Articles

THE CP’S BENIGN SIMON LEGREE

SCOTT YOUNG January 1 1949
Articles

THE CP’S BENIGN SIMON LEGREE

SCOTT YOUNG January 1 1949

THE CP’S BENIGN SIMON LEGREE

SCOTT YOUNG

FOR a while after Gillis Purcell returned from the Army to his job as general superintendent of The Canadian Press in the spring of 1942,

veteran CP men thought he'd gone soft. He didn’t fry them as often, or with his usual fire. They suspected the change was because of his lost log — the left one, which had been smashed by a falling canister on manœuvres in England and later amputated. They even felt a little sorry for him. This, it turned out, was like feeling sorry for a temporarily dormant volcano.

On Dec. 27 that year, the night 36 were killed when a troop train plowed into the rear of a local at Almonte, Ont., Purcell returned to form. Tipped off at home on the first word of the wreck, he began a brisk exchange of messages with Ottawa which wound up with the flat ultimatum that if a man wasn’t on his way to Almonte in 15 minutes there’d be a new CP staff in Ottawa.

In the capital, snow and wind and night had tied up traffic. The one car available didn’t have

enough gas for the 43-mile trip and rationing was so tight there was no immediate way to get more. With Purcell following up his ultimatum with an exhortation to “charter, borrow or steal a car” to get there, two reporters, Frank Flaherty and Jim McCook, and an office boy set out in the nearly gasless car. They stalled about 10 miles from the wreck and started to walk. One got a lift in a milk truck and got to Almonte at 4.30 a.m. Within an hour, the full story of the disaster was pounding across CP’s 13,000 miles of leased wire into Canadian newspapers and radio stations.

Later that morning, when the men in CP Ottawa reread Purcell’s biting messages, they got steaming mad. They’d quit, they said. Only Purcell, they said, would treat them that way—like lazy, stupid rookies. At that point an office boy walked in with another message from Purcell, praising the job they’d done at Almonte—sugar to counteract the acid. Nobody quit.

The stories most often told about Purcell among

the 240 men who work under him to deliver a basic world and national news service to the 93 Canadian daily newspapers which own CP co-operatively are variations of the same theme. He’s master of the one-two punch, a whack in the teeth followed by a pat on the back.

Charlie Edwards, manager of CP’s subsidiary Press News Ltd., which sells news for radio to 81 Canadian stations, recalls one time when as a junior editor he was transferred from Vancouver to Toronto. Edwards was a good hockey player and by sheer coincidence (naturally) the annual hockey match between CP Toronto and CP Montreal was close at hand. Purcell met him at the train and told him to report for hockey practice at five the following morning—the only time a full team could be assembled without interference with their work. Edwards was out of shape, so when the practice broke up just before seven Purcell told him to stick around for another hour and

skate.

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“I’ve got to he at work at seven,” Edwards protested.

“You skate,” Purcell said.

Edwards skated. He got to work an hour late. That afternoon Purcell called him in and bawled him out for being late for work.

“You told me to skate,” Edwards protested again.

Purcell fixed him with a hard stare from his large, commanding eyes. “You’ve been around here long enough to know that you get to work on time, no matter what,” Purcell said.

Edwards went hack to his desk, kicking any stray dogs or office boys he found en route, and trying to figure out a way to fix that Purcell. Half an hour later Purcell stopped by Edward’s desk and asked him home to dinner that night. Edwards went and had a good time, because Purcell in such cases drops his mantle of command as soon as he steps outside the office. Purcell has used this knoek-em-down, hoist-em-up system with dozens of other CP men. It has been responsible for a great number of split personalities —men who hate Purcell’s guts nine hours a day and like him after hours.

Asking questions with the aim of defining Purcell’s character is like interviewing the blind men who encountered an elephant and variously described the beast as resembling a wall, a rope and a tree. One employee called him a slave driver. Another said: “He’s done a million things for

me.” A former CP man may have come closest of all: “He’s a tough, nasty,

friendly cuss-courageous, but sometimes stubborn to the point of being honeheaded . . .”

