Jack Webster (Obituary)

His voice bellowed like the lowest register of a Highland bagpipe, either engaging or irritating, depending on your point of view. His manner was gruff with anyone who dithered when answering his tough questions, yet gracious with ordinary people who sought his help.

Webster, Jack

His voice bellowed like the lowest register of a Highland bagpipe, either engaging or irritating, depending on your point of view. His manner was gruff with anyone who dithered when answering his tough questions, yet gracious with ordinary people who sought his help. His jowly face, thick Scots' eyebrows and rotund figure made him instantly recognizable on the street. And his whisky-misted, Glaswegian burr distinguished him at once. Jack Webster, who died last week at 80 of congestive heart failure, was a performer nonpareil, a dogged, irreverent newsman who loved the thrust and parry of a tough interview. The morning television hot-line show he hosted from 1977 to 1986 was must viewing for many British Columbians. "He defined journalism here," says former television producer Cameron Bell, who worked with Webster at CKNW radio and BCTV. "If Webster got onto something it became news, and it was news because Webster said it was."

Former Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd says Webster always insisted he was neither a personality nor a television anchor, but simply a reporter. "That's what he held onto," Boyd says. Webster noted in his memoirs that his detractors claimed he made his living by finding a molehill at 9 a.m. and building it into a mountain by noon. "There's some truth to that," Webster conceded. "But I always tried to find a molehill that mattered to a lot of people."

Because of the huge audience for Webster!, visiting politicians, movie stars and other celebrities trekked to the Vancouver studio to submit to his gruff inquisitions. Pierre Trudeau did it several times. ("He was the only man I was ever truly nervous about interviewing in all my years in radio and television," Webster wrote of their testy exchanges.) Actor Shirley MacLaine cooed that Webster brought out her maternal instincts. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who called a Webster interview "a truly unforgettable experience," praised him as being among "a select few in any field who achieve the status of legend in their lifetime." And British Columbians, detractors and devotees alike, found it difficult to resist tuning in. "Maybe some people didn't like him," acknowledges Webster's closest pal, former labour leader Jack Munro. "But they sure respected his ability to get answers." His friends claimed his crustiness coated a porridge-soft interior. "He bawled and he howled," Bell says, "but he could be extraordinarily soft and sensitive."

Webster was born in Glasgow in 1918, son of an iron-turner who fitted pumps on battle cruisers and merchant ships. His mother, Daisy, was ambitious for her three surviving boys (another died at age 7) and encouraged their journalism careers. Jack signed on at the Glasgow Evening Times when he was 14 and worked for several Scottish papers before marrying Margaret Macdonald, fighting as a major in the Second World War, and emigrating to Canada. Arriving in Vancouver in 1947 with his wife and two small daughters, he went straight to the Vancouver Sun in search of work. "Another bloody Limey," griped the managing editor, Hal Straight. "I'm not a Limey," replied Webster. "I'm Scotch. And I'm a damn good reporter." He got the job and proved to be good to his word - while gaining a reputation for cheekiness.

In 1953, he left the Sun to work in radio in Vancouver, where he introduced many Canadians to the spectacle of the phone-in show. "He had an ability to get to the heart of stories that people cared about. He used the phone to unlock the curiosity of the audience," recalls Bell. He made frequent appearances on the pioneering CBC program This Hour Has Seven Days in the mid-'60s. But he was best known in British Columbia for Webster!, "a TV phenomenon," says Bell, that drew a morning audience of 200,000 to 300,000. After retirement, he was a panelist on Front Page Challenge until it went off the air in 1995.

For all his famous bluster and gregarious bonhomie, Webster's life had moments of great sadness. Before he and Margaret married, they had a daughter in 1936 and gave her up for adoption. The experience emotionally shattered Margaret. The couple had three other children - Linda, Jenny and Jack Jr. - but the fragile Margaret worked hard to trace the lost daughter, Joan, and they eventually reunited in Scotland in 1972. Last week, Joan and her siblings were at Webster's bedside when he died. Margaret died in 1985, and her passing, Webster wrote, "somehow called into question my entire life. I couldn't help feeling that I had made the mistake of making my job more important than my family." His son claims otherwise, noting his dad made time every Saturday to play a round of golf with him. "He was also great with the nine grandchildren," Jack Jr. says. "He'd play magic games with them, making quarters go in their ears and come out their nose."

Over the past few years, Webster's memory succumbed to the onslaught of Alzheimer's disease. "He compensated with the force of his personality," Jack Jr. says, "but he would get frustrated when he would forget things he knew he should know." One thing he knew even at the end: that generations of British Columbians would never forget his commanding voice and his urge to make their lives better.

Maclean's March 15, 1999