Lawyer turned CBC mainstay presented case for humour

(Captain) Jack Farr, 81, was host of Winnipeg-produced The Radio Show


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Millions of people had seen Muhammad Ali, many thousands had talked to him, but Jack Farr had them all beat. And he never threw a single punch.

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Millions of people had seen Muhammad Ali, many thousands had talked to him, but Jack Farr had them all beat. And he never threw a single punch.

The longtime CBC radio host was among a small and prestigious group who had a poem written for them by the American boxing legend.

The self-proclaimed greatest of all time was in Toronto doing promotional work for an event at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1973. Ali had a soft spot for Toronto because he had been able to fight there when he couldn’t in the U.S. because of his religious beliefs and being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

(In 1966, Ali defeated Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo in a 15-round classic in Toronto.)

The Winnipeg-born Farr was practising criminal defence law in the Ontario capital, but loved the radio business. He was a regular visitor to the downtown CBC building, where he appeared on Danny Finkleman’s Saturday Morning Show as a character named “Joe Fan.”

At one point, he ran into Ali — possibly in a limo on the way to be interviewed on the show, the details are a little hazy after a half-century — and they hit it off. Before they went their separate ways, Ali jotted down a poem on a This Country in the Morning memo pad (another show on which Farr appeared) and signed it.

“To Joe Fan my man from Muhammad Ali / The man who has no imagination / stands on the Earth / He has no wings / he cannot fly.”

Farr’s son, Jamie, had Ali’s poem framed and today it hangs on the wall of his Toronto home. His dad idolized Ali, he says.

“He was never really starstruck, but he was by Ali.”

Nicknamed “Captain,” Farr parlayed his regular radio appearances into his own gig as host of the Winnipeg-produced The Radio Show on Saturday afternoons on CBC from 1983 to 1992.

When Farr went on vacation, a fill-in host would sit in his chair. A young journalist named Mary Ambrose was one of them. She’ll never forget their first meeting.

“He took me into his office and showed me a poster of the politburo (the central committee of the Soviet Union’s ruling communist party). ‘I’m tracking these guys,’ he told me. ‘Seeing who is moving up and who’s moving down.’ I thought, ‘You’re much more unusual than I originally thought,’” she says.

Ambrose became a regular on The Radio Show and even though she was the youngest staffer and working in a male-dominated industry at the time, Farr treated her like an equal.

“I was a big fan of the Captain. He was generous. He was a guy who had power, he had this big radio show and he suggested me as the replacement host when he went away… He was very big on letting people absolutely be themselves. He didn’t want you to sound like other people. It was pretty rare for a young woman to get that kind of support (back then),” she says.

Farr died in October in Windsor, Ont., where he had been in an assisted living facility. He was 81.

During The Radio Show years, a perfect Sunday was spent cooking and watching television, says his wife, Bonnie. But nothing about the day was off the cuff, there was plenty of planning.

First, Farr would gather all the grocery store flyers and flag all of the items for sale, then he would find — or often create — a recipe using the on-sale ingredients. Finally, he would drive around to the various stores to do his shopping.

“He was a coupon freak, loved sales and specials and hated to buy anything that didn’t have a reduced price,” says Bonnie.

“On Sunday morning, Jack chopped and sliced and had the kitchen counters covered with food and cooking utensils. He dashed back and forth between the TV room and the kitchen for the entire day and was happy as a kid in a toy store.”

Farr met Bonnie at the CBC radio studios in Toronto.

“I was totally intrigued by his spontaneous, off-the-cuff humour. The words and humour just rolled out of him, much like his Radio Show items and interviews,” she says.

They started dating July 9, 1975, were married 16 months later, and accepted jobs at the CBC in Winnipeg in the summer of 1977.

The CBC Winnipeg crew hung out at the Union Centre, a downtown watering hole, where Farr met an up-and-coming politician, Gary Doer.

“It was a great place because you had hard-rock miners hanging out there having a beer. You had CBC types coming over with their sweaters having a beer. You had some of the profs from (the University of Winnipeg), some of the students… It was really an eclectic, fun place to have a cold one to start the weekend off right,” says Doer, NDP premier of Manitoba from 1999-2009.

“I was the Opposition lobbing grenades at the government. He’d be lobbing humour across our country the next day on The Radio Show.”

It wasn’t long before Doer and Farr became cottage neighbours at Laclu, Ont., a few more beers were consumed on their decks while they got away from it all.

“I don’t think he ever read an e-book, he’d go to the library. He had a floating chair and he’d have a beer in one of the arm rests and a his book in his lap.”

Even though he no longer practised law, Farr still loved it. Doer remembers his friend evaluating the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the mid-1990s.

“Jack thought (early on) he was guilty, but he argued they didn’t have enough evidence to convict him… Whenever there was any famous trial, he had a strong opinion. He followed everything legal,” Doer says.

Jamie says he and his father shared a similar sense of humour — and a love of television. (The elder Farr claimed to be Western Canada’s top TV watcher.)

For decades, whenever they were in the same city, they would sit down and watch their favourite show: The Price is Right.

“We’d compete head-to-head in the various pricing games, trash talking each other the entire time. Even in his final years, I used to marvel at how excited he could get when the Plinko game would roll out. I don’t think that show will ever be the same for me,” he says.

Farr often had difficulty falling asleep so he listened to audio tapes at bedtime. His favourite was the sound of a motor boat travelling across a lake, with the cry of loons in the background, waves lapping and on-shore sounds of children and parents at the water’s edge.

“Jack drifted off to dreamland many nights while listening to that tape. The recording was done by a neighbouring cottage owner at Laclu. It was a game-changer,” his wife says.

Doer recalls taking his family on a boat ride at Laclu last fall, before shutting their cottage down for the winter. They had a picnic on a big hill, which Farr had christened “Farr Mountain.”

“Jack even named the eagles at the lake,” the former premier says. “I don’t know how he kept them separate.”

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