The subject of these conflicting opinions is a medium-sized man, 44 a few weeks ago, with a quick and friendly grin, a bow tie, slightly bulging hazel eyes behind silver-rimmed spectacles, and curly dark hair greying a little at the temples, who smokes half a dozen cigars a day. He became general manager of CP in 1945, 17 years after he was hired as a junior editor. He got $25 a week to start, now draws $12,000 a year.

Cremation for a Leg

Purcell runs CP from a plainly furnished office in the new quarter-milliondollar Canadian Press building in Toronto. A buzzer system on his desk connects him with his four secretaries in an outer office. An interoffice communication system runs from his office to those executives within easy reach. On his desk are two telephones and he sometimes uses both at the same time. These, and a dictaphone behind him and one in his home, connect him with men in CP’s other six Canadian bureaus and the one in New York. Also, he constantly scribbles pen or pencil notes on rough scratch pads which may he delivered personally if the man is in Toronto or sent elsewhere as teleprinter messages from CP’s Toronto newsroom on the floor above his office. He also keeps in touch by wire or cable with CP men in Washington, London, and Sydney, Australia.

To hit the pace he sets himself, he works anywhere from nine to 16 hours a day, averaging about 10. He keeps in constant touch with what’s doing in the newsroom and often is called on by his executives to make decisions on stories in which CP’s three-headed deity — Honesty, Objectivity and Accuracy—seems in danger of being taken in vain.

When he’s in Toronto, he drives his own car to work, arriving about 9.30 each morning. He uses planes and trains to cover the country from one coast to the other several times a year, walking with the heavy hesitation his artificial leg demands into jovial conferences with publishers or not-sojovial conferences with CP staflfmen. If he has to bawl somebody out, he does it usually on office time—and later entertains his victim in his hotel room to help him forget the pain.

Purcell seems as happy partying with the hired help, or other working newspapermen, as he is with their publishers and editors. One such gathering helped him celebrate the switch from the wooden pegón his left leg to an automatic metal job. The peg leg, known to Purcell’s friends across Canada as “Barney,” was burned with full honors.

A large part of Purcell’s effectiveness is due to his love of system. Where another man will make a date for “about 1.30,” Purcell will make one for 1.29 or 1.32. He has done this even in organizing fishing trips. One friend says that on a fishing trip with Purcell, only the fish are allowed to relax.

The Purcell Boner

Ironically, the one big boner of Purcell’s career was caused by an excessively methodical approach to a problem.

It was in 1944, in London, where Purcell had gone to confer with Ross Munro. CP’s ace war correspondent, on coverage of the Normandy invasion.

In his desire to lay down specific invasion assignments for CP war correspondents, he got from Munro a highly confidential memo containing information about the invasion. Unknown to Munro, Purcell stowed this in a brief case and then carried the brief case during a stroll on the Strand which ended in a small restaurant. He and Munro ate, and talked, and then proceeded to Fursecroft, a large flat

rented by several CP foreign correspondents. There, several hours later, Purcell missed his brief case. It had been left in the restaurant.

Next morning the proprietor said he had turned the brief case over to the police. The police said ominously: “The case, with its contents about the military, has been turned over to Scotland Yard.”

Within a few hours, Purcell and Munro were summoned to Canadian Military Headquarters. The officer commanding, Lieutenant-General Price Montague, blasted them both. They were told that the war cabinet was considering action against them on grounds of poor security. They sat on the lid for a few days and finally it blew over—a close call. Some people feel that this one incident may have mellowed Purcell slightly, made him realize that if he could pull such a boner other people’s mistakes aren’t as unreasonable as they once had seemed.

Munro, incidentally, made Purcell look very good as a picker of men. In 1940 Purcell had given him four hours notice to pack and get going overseas, made him a war correspondent soon after. Munro paid off to the greater glory of The Canadian Press by scooping the world on eyewitness stories in the invasions of Sicily and Italy, and getting many other notable news beats. His story of the Dieppe raid stood throughout the war as one of the best writing jobs from any front. At the time of Dieppe, when he was whaling the pants off correspondents getting up to $500 a week, Munro was paid $55 a week. He left CP in 1948 to become Ottawa correspondent for the Southam newspapers.

