Blood, sweat and Speirs Fondly looking back over 39 years of reporting, editing and columnizing
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2021 (579 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This is my last column for the Winnipeg Free Press — sort of.
After 39 years of reporting, editing and columnizing at this newspaper, I am finally retiring to spend more time lying on the couch with a vise-like grip on the TV remote control.
I will continue writing once-a-week freelance columns about things I find amusing, but mostly I’ll be spending time with my beautiful new granddaughter, Ivy.
But today’s column isn’t so much about looking forward as it is about briefly looking back over 39 years of journalism in the city that became my home when I moved here from Vancouver at age 16.
I was 26 years old when I landed a job as an intern at the Free Press in 1982. It was a summer job, but I never left. I have no idea how it happened, but somehow I went from being the youngest person in our newsroom to the oldest.
It would be impossible, using mere words, to explain how proud I was to be hired by the Free Press, but I’ll give it a try: I was really, really proud! I will never forget the first phone interview I conducted as a reporter, although it was far from memorable, journalistically speaking.
It began with a call to a farmer — OK, he might have been a fisherman — in some rural part of the province.
“Hi, this is Doug Speirs from the Winnipeg Free Press,” I gushed in an annoyingly perky voice.
“I’m sorry, who is this?” the voice on the other end replied, hesitantly.
“It’s Doug Speirs from the Winnipeg Free Press,” I chirped again, a little more firmly.
There was another hesitation before the voice loudly snorted: “Bill, is that you? C’mon, Bill, cut it out!”
Over the years, I was a general assignment reporter, education reporter, city hall reporter, and night reporter, wherein I got to cover everything from train wrecks to Christmas pageants, though the two have a lot in common.
Eventually, I climbed the ladder and became the city editor, the news editor, then the night editor, pressure-packed jobs that transformed me into arguably the grouchiest person in the building. It was as an editor I got to oversee a couple of the biggest stories of our era — the tragic death in 1997 of Princess Diana and the 9/11 terror attacks that turned our world upside down in 2001.
When I couldn’t possibly get any grouchier, my best buddy Bob Cox, then our editor and now our publisher, transformed me yet again — this time into the paper’s humour columnist, which turned out to be the toughest gig of all.
Over the course of 15 years as the paper’s alleged funnyman, I managed to rack up two National Newspaper certificates of merit — one for a series of columns in 2008 about such hugely important topics as standing in line at Tim Horton’s and being stuck behind someone who can’t make up their (bad word) mind.
I also got a runner-up certificate for the Class of 2017 project, wherein brilliant photographer Ruth Bonneville and I chronicled a single class of schoolkids as they moved from kindergarten hijinks to Grade 12 graduation.
The point is I was not great when it came to actually winning journalism awards, but I did manage to excel in at least one vital area, namely sustaining stupid injuries while attempting to be amusing.
For instance, I managed to tear my Achilles tendon twice, the first time trying to play charity softball against a bunch of NHL stars, and the second while taking part in a charity team challenge wherein we were supposed to (this is true) decorate a cake.
For the record, the very first column I wrote for the Free Press was about how I shattered my left arm while trying to corral my two dogs after they escaped and began excitedly trying to greet a woman at the end of our driveway, who turned out to be blind and was out walking her three-legged dog.
After that column appeared in the paper, a thoughtful woman wrote to my buddy Bob and demanded he fire me because “it’s not nice to write about someone when they get hurt.” Fortunately, Bob gave me another chance.
Speaking of dogs, I’m pretty sure I would have run out of column topics if it weren’t for the entertaining antics of the never-ending stream of good dogs that have passed (and continue to pass) through my house — Jeffery, Jessie, Winnie, Cooper, Zoe, Bogey and Juno.
My career would also have stalled were it not for stories about my now-grown son Liam, who practised his bagpipes whenever I was trying to think, and my now-adult daughter Kayleigh, who invited her leather-lunged friends over to belt out show tunes whenever I tried to sleep.
Not to mention my wife of 39 years, Diane, who I was never allowed to mention by name (until now) and had to refer to by the ominous pseudonym “She Who Must Not Be Named.”
I honestly could not have been more proud to have represented the Free Press for almost four decades. This is especially true of the countless charity events I was enlisted to support.
There is no way I will ever forget spending 15 years as “Santa Paws,” having my photo taken with hundreds and hundreds of jittery cats and dogs in support of the Winnipeg Humane Society.
Or dressing up as the Jolly Old Elf for about three years at Winter Wonderland, Christmas parties organized by Variety, the Children’s Charity of Manitoba, for hundreds of economically disadvantaged school children who went into a sugar-fuelled frenzy and battered Santa with their oversized candy canes.
The last 19 months have been challenging for all of us, but before I run out of space, let me just say how grateful I am to the Free Press (and all my colleagues) for a career that was never boring and made me feel I was truly part of the greatest city in the country.
Most of all, I’m grateful to you, the Free Press readers. I’m grateful for all of your kind (and some not-so-kind) emails and the way you wandered over when I was standing in the cookie aisle at the local grocery store to tell me how hard you laughed at a column about mice invading my home or squirrels pelting me with pine cones.
What I’m trying to say is, goodbye, for now. If you see me relaxing on a park bench, a copy of the newspaper draped over my face, don’t be afraid to say hello, because I won’t be sleeping, I’ll just be resting my eyes.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.