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Remembering Peter Worthington, a Year After His Death

During his lifetime, I used to joke that having Peter Worthington as a father was like growing up with a third, much younger brother. Now that he's gone and can't be embarrassed, I can say it was more like living with James Bond, Clark Kent and Tintin rolled into one.

Peter Worthington was once asked by an interviewer what he'd like to come back as in another life. He replied, "One of my dogs."

Certainly it would've been great to have been a Jack Russell of Pete's. He famously admired and doted upon his fierce and -- as he said -- "disreputable" -- terriers.

But being a child of his was better.

During his lifetime, I used to joke that having Pete as a father was like growing up with a third, much younger brother. Now that he's gone and can't be embarrassed, I can say it was more like living with James Bond, Clark Kent and Tintin rolled into one.

Pete came into my life when I was six. He married my mother and his then-Toronto Telegram colleague, Yvonne Crittenden, in 1970. Pete brought with him a son, Casey, one year my junior; together with my brother Guy, 8, we formed a typically "blended" family in that era when blended families seemed new.

Or rather, not so typical. It didn't take my six-year-old self long to figure out that my stepfather was not at all like most other fathers. When he wasn't working, he was first out the door to play shinny or catch with us. In the summers he taught us how to dive off high rocks and low bridges. Family trips were never predictable: we'd set off for weeks, with barely a plan, in houseboats and motor homes. When we were older he took us to hike the ruins of Machu Pichu, and on safari through Kenya. Unfailingly things went wrong, which gave him even more pleasure, as that meant he'd get a column out of the trip. But most magically, instead of reading us kids' books at night, Pete regaled us with incredible, true stories from his career as a soldier and then roving foreign correspondent for the Tely.

We'd ask for some of these stories again and again -- like the time he ate roasted sheep's brains as the guest of honor of an African tribe ("The whole sheep lay on the fire, and the Chief indicated I should reach inside the skull, pull out the brains and put them directly in my mouth"). He told us about being attacked by a pack of wild dogs in Laos ("I figured out the best way to defend myself was to grab one of the dogs as it lunged at me, and hurl it as far as I could. Once it was injured the other dogs would turn upon it, rather than me."). We had many favorite stories from his adventures -- or more often misadventures -- as a soldier in WWII and Korea. Then there were his tales from when he opened a Moscow bureau in the Soviet Union during the most dangerous days of the Cold War. He never focused on the politics, but on funny stories about his apartment or car -- how the elevator wouldn't stop at one floor because that was "the KGB floor"; how he couldn't keep windshield wipers on his Lada because they kept getting stolen. Our most favorite story -- and probably his most famous one -- was how he came to be standing near Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby pulled the trigger.

Eventually these stories -- and many, many others -- made their way into a wonderful memoir called Looking for Trouble: A Journalist's Life and Then Some, published in 1982. A second and extended version of the book, published in 1984, included the story of his firing from the Toronto Sun, the newspaper he co-founded in 1971, and of his thrilling but doomed attempt to run for national political office. The great American conservative author William F. Buckley, Jr. praised Pete's book: "Peter Worthington's journey through history has been Homeric. He writes the way journalists were meant to write, with immediacy, clarity and courage."

Pete died a year ago, on May 12, at age 86. By then, his memoirs were no longer in print. Used copies could sometimes be found in bookstores or online. Visitors to our house would sometimes leave with one of the mildewy copies my mother stored in the basement. But the incredible life Pete lived -- and the marvellous story he made of it -- otherwise died with him. Until now.

With the generous and tireless help of Mark Lefebvre, Director of Kobo's Writing Life program, Looking for Trouble is now available for the first time in e-book form. This new digital edition coincides with the first anniversary of Pete's death. It includes an introduction by his son-in-law, journalist David Frum ("the Big Dave," as Pete called him), and an afterword by me. Excerpts will be published in the Sun, and also on the Huffington Post. All proceeds of the book will be donated to Toronto General Hospital in Pete's name, to support the great work of his cardiologist Dr. Heather Ross and her team.

Those who loved Pete, as thousands did, can now rediscover his astonishing career. Over his 60-plus years in journalism, Pete interviewed Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Mobutu, King Hussein, the Dalai Lama, Jomo Kenyatta, Jonas Savimbi, Chiang Kai Shek, Julius Nyerere, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gary Powers, Igor Gouzenko , Alexander Kerensky, Alan Paton, Indira Gandhi, and Yuri Gagarin.

Pete was the first, and last, journalist ever to be charged under Canada's Official Secrets Act, after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau personally ordered the RCMP to prosecute him in 1978. Pete helped a Soviet spy defect from the KGB. He won four National Newspaper Awards, more than any other journalist in Canadian history. He launched the Toronto Sun, one of the most successful newspaper startups in North American history. And it wasn't just a business success. As David Frum writes, "In Pete's eyes, the Sun was first and foremost a vehicle for a political philosophy that until then was seldom heard in Canada. An entire generation of Canadian conservatives were emboldened to speak up by the unprecedented opportunity the Sun gave them to be heard. Everything hopeful that has happened in Canada since then owes its origin to the moment when Pete first set up shop as editor inside the old Eclipse building on King Street West."

Young journalists could learn a great deal from these memoirs. Everyone -- news reporter and news reader -- will by transfixed by them. Yet in the end, Pete's example is inimitable: there never was, and probably never will be again, a personality with his combination of bravery, charm, shrewdness, wit, integrity and sheer dumb luck. Unless he has, in fact, come back to life as a Jack Russell.

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