It seemed fitting that we got the news of his death when we were at the annual Canadian University Press conference. We didn’t know him, of course—not that scruffy, smoky-voiced gentleman the CBC was lamenting. “Peter Gzowski,” said the anchor, pausing in mid-sentence, “has died.” We quietly mentioned it to each other in the hotel hallways.
Later that night, overlooking the silent huddle of downtown Ottawa from our hotel’s penthouse, we clinked our glasses to him—not to Peter Gzowski, but to Pete, the former 21-year-old editor-in-chief of this paper.
A lot has been said about Peter Gzowski in the media recently, much of it an outpouring of grief and thanks for his role in helping Canadians connect as a national family. 1.2 million people listened to his daily radio show Morningside at its peak. To them and others, he was the grandfather bear of national identity, who, with his patting, patient voice, reassured them there was more to Canada than the cliché roundup of toques, Wayne Gretzky, poutine, eh?, and the newcomer, Tim Hortons. When he opened the curtains of the country to let in the morning light, the haunting neuroses of national identity—insecurity, fatalism and awkward self-consciousness—vanished. Canada was openly sharing its stories.
But before Peter Gzowski, there was Pete, and he was one of us. Pete loved this paper—“The Largest in the Commonwealth”—and knew what it meant to write for it. As his later self said in his memoirs: “My time at the Varsity was as happy a sojourn as I’ve ever spent, a medley of golden autumn, frothy beer, Carabin weekends in Montreal, Belafonte songs, happily quarrelsome editorial conferences, self-indulgent crusades, carefree editorials and, at last, the glorious release of spring. On the university rolls, I was a third-year student in the General Arts, headed for a degree, but in practice I went to no classes and wrote no essays. I was editor of the student paper, and that was my life.”
It showed. His editorials spunked forth the idea of a campus-wide literary magazine, offering Varsity office use to anyone who bit (the Varsity was founded as such a magazine), and column-campaigned to elect Pogo Possum—a satirical comic strip character—as U.S. president.
And then there were the pranks and gags his columns conspired in.
One notable one duped Toronto’s dailies and Time magazine into believing the campus appearance of a French starlet. In secret, press photos and glamour shots were taken of a suavely co-operative University of Montreal student, Isabelle Fontaine. Ms. “Michelle Boudet,” as she was dubbed, was then whisked away to Toronto in full Parisian fauxness for her grand appearance and lunch dates (students were charged a reasonable fee to see her). Ms. Fontaine, a law student, soon went on to become the first woman in Canada to be called to the bar.
Later that semester, Pete himself was called to the bar—quite a few, in fact—in downtown Montreal, meeting many of the students from University of Montreal who had participated in the hoax. It was all part of the Carabin exchange, an endeavour to foster mutual understanding and appreciation between francophone and anglophone students—a summit of respect, as it were. Everyone partied it up in both cities. Pete walked away (barely) that time in Montreal with a greater appreciation of Quebec and of what he had yet to learn about Canada. Upon coming back, he notably dictated coverage of the experience.
The bold, cocky and often competitive editor-in-chief also front-page boasted that the Varsity would steal the hat of the Premier of Ontario, Leslie Frost, before the semester was out. After a dozen attempts, and a very flustered secretary, the hat was proudly displayed with six others belonging to other provincial premiers at the annual Canadian University Press conference held in Toronto that year.
On more serious matters, his printed and spoken words rallied the student populace into demonstrations of support for the Hungarian students who died earlier that year in the revolt against Soviet occupation.
The Varsity helped raise funds and awareness to eventually bring 110 Hungarian student and academic refugees who had escaped the Soviet crackdown over to Canada to study and live.
His editorials covered everything in the realm of student life, eventually becoming a celebrated part of it. They defended student idealism and passion while attacking apathy and cynicism, underlined the looming enrolment flood of baby boomers and the need for continued federal and provincial support while pressuring tuition rises down. Also, his words sparked continued debate over Christianity’s influence on a student mind—a bold move in a university that was still stubbornly clinging to collegiate denominations.
And, of course, there was the editorial that got him fired from his moonlighting job as a reporter for one of Toronto’s fiercely competitive dailies, The Telegram. In the Varsity, Pete criticized his night-time employer and its rival, The Star, for their sensationalistic handling of a prominent murder case where they egged each other into inferring the guilt of a 17-year-old suspect.
The column was picked up outside campus and as a result of his ensuing canning at The Telegram, he was no longer able to pay his tuition to finish school. He left for Moose Jaw that spring to earn a living as a reporter for their Times-Herald, unknowingly leaving his formal education behind for good. The train he left on would take him towards being Peter Gzowski.
Pete can’t be given all the credit for that year of success at the Varsity. His staff knew that very well, too. Many of them went on to their own personal and public successes.
But his spunk and zest for writing did inspire them and all of us, including many who didn’t stand with us that night. We could hear their voices in the clink of our glasses.
Here’s looking at you, Pete.
—Masthead and Volunteers, the Varsity, 2001-2002