Purcell, naturally, was sorry to see Munro go—as he has been sorry to lose several top-line CP men since the end of the war. Most of these men quit because when they got back from the wars the jobs they were given looked tiresomely familiar—a caster-legged chair (for moving fast without getting to one’s feet) beside a clattering

battery of teletypes and telephones, and 60.000 words of news a day to boil down into 25,000 and send on a wire leading to the Maritimes, or the West, or the Ontario hinterlands. There are literally no soft jobs in CP and not even enough high-paying hard jobs to go around.

A few of the publishers who make up CP, providing through their newspapers the raw material for its national news and paying their share of CP’s million-dollar annual budget, think it’s bad for CP to lose these senior men. Others are more impressed by the fact that Purcell gives them a good news service cheaply—and couldn’t do that with a staff overloaded with high-priced newsmen. They know he’s always managed to have enough bright young men coming up from the bottom to fill such gaps and they figure he always will.

Poet in the Newsroom

Purcell’s closest associates in the direct operation of CP are Charles Bruce and Harry Day. Bruce, as general superintendent, is Purcell’s first lieutenant in handling staff and news coverage problems. Day has a similarly important position in dealings with CP’s directors and owners, the daily newspaper publishers.

Finding Bruce in the fast, hard grind of news agency work is like stumbling across an Anglican archbishop at a summer revival of the Sons and IDaughters of I Will Arise. He is one of Canada’s better poets, author of three volumes of verse and many magazine poems. In 1945 he was runner-up for the Governor-General’s poetry award with his “Grey Ship Moving,” and his prose often has the clear, spare beauty of his poetry. One of the best-written stories ever carried by CP was his report on the funeral of a Lunenburg schooner captain who had been shot by the United States Coast Guard’s antirum-running patrol. He has a thoughtful, wise quality to contribute to CP’s top thinking. But in him, too, not apparent in his diffident manner or short-sighted eyes, is a subtler version of Purcell’s hardness. One time a cocky young reporter, after a fortunate scoop or two on a big story, wired Bruce: “Also on job are six Star men, one Tely, one Free Press, and a few odd ones, but 1 don’t feel outnumbered.” Bruce replied tersely: “Struggle manfully

onward.”

Both Purcell and Bruce are strongminded men. The key to their sue* cessful association is that never have they both been mad at the same time. When Purcell was in the Army, Bruce took over his job until he returned. J. A. McNeil was general manager at this time.

Is CP a Monopoly?

Harry Day, the treasurer, is a few years older than Purcell both in age and CP service. He’s a quiet, stocky man, well-liked by owners of member papers. In director’s meetings they make quite a team—Purcell a brilliant, sometimes devious strategist; Day calm . and open, with a reputation for financial judgment which in its own way gives him as much influence on CP directors as Purcell.

Together, they are the first point of contact for any newspaper wishing to acquire a CP franchise, although both are bound rigidly by CP bylaws. A common criticism of CP is that it has a news monopoly in Canada (it hasn’t, but its only rival. British United Press, is small) and can make or break a new publishing enterprise by giving or refusing CP service. For instance, the Winnipeg Citizen, which started publi-

cation this year, would have a much greater chance for success if it could use CP’s news .service. However, its initiation fee would have been something between $50,000 minimum and $116,000 maximum and it couldn't lay out that kind of money and still have enough to publish on. The newspaper withdrew its application before the CP directors ruled on it.

