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A news-business legend with few rivals leaves us

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There are legends of Canadian journalism, and then there is THE legend.

John Robertson died Saturday in a Gimli nursing home.

He would have been 80 in March.

If you're old enough -- or even if you aren't -- you should remember John Robertson as "the founding father" of the Manitoba Marathon. He envisioned it after a deadly fire at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in 1978. His mission was to free people with intellectual disabilities from institutional warehouses and get them into the community. By raising awareness and funds through the marathon, that's what he and a group of friends did, starting with the first race in 1979.

And, being a man with a marathoner's mentality for excess, and having kicked booze and nicotine to the curb, Robbie began running the races, too.

On Monday, his widow, Betty, said the marathon was his proudest accomplishment. "He was a hero," the Manitoba Marathon said in a news release, "and he will always be our hero."

John Robertson was one of my heroes, too. But for more reasons than his legacy with the marathon.

-- -- --

The conversation I best remember having with Robbie is chronicled in a column from March 1991, when he was days from being 57 and at his most heroic. The column began with a series of rhetorical questions:

"What if you lost it? What if you woke up tomorrow and you could do everything but the thing you do best?

"And the thing you once did best was your obsession. Your life. And now your life is over. But you're still breathing."

When I wrote that, Robbie's writing life was over. A series of strokes he had while covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star had left him on a disability pension. Doctors had told one of Canada's most gifted and passionate journalists, one of North America's finest and funniest sportswriters, he would never type another one-liner. But he could still deliver them.

"How are you?" I asked when he called nearly a quarter of a century ago.

"I'm struggling a bit," the former Free Press columnist responded. "My IQ is down to the same level as my bank account. The doctors say I have a reduced intellectual capacity. But they haven't seen my high school English marks... "

Eventually, he got real with me. He said he was bored.

"Ever since I sold shoes at the Bay in 1955, I've been running from work," Robbie recalled. "Writing's never seemed like work to me. Any other job, I watched the clock. With writing, I looked at the clock and cursed because it's going too fast."

Now the clock had slowed, and all he had was his still-intact curiosity, his passion for helping others, and mercifully, he still had the humour that had always run through all his writing. Even when he was angry. As he was in a legendary story from 1966, when on the way out the door at the Toronto Telegram, Robbie used the first letter of the first word in each paragraph of a story to spell out a message: "F YOU EVERYBODY."

When we spoke that day in 1991, for all the humour, Robbie was just as brutally honest about his condition and his feelings about himself as he was about others back in that day.

"My concern is keeping my sanity... There's almost a suicidal depression with this helplessness. The problem is now I've got nothing to do to excess, except sit on my ass."

Robbie always was as good with the spoken word as he was with the written, which is why between newspaper gigs in Winnipeg, Regina, Toronto and Montreal he worked in private talk radio in Montreal -- where he needed police protection in the lead-up to the historic Parti Québécois victory in 1976, and in TV at CBC's 24 Hours evening news show in the late 1970s into the early 1980s.


Until he made the mistake of running for provincial politics as a Progressive Conservative candidate in St. Vital.

And lost.

Still, he was a winner in the world where he really belonged. By 1987, now back in Toronto, he had been the recipient of four ACTRA awards for broadcasting and a National Newspaper Award for sportswriting.

Now, in March of 1991, he was talking about making a comeback. He didn't mean in journalism.

Not long after we spoke, Robbie and some friends helped create a fleet of vehicles for Winnipeg Harvest and he would be seen at Safeway stores to coax customers to bag some groceries for the food bank. That's why he was my hero.

He was more than a great journalist. He was a great person who cared even more about helping people than he did about writing.

That's what sustained him through the next almost quarter-century.

We spoke for nearly an hour on the phone on that memorable day so long ago, although he did almost all of the talking.

Which is probably why he called back shortly after with an after thought.

"I've finally figured out how I'm going to die," Robbie said

"How?" I bit.

"In mid-sentence. If God has a sense of humour, my last words will be, 'and furthermore... ' "

Leave 'em laughing.

That's the way John Robertson wanted it to end. Bless his huge heart.

His funeral will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic Church in Winnipeg Beach.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2014 B1

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