The prince and the paper


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Every one needs someone to look up to.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/05/2012 (3854 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every one needs someone to look up to.

Even veteran newspaper columnists. Which is how I came to be at the legislative building this week, on the same day Gary Doer watched the unveiling of his portrait.

But it wasn’t Doer I had come to see. That same day, Doer’s successor, Premier Greg Selinger, also officiated a ceremony that honoured Val Werier, the man who has written about 11 of Manitoba’s 21 premiers over a newspaper career that spans almost 75 years.

Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press Val Werier with his order of Canada he received in Ottawa in 1998.

And the man, who will be 95 next month, continues to write, as a contributing columnist with the Free Press. Continues to write, I should add, with passion, purpose and unfailing insight and vision, even though, over the last three decades, because of macular degeneration, his vision been gradually fading to near black.

So it was Thursday that our city’s long reigning Prince of Print Journalism — who had previously been presented with the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba — was honoured by the Winnipeg Press Club with its President’s Award for Someone Who Made a Difference.

The ceremony was held at the top of the grand staircase of the Legislative Building, in front of family, friends and fans. I took my seat in the fans’ section.

I have known Val almost 60 years — since I was five years old. He and my dad worked together for a year at the old Winnipeg Tribune.

Or at least I have known of him as Winnipeg has over those years, the way Free Press publisher Bob Cox described him during the Press Club presentation ceremony.

“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,” Cox said.

Cox highlighted other achievements.

“Through his work, Val won respect for his judgment and fairness that took him beyond journalism,” Cox said.

“He was a nominee to become Manitoba’s first ombudsman. He sat on the Manitoba Law Reform Commission, and in 1994, he was appointed the first non-lawyer to become a complaints commissioner of a Canadian law society.”

I knew about Val’s crusading for the environment long before it became a popular cause, but I hadn’t known about his accomplishments outside newspaper work.

There’s lots I didn’t know.

And the next day, talking to him and two of his three children, I got to learn more I hadn’t known.

About his parents, who fled Czarist Russia, after his father had been sent to Siberia for standing up for workers’ rights.

That, when they reached Winnipeg in 1908, his mother became a midwife and nurse, and his father opened a grocery store on Selkirk Avenue that didn’t succeed, at least not as a business. How could it when he gave people credit and never collected the money?

It was through his parents’ example that young Val learned the tolerance and passion for social justice that he taught his own children by example.

I learned something else I didn’t know.

That Val lost his wife Eve in 1974.

She had battled a brain tumour for nearly a decade and died at 52.

His daughter, Judy, who acts as his research and writing eyes today, recalled her dad’s quiet courage through that time and beyond.

Val Werier and his late wife Eve at Kildonan Park.

Over the phone Friday, I asked Val what his proudest journalistic achievements have been.

I wondered if it was his work that ultimately lead to the founding of St. Amant Centre that serves children with development difficulties.

He granted that was one.

The other, the one he is most proud of, centres on a tribute made to him during the mid-1990s in the Globe and Mail. It was spoken by former Free Press editorial page editor John Dafoe.

“I think Val over a long period as a journalist has established an integrity that very few have.”

Then Val said this of Thursday’s tribute in this, the 125th year of the Winnipeg Press Club: “I’ve received over 30 honours in my life, and this one really touched me. My peers decided I was something special.”

Val said he couldn’t see the faces of the people who gave him a standing ovation.

If he had, he would have seen tears in the eyes of the people in the front.

His family.

They weren’t alone, though.

Before the ceremony, I approached Val, who was wearing his trademark tam and sitting beside his daughter.

I told him how honoured I was to be there, and that my late father, his former colleague and collegial competitor, was here in spirit.

I said that, appropriately enough, as I knelt before him.

As I was saying, everyone needs someone to look up to.

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