PETER GZOWSKI, 1934-2002


DATE: January 25, 2002
Our world can ill afford to lose many more Canadian treasures like writer/broadcaster Peter Gzowski, who died yesterday with far too many stories untold and unwritten.

They're so damned hard to replace.

Gzowski, 67, a lifelong smoker who knew his habit led to the emphysema that killed him, was surrounded by his family as well as longtime companion, Toronto publicist Gillian Howard, when he took his final weak breath.

Friends and fans have known for some time Gzowski was ailing, but few outside his immediate clan realized he was this ill. Ironically, he quit smoking two years ago and even took treatment at a private clinic, but up to 75 cigarettes a day for some 50 years had already done their horrendous damage.

The former gravel-voiced host of CBC Radio's Morningside even chronicled the effects of his addiction -- which had him reliant on bottled oxygen the past long while -- in Addicted: Notes From The Belly Of The Beast, a collection of essays by various writers, including Gzowski's compelling entry, "How to Quit Smoking in Fifty Years or Less."

Not long before his dad's death, Gzowski's son, Mick, a filmmaker, admitted emphysema had its claws into his father and wouldn't let go.

"I feel almost as if the cigarette companies owe him now, he's given them so much money over the years. He's the most famous smoker in Canada."

Despite his illness after his retirement in 1997, Gzowski's final years were productive, including writing columns, doing TV interviews, making special appearances and serving as chancellor of Peterborough's Trent University.

Although his early days were spent as a crackerjack reporter and magazine writer/editor, his true fame came from 15 years as proprietor of Morningside, an easy-going weekday respite that joined Canadians from across the nation.

Before that, he had an earlier run (1971-74) as host of the Morningside forerunner, This Country In The Morning. And in between chats, he also found time to produce 16 books.

Then, of course, along the road there was one infamous blip -- those two miserable years spent as host of the ill-fated 90 Minutes Live TV show. Most agreed the rumpled, ill-at-ease Gzowski was much more appealing behind a radio mike than trying to pull a Johnny Carson or David Letterman on the tube.

First was the familiar, smoky voice, a friendly drawl that moved at its own pace. Then there was his great curiosity, which often led to penetrating questions that resulted in countless fabulous, folksy stories.

Gzowski was equally comfortable interviewing prime ministers and ambassadors as he was yakking about the homey taste of preserved raspberry jam and old-country pickles.

Yet Gzowski, who had a closet full of plaques and awards honouring his various journalistic endeavours, always played down the impact of Morningside.

"It really wasn't that big a deal," he once told me. "It's just a bloody radio program, a place where people can have their voices heard. Where the famous and powerful were challenged in a civilized way. What I think was hugely important was we kept people in touch. There's not very much of that anymore, you know, not many national media places."

Gzowski was also named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1992, and has honourary doctorates from 12 Canadian universities. He began donating his papers to Trent University long before he became its chancellor.

He was a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame, was awarded a Governor-General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievements in Broadcasting, had won seven ACTRA Awards and in 1997 won a Peabody Award for his Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting -- the only Canadian ever to be given the honour for work as an individual.

Gzowski was born in Toronto in 1934, the only child of a brief, unhappy union, but there was royalty of sorts in his bloodline -- his great-great-grandfather was Sir Casimir Gzowski, a swashbuckling engineer-nobleman-lawyer who was knighted by Queen Victoria.

When his mother remarried and relocated in Galt, Peter adopted his stepfather's name, Brown, but returned to Gzowski as a teenager attending Ridley College in St. Catharines, and later at U of T.

He spread his early newspaper experience over such publications as the Timmins Daily Press, both the Star and Telegram in Toronto and then as city editor of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, where he met and married interior designer Jenny Lissaman.

Their marriage produced five children -- Alison, a journalist; John, a musician; Marian, a radio producer; filmmaker Mick, and Peter Casimir, named for his great-great-grandpa. The marriage dissolved in 1978.

Despite the early and rewarding print experience, Gzowski's media career was only beginning and was soon to soar to nosebleed heights. Known as the Boy Wonder, he was cocky and competitive when he moved from the Chatham Daily News to Maclean's, where he became the magazine's youngest managing editor at 28.

From there he moved on to the Star Weekly and turned the publication into one of the finest magazines in the country, featuring some of the most skilled writers around, including Sylvia Fraser, Jack Batten, David Lewis Stein and, of course, Gzowski himself, whose chatty conversational writing style was a delight to read.

When the Star Weekly was shut down in 1968, Gzowski returned to Maclean's as editor, but by then he knew his time was past. He wanted to conquer fresh fields and freelanced for a while before legendary CBC producer Alex Frame decided he would be a perfect host for his eccentric, new free-form radio show, This Country In The Morning.

Off-air, there was a vastly different Peter Gzowski. Many saw him as prickly, aloof and arrogant; in fact, a nasty piece in the Ryerson Review of Journalism focussed on the "dark side of St. Peter," which ticked him off no end. Although allowing he could be short with people from time to time, he felt the article gave him an undeserved bad rap.

"I think I probably had a sharp tongue in my head when I was young, but you're supposed to. Now I'm mellow. I'm also shy. I don't spring easily into social situations. People think I'm cutting them off or aloof. I'm not. Sometimes I just forget people's names, but that's not mean-spirited or arrogant."

Surprisingly, though, what he found even more unnecessary were the adoring worshippers who credited him with saving the country every day his show was broadcast.

"That's the real myth. Yes, I care deeply about this country, but I don't get up each morning thinking I'm going to save it. I just tell stories and ask questions. I'm appreciative of all the nice words, but really, I'm just a radio guy doing his job."

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