Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Big talent fought for the little guy

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JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

In this photo taken on May 11, 2012, Val Werier proudly displays the Order of Canada medal he received in Ottawa in 2004. The Order of Canada is the centrepiece of Canada’s honours system and recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

Val Werier, the last of the great Winnipeg journalists from the Greatest Generation, who wrote unrelentingly as a champion of the environment long before it was fashionable, died Monday.

He was 96.

Werier, who over the course of his long career was honoured with both the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba, wrote his last column for the Free Press only last year.

In it, he alluded to his first published piece.

"I got my first byline as a reporter 75 years ago, freelancing for the Winnipeg Tribune at a princely sum of 20 cents per column inch. How happy I was to open the newspaper and see my name in print."

Over the long and luminous career that followed, he would continue to write happily, with passion, purpose, humour and insight, even as his eyesight faded to black over the last three decades.

But Werier wasn't just a lifelong environmentalist, he was a man who cared deeply about his city and the people who inhabit it. Especially the little guy.

Two years ago, when Werier was honoured by the Winnipeg Press Club, Free Press publisher Bob Cox summed up the man and his career in these words: "Val crusaded for the less fortunate and the threatened -- whether they were people or trees -- and took on the highest authorities in Manitoba when justice was on his side. Through his work, Val won respect for his judgment and fairness that took him beyond journalism."

On Monday, Free Press city editor Shane Minkin called Werier "the conscience of the province."

Werier's daughter, Judy, said she doesn't know where his interest in nature and the environment came from.

But she recalled how he loved to walk and after her mother died in 1974 as a result of a brain tumour, Judy would walk through River Heights with him.

"He'd point out all the different trees to me and would teach me about different birds. He was always curious about his surroundings and observant and always wanted to learn more."

And she remembered how he treated those he met along the way.

"He was just sweet and wonderful to everyone. People really loved him. There were people who would come up to him on the street who didn't know him and just say, 'I just love you so much.' They loved his articles.

"He was a really super guy. Wonderfully humane, decent, caring, compassionate. He was so full of life. He just wanted to leave the world a little better place."

Valentine Werier was born June 29, 1917, one of six children born into a family that exemplified the Jewish tradition of liberal thought.

His father had been banished to Siberia for his labour-leader work in the mines of czarist Russia before the family fled to Winnipeg in 1908, where his father would open a grocery store on Selkirk Avenue. His mother was a midwife and nurse whose first purchase of furniture was a piano.

None of Val Werier's children would follow him into journalism. Michael became a lawyer, Jonathon a physician and Judy a social worker.

"I wanted to be a journalist," she said, "but I felt I'd never measure up."

Yet, when the Winnipeg Tribune folded in 1980, and her father, "the world's biggest Luddite," continued to write on a typewriter, Judy would help transcribe his work into the computer age. And, in more recent years, she would collaborate in the writing of his column.

His writing made a difference. It helped found the St. Amant Centre and brought awareness to the degradation of Lake Winnipeg.

Yet as a journalist, he was most proud of what John Dafoe, the late Free Press editorial editor, said of him.

"I think Val, over a long period as a journalist, has established himself an integrity that very few have."

But there was something else Werier was proud of as a journalist; the Winnipeg Press Club President's Award for Someone Who Made a Difference he received in 2012. "I've received over 30 honours in my life," he said at the time, "and this one really touched me. My peers decided I was something special."

Werier had been living in care at the Simkin Centre in recent months.

The day before he died, Judy and a nurse bundled him up in a parka and took him outside for half an hour.

"So he could feel the warmth on his face," Judy said, "and he could hear the birds singing."

It was nature's farewell to the man who spent a career loving and protecting it.

Judy summed up her father's long and meaningful life with a story.

Last summer, her father attended his granddaughter's wedding where Judy spoke. Afterward, he praised what his daughter had written.

As Judy recalled, "He said, 'You just hit all the right notes.' ... I think I'd say the same about him. He hit all the right notes."

And, if I might add, all the right typewriter keys, too.

His funeral is scheduled for Thursday at 11 a.m. at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 22, 2014 B5

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 at 10:50 AM CDT: Clarifies quote near end of article

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