Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Champion of the underdog began Pennies from Heaven

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In the Free Press newsroom, a delighted Mike Ward displays donations to his Pennies from Heaven campaign in 1995.

MARC GALLANT / FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

In the Free Press newsroom, a delighted Mike Ward displays donations to his Pennies from Heaven campaign in 1995.

Hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-cussing, an overall hard old-fashioned newsman -- that was Mike Ward.

The 77-year-old former Free Press reporter, editor and consumer champion died Nov. 24 in Gimli after a lengthy illness.

"Good Lord," said city editor Shane Minkin, using one of Ward's favourite expressions when told the legendary newspaperman had died.

"He was one of those old-fashioned, hard-bitten editors they just don't make anymore. He made Lou Grant look warm and fuzzy. You either loved him or hated him, and vice versa.

'What I will remember about him most is his tenacious pursuit of 'the story,' and the way his face lit up when he laughed'

-- Gordon Sinclair Jr.

"And speaking of vices, he had plenty -- he was a hard drinker and a chain-smoker -- we're talking old school," said Minkin.

Ward came from Britain with a Fleet Street journalistic pedigree.

"But I can say with certainty that as a cub reporter at the Free Press in the late '80s, I learned more about the craft of journalism from Mike Ward than I did in four years of university," said Minkin. "And for all his gruff exterior, he did come up with Pennies from Heaven, so... "

It was Ward who devised the Pennies from Heaven campaign.

"He wasn't always easy to work with, but senior management tolerated him because he got results and was good at his job, even if his brusque manner upset many reporters," recalled editorial writer David O'Brien. "He harkened to a more romantic newspaper era, when all that mattered was a good story and a scoop, sometimes by any means. He wouldn't be tolerated in a modern newsroom, and maybe that's our loss."

Columnist Gordon Sinclair Jr. remembered Ward fondly.

"Mike was one of those old-fashioned, hard-nosed newspapermen from the British tradition. But there was an often unappreciated soft side to him. He's the guy who came up with the Christmas-time idea of collecting the smallest of coins for the neediest of people.

"But what I will remember about him most is his tenacious pursuit of 'the story,' and the way his face lit up when he laughed," Sinclair said.

City hall reporter Aldo Santin felt Ward's wrath on more than one occasion.

"Mike Ward was what would be generously called in our business 'old school.' He often treated rookie and veteran reporters badly until he was convinced they could be trusted to do the job, and if he remained unconvinced, they stayed in his doghouse forever," Santin said.

"Mike also saw himself as a champion of the underdog who fervently believed the average person needed help when dealing with authority and those in power, be they in business or government."

Santin related a 1987 Free Press story about a 79-year-old North Bay, Ont., woman named Billie Biers, who was trying to find the daughter she gave up at birth in Winnipeg 60 years earlier. "The story was picked up by Canadian Press and CBC and resulted in Biers finding her daughter, Donna Hilborn, who was living in Kelowna, B.C.

"At Mike's insistence, the FP paid to fly both women to Winnipeg, where they met each other for the first time. The paper covered their costs while in town. I was fortunate to be assigned to spend three days with them, driving them around and chronicling their reunion.

"Mike often joined me and a photographer on that long weekend and he was all smiles the entire time -- like FP readers, Mike enjoyed seeing the joy shared by a mother and her adult daughter, and he took satisfaction in knowing his part in the story."

Ward's family said in his obituary he didn't want a fuss over him. Anyone who wants to remember Ward can make a donation to Pennies from Heaven or the Gimli Humane Society.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2013 A6

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