RIP

05.13.13

Peter Worthington, 1927-2013

Peter Worthington, with Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. ()

The wide-angle film of the scene in the basement of the Dallas police station on November 24, 1963, captures on the far left of the camera an unusually handsome man leaning against the station wall. Suddenly shots ring out: Jack Ruby has fired upon Lee Harvey Oswald. And the camera shows that man at far left abruptly snapping to attention and running toward the shots.

That man was my father-in-law, Peter Worthington, and running toward the shots was his characteristic response to danger of every kind. Over his amazing career, he served first in World War II (gaining accreditation, in his phrase, as the youngest and arguably least competent flight lieutenant in the whole Canadian navy) and then for three years in Korea. He became Canada's best known war correspondent, covering conflicts up and down the length of Africa, in the high Himalayas on the Indo-China frontier, in the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. He launched his own newspaper in 1971, the Toronto Sun, the last profitable daily ever started in North America. He was the only Canadian ever prosecuted under the country's Official Secrets Act - not for betraying secrets, but for embarrassing the government of the day by documenting its own disregard of Soviet espionage activities inside Canada. He ran twice for Parliament in the early 1980s, and although he lost, his campaigns set in motion the train of events that brought down the Conservative Party's ineffectual leader Joe Clark and opened the way for Brian Mulroney to win the smashing Conservative victory of 1984. He continued his adventures till late life, traveling with Canadian forces in Afghanistan in his late seventies and publishing his interviews with Canada's most notorious serial killer, Clifford Olson, only last year.

A gifted athlete and a shrewd businessman, Peter Worthington excelled at everything he did. He seemed beyond ordinary human weakness: He suffered a heart attack thirty years ago and was saved by a bypass operation. He filed a series of columns for the Sun detailing his operation, and within a very few weeks afterward, celebrated his recovery by climbing China's Mount Gonga.

Yet time catches up with even the most indestructible men. Peter had been weakening for some time, and on Thursday, May 2 he suffered an abrupt health crisis. He was taken to Toronto General Hospital where the doctors who had held him together for three decades confessed they could do no more. Over the next week, he entertained his three children and six grandchildren with his famous gallows humor. A week later, he said his last goodbyes, commanded "no tears," and lost consciousness.

He slept peacefully until the middle of the night of May 12-13, watched over the whole time by his wife of 44 years, Yvonne Worthington. She sat beside him in his hospital room, usually smiling, sometimes crying, sometimes kissing the hair that was now white but still as thick as it was in the days when the man underneath interviewed Elizabeth Taylor and the Dalai Lama. Pete called his marvelous memoir of his amazing life, Looking for Trouble. Yet what he found at the end was the profound peace of the life well lived, and of love gained because so generously given. He told me in our last talk that in all the hazards he had met in his life, he had never been afraid. He had sometimes felt nerves, he said, but not fear. From the trenches of Korea to the bullet-riddled alleys of Algiers to Biafra to the heart surgeons' gurneys, he was always impelled by curiosity to see what came next. Now he knows.

Soon the fuller and longer tributes will come. But Peter, never one to trust others to get the story, has scooped us all by writing his own obituary, which will appear in tomorrow's Toronto Sun - one last byline for the man who won more National Newspaper Awards than any other writer in Canadian history.

And if there is a Heaven, Pete's already baffling the angelic editors of the local press by producing copy faster than they can use it.

A memorial service will be held in Toronto in the next days. Details will be posted in this space, in my Twitter feed, and on a purpose-built Facebook page.

Looking for Trouble will shortly be re-released as an e-book. If journalism schools continue to exist in the 21st century, it ought to be the first book on every reading list. Those who loved Pete will miss him desperately, and cherish his memory as an exemplar of integrity, courage, and grace under fire.