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For the love of community storytelling


The photo above is a postcard I bought a few summers back at a local museum. I wanted a photo of the SS Noronic to put on my bulletin board in my office to remind me of why I got into journalism.


This morning, I got the sad news that the news director that had given me the assignment related to the Noronic cruise ship disaster, had passed away. Just this week, I glanced up at my bulletin board, thinking I needed to take a photo of the postcard and send it to him, and tell him what an immense influence he and that assignment had on my career trajectory. I never got the chance.


Larry Gordon was all about community. Community radio newsrooms are where Larry spent most of his adult working life, early on becoming news director at the cluster of Blackburn Radio stations in Sarnia, Ontario. I was between my first and second year of a two year Radio Broadcast Journalism program at Fanshawe College. I couldn't believe my luck when I saw the summer student position posted online, working in the newsroom that served an all-talk AM station and two FM stations.


I loved reporting. I loved finding a subject to interview and I loved breaking a story. I loved digging for the truth. I still love all of those things, that has never left me. But that summer Larry saw that fire and curiosity in me and he gave me the absolute best learning experience of my career.


He trusted me with big and small assignments. Even though there were seasoned journalists employed in the newsroom, he gave me some of the bigger stories if I managed to pitch them and get someone to talk about it. He let me go out on the OPP boat for a day, following the water cops as they checked vessels for booze and regulatory compliance but one of my last assignments before returning to school that fall, was one I have never gotten out of my head.


Larry told me the 50th anniversary of the SS Noronic Fire in Toronto Harbour (1949) was coming up. 118 people perished in the fire. Cruise boat regulations changed as a result of the investigation.


Somehow, Larry had a list of the survivors. This list was from shortly after the fire so there was really no way of knowing if the folks would still be alive. Many of the crew members that survived were from the Point Edward area, near Sarnia. At that time, in the late summer of 1999, not many newsrooms were using the internet for research, so I set out to accept the challenge by going through the old fashioned phone book, calling folks who might be survivors or even members of their family. I made many calls, as you can imagine, and left many messages on answering machines. To my absolute shock, I got a call back from a young woman who thought her great aunt was the person I was looking for. I cannot tell you how excited I was to make that call. Sure enough, Marie Reid, or Marie Bollack as she was known as a 19 year old waitress on the Noronic, agreed to meet with me.


I packed up what seems like now, the GIANT station recorder and microphone and took the company vehicle to the trailer park where Marie was living. She invited me in and we sat at her kitchen table as I hit 'record'. She talked about staying on the boat when many of the crew had taken leave and gone into Toronto for the evening. She talked about being woken out of a dead sleep at 2 a.m., someone lifting her up and throwing her overboard into the water, saving her life. She talked about some of the passengers and crew that weren't so lucky; the smell of the smoke and the screams of terror. The passion in her voice struck me. After I hit 'stop', she told me she had never talked about that night previously, not even with her family and she'd been asked by other news outlets and declined. She said she wanted to talk about it now, so her grandchildren knew. We had a lovely conversation.


I left her trailer, got back into the company vehicle and bawled my eyes out, not only because of the brevity of her story but also because I understood clearly how much of a gift it is to record and hold someone else's story. I felt it physically in my body, what a great responsibility it is to give people a voice, especially so literally, in an audio medium.


I went back to the station, pulled off the tape and cut clips as I quietly sobbed.


Here's one of the wrap around clips, the only one I still have: https://static.wixstatic.com/mp3/532e4e_99b404cd938c47b8bf5ae34945ed9622.mp3


After finding Marie, Larry started to call me 'Scoop', something that made me feel like a 'real' journalist with a special talent.


I never forgot Marie Reid and how that interview made me feel.


I never forgot Larry Gordon and his trust in my curiosity and question-asking, something that other positions I would later take on, in non-journalistic roles, didn't appreciate as much. But that spark and drive for answers has never left me.


I still thrive in digging for the truth.


On my last day, I bought a fruit and candy basket for the newsroom as a thank you and Larry gifted me a pen, engraved with my initials and the year. I think he may have given all his summer students the same gift but it made me feel special, talented, appreciated and seen.


I still have it and treasure it. I always will.


Even though I only had a short time working with Larry, he had the deepest impression on my soul. He touched so very many lives in his long career as a news director and then as a municipal representative in Point Edward, always asking questions. He will be missed by myself and the myriad of others he touched.


His passing only re-ignites my drive and passion to tell small town stories and the stories of rural Canadians.


I still believe that local, rural-based radio is the path to communication equity and communication justice, uniting us once again.


Stay tuned (pun intended).

(If you would like to learn more about the SS Noronic Disaster, here is a short, 10 min video documentary from 2022 and a longer, 20+ min one from 2016 with some interviews with other survivors)

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