CFRB. A lot of people do not know he was the writer behind “Front Page Challenge” and occasional panelist for over a decade. He did CBC spots for the 1976 Olympics and even a summer filler game show called “It’s Your Choice” that was done on such a cheap budget that the men traded suit jackets between tapings to look like they were wearing different clothes.
But Dad was known for his writing, particularly his family columns that appeared daily on Page 3 of the Star. He could also write about politics and current events, but it was his columns about his family – me, sister Jane, Richard “the rotten kid” (now a Star photographer), and Mom, the Resident Love Goddess – that touched people the most . They saw their own families in his columns, or a family they would have liked to be part of. We thought we were normal, but as we got older we realized how unfortunately uncommon our cozy, warm and loving family could be.
I still hear from Dad’s fan base, which is quite remarkable 30 years on. Some people remember chatting with him at Shopsy’s restaurant or on his daily walk down Church Street. He always had time to meet schoolkids who were doing a project or aspiring journalists who were looking for advice. He had friends who were celebrities and high-powered politicians, but he was just as likely – and sometimes preferred – to spend time talking to the guy who sold peameal sandwiches at St. Lawrence Market.
I get requests from time to time for a copy of a favorite column that has finally fallen apart after years in someone’s wallet or on a reader’s fridge door. Sometimes people reach out to me to share a handwritten note from Dad. Dad read every letter, and he got lots. He devoted part of every afternoon to writing everyone back. After he died we found that he had kept a bunch in his desk.
Most people just keep the gushing and complimentary letters. Dad also kept the mean and nasty ones. I’m not sure why, because he did not need any encouragement to be humble or have self-doubt. He was pretty sure some days that no one read his column. He could not have been more wrong.
I think he got his first glimmer of how popular his column was when his book “No Sex Please, We’re Married” won the Stephen Leacock Award for humor. In typical Canadian fashion, no one wanted to publish his book of columns, which went on to sell almost 100,000 copies. Of course, because this is Canada, even after the success of his first book no one wanted to publish his second collection of columns, which also eventually won a second Leacock award.
A few times people have told me that when they immigrated to Canada they started to read Dad’s column to help them learn English. Dad had a way with words that was clean and accessible. He never showed off or talked down to his readers, and used every one of the 550 words in every column to greatest effect.
I think Dad would have been even more touched by the “New Canadians” who told me that they also learned through his columns what it meant to be Canadian. In print, as in real life, Dad was kind, tolerant, curious, hard on himself but forgiving of others, and never failed to see the humor in any situation. He was interested in people and their stories, whether you had been here for a hundred years or arrived yesterday. He considered all of these things part of “Canadian values.”
Dad did not make up stories or even stretch the truth very far. The dinner table is where he got many of his ideas as we shared what had happened to us that day. Sister Jane sometimes would preface a dinnertime story with: “This is not for publication…” If it was a good story, Dad would negotiate for publication rights. I think one of the reasons so many people related to him is because there was a genuineness to his observations about people and families.
We were lucky growing up in the family that appeared on the pages of the Toronto Star, and we were happy to be able to share Dad’s wit and wisdom with his many readers. And like his many readers, 30 years on we wish we could still have our “daily walk with Gary.”