“What’s the configuration?”
It was the first question at our Monday editorial meeting at the Financial Post, the venerable financial weekly. It came from the editor, John Godfrey, with a wry, comforting reliability.
As always, he wanted to know the order in which the sections of the newspaper were going to appear. Really, though, he was interested in the gears, levers, pulleys and wheels of everything, material and intellectual.
How things worked would animate John Ferguson Godfrey all his restless, important life, which ended on Dec. 18. If it was about journalism in the 1980s, it could also have been, earlier or later, about education, economics, history, politics, science, social justice, the environment. Or music, swimming or sailing.
There was almost no cause or question that escaped his steady gaze. Defending the wrongly accused. Ending solitary confinement in prison. Amending the Constitution. Navigating free trade. Improving children’s health. Renewing cities. Feeding Ethiopia. Promoting bilingualism. Fighting climate change.
From running, to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, he had the energy and blazing curiosity of a professor, headmaster, editor, writer and politician. It made him a thinker and a tinkerer over his 81 years, seeking a country more just, fair, strong and progressive.
When I met John in 1987, he’d just become the fifth editor in the Post’s 80 years. Neville Nankivell, the much-respected publisher, was impressed with his intelligence and originality.
John had been president of the University of King’s College in Halifax. He was not a journalist. Within six months, the Toronto Sun bought the Post and turned our weekly into a daily.
“It was as if a dowager had run off with a punk rocker,” said John. He had to hire staff, design and launch a tabloid. It was “pure hell.”
John was lean, tall and angular, a patrician of impeccable manners. Meeting someone for the first time, he would rise from his desk, walk around and extend his hand. If the Financial Post was the most civilized place I’ve ever worked, he and Neville made it so.
John would appear in the newsroom in black tie on his way to a gala. He would disappear, too, blithely, as if off to a game of tennis, while harried editors scrambled to produce the paper. He had an uncanny ability to absent himself, as he did in a crisis on one of his 17 epic canoe trips in the North. While his fellow adventurers argued over the route, he disappeared with a book, confident of their judgment.
At the Post, he had critics. One couple conspired to undo him. He called them “the Ceaușescus,” laughed them off and saw them out
In politics, like journalism, John sought answers. As federal minister of state for Infrastructure and Communities in 2004, he embraced a “new deal for cities.” He rhapsodized over the resilience of Sudbury.
Of course, there were reversals and disappointments. He lost his brother tragically. He struggled in some jobs. His time in cabinet was too short. He ran (briefly) for Liberal leader. Most of all, though, there was humour and happiness.
One day he told me he’d met a woman unlike any other. He was surprisingly territorial (“Don’t get any ideas,” he warned). He and Trish Bongard married in 1991 and raised a son, Ian. Theirs was a perfect union. As Trish saw him through his long recessional of illness, faced with courage and grace, he said repeatedly how much he loved Trish.
His friends loved him, too. If Winston Churchill said meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening a bottle of champagne, being around John was like drinking it. He was always effervescent, whether explaining Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring or skiing in a costume befitting a Tyrolean refugee.
He flew national flags and wore many hats, including a bishop’s mitre. Did his mischief, flamboyance and eccentricity, I wondered, make him seem frivolous?
Believe me, Dr. Godfrey was serious — about ideas, faith, love, ambition and change.
At the end of the day, John Godfrey asked, relentlessly, why things were. He knew the complexities of life, this fleeting, precious life, and how to live it fully with generosity and joy. Always, he knew the configuration.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
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