I’ve been shy about making introductions. I am, after all, only a temporary editor for this newspaper. But my feelings have been strong about joining the Quesnel Cariboo Observer team, and I was encouraged to share.
An epiphany came as I drove home to Prince George after my first visit to the QCO office in years. I’d certainly been there many times before. Back in the early 1990s, editor/publisher Jerry MacDonald would talk to me like a wise and caring editorial uncle about what I should do to advance my fledgling career and how he could help.
And I did. And he did, as he had done with many before and after me – Quesnel’s godfather of the news. Shane Mills is the name that stands out strongest, because it was Shane whom Jerry tapped on the shoulder to hire me when I was just an embryonic reporter only five minutes out of journalism school trying to kickstart my career in PG where Mills – formerly of the Observer – was the inaugural editor of the upstart Free Press. Jerry twisted his arm on my behalf and Mills relented. After that, I like to think some newspaper magic happened in the halcyon years of that paper, and Jerry was right there, guiding us from that Observer office.
I always kept a bottle of whisky in my desk. I never drank from it. It had never been opened. I just had it as a symbol of the newsrooms of old. The day in late winter 1998 when I heard that Jerry died, at a shockingly young age, I fell to my chair, opened that bottom drawer and cracked the lid. I don’t know what time it was – closer to breakfast than dinner – and I took a huge swig, then passed it to fellow reporter Michelle Lang who took her own belt, for exactly the same reasons.
I, Lang, Mills and many others would share a Scotch together with Black Press owner David Black in the back of the Observer building the afternoon following Jerry’s funeral.
(I returned that bottle to the bottom drawer and kept it with me wherever I went, in my newspaper career. I would not drink from it again until late winter 2009 when I was in my PG Citizen office and got the call that Lang had been killed while reporting in Afghanistan.)
I credit Jerry with giving me my career. I also credit Jerry with giving me something else much more important: Autumn. I remember when she walked into the newsroom as a journalist like us. Like him. Only she wasn’t like us. Like her father, she was consistently just a smidge more talented, and like her father, she just seemed to get me. Only this time I was the one in a position to open doors and mentor her. But the truth was, I learned as much from her as she ever did from me. Like Lang, she became like a sister, and after Michelle died, even more so. As life pressures chewed on us both, we leaned on each other heavily.
When Autumn died this past spring from a car crash at Highway 97 and Basalt Road, I was in a different kind of office. Like Aut, I had changed careers, and it wasn’t the place where a bottle of whisky could reside in the bottom desk drawer. I was alone to grieve, sobbing as silently as I could so as not to disturb my coworkers. (To Jerry’s and Autumn’s family, this is all coming from a place of love, but I’m sorry for blindsiding you.)
By the time I was asked to step in as the interim editor of the Observer, I thought I could drive through Quesnel and not have to pull over for yet another cry. I had been contributing a few weekly articles already, just as I had done for Jerry back in 1994.
But that first visit back to the Observer newsroom in this new capacity proved I was wrong. I did a day’s training, then headed back long after dark. I barely made it past the turnoff to Barkerville when the tears poured again.
It felt different, this time. I felt like I was talking to Aut and Jerry, and the conversation went something like: of course I’ll look after your paper. Of course I’ll help this town you both loved so intensely. Quesnel’s newsrooms have been home to so many great people, during my time in the business. This town has a journalism legacy of punching well above its weight.
It is an honour and privilege to have a place under their roof.
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– Frank Peebles, Quesnel Cariboo Observer