Purcell argues strongly that the initiat ion fee, against which the Citizen’s operating capital looked insufficient, isn’t quite as tough as it appears. It. was designed to set a fair price on the interest a new paper would acquire in CP’s physical assets, but a clause in the bylaws says it can be remitted in full or spread over a long period of years. Only two papers in Canada had to pay the initiation fee to get in—the nowdefunct Regina Star and the Edmonton Bulletin. CP will refuse applications if it considers the applicant hasn’t enough money to operate successfully, or if any application seems to he slightly on the shady side— such as a political party wanting to publish for a few months before an election. Once CP turned down an application in Ottawa which had the endorsement of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Purcell rides close herd over all CP operations. Charlie Edwards, boss of Press News and its radio news service, reports to him regularly. He’s in constant contact with Ernie Burritt, general news editor; and with superintendents of CP’s seven Canadian bureaus, most of them men who rose in CP along with Purcell. The express wire from Toronto to Vancouver, serving 29 Western newspapers, is one of the most important communication developments in CP in the last 10 years—cutting out all western relay points and thus speeding the service. It was Purcell’s idea.

Picking the Winner

Another of his personal babies is CP’s system of reporting elections. Returning officers phone progressive returns to the nearest CP office, and the results flow into CP Toronto by teleprinter to be written into easily undersi ood stories or figure tables, and become part of one of Purcell’s most involved systems which he calls “trend analysis.” This is based on a system of charting returns until a trend becomes strong enough to name a winner. Purcell calls the shot on this himself and so far never has been wrong. In 1945 he declared the Liberals re-elected at 8.35 p.m. election night, even before the polls were closed in B. C. Under the Dominion Elections Act, this information can’t be broadcast or published until all Canadian polls are closed but CP flashes it all the same.

In the British elections of 1945, CP London, keeping a chart on progressive returns, flashed the Labor party victory 35 minutes before anyone else. Using Purcell’s system, John Dauphinee and Douglas Amaron were able to reach the correct conclusion faster than the dozens of expert men working on the same problem for British papers and press services.

All the Canadian Press veterans (several have worked more than 20 years for CP and still are under 40) call Purcell Gil, GP or occasionally “the Jeep.” He’s still somewhat of an enigma to these men who’ve been around since 1928 and watched him rise in that time from good, slightly flamboyant reportage in Winnipeg bureau to news editor of all CP in 1932, general superintendent in 1934, and general manager in 1945. Some of these even believe it possible, and have said so, that Purcell entered CP in

1928 with a master plan for eventually being the bosa. Purcell says this isn’t j so. “I got my first CP job on sort of a fluke,” he says. "I got interested. I worked hard. That’s about all.”

While working as a sports writer for the Windsor Star in 1928, Purcell applied for a job as telegraph editor of the Oshawa Times. The Times figured that at 24 be was too young, but turned over his application to CP’s general manager, the late J. F. B. Livesay. Livesay gave him the choice of working in Toronto, Montreal or Winnipeg. Purcell chose Winnipeg because it was close to his birthplace at Brandon, Man., and close to many friends he’d made while working part time (editorial page drawings and features) for the Winnipeg Free Press to help pay his way through University of Manitoba. His first full-time newspaper job had been with the weekly Hanna (Alberta) Herald. •

Birth of the CP

Purcell’s rise with CP might have j been slower if it hadn’t been for a fatal j accident. Harold Raine, who had been picked by Ljvesay to succeed him as general manager, was killed in a plane crash. Livesay turned to Purcell and, in the years until his retirement in 1939, Livesay’s training and Purcell’s natural inclinations molded Purcell into a man who must be classed as one of the three strong men who have made CP. The others were Livesay and E. H. Macklin, former general manager of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Macklin, a shrewd and colorful : westerner with drooping mustaches, pointed beard and broad black hat, got. into t he act in 1907, 10 years before the j birth of CP proper. That year three Winnipeg papers decided to fight, when j the Canadian Pacific Railway upped j the price for its sketchy news service, i They formed a news-gathering cooperative, called it Western Associated Press, and eventually got most other Western papers in. Livesay was WAP’s manager. Then Macklin, backed closely by Livesay, goaded other Canadian publishers until in 1917 the present national co-operative organization was born.

Livesay, who was CP’s assistant j general manager at first and three I years later general manager, was hard‘ shelled, kind - hearted and quicktempered. He once fired an office boy because he thought the boy had gone home (it was only seven o’clock at night); rehired him and gave him a raise when the boy said he’d only gone out for a sandwich to sustain him as he labored the last three or four hours of his 13-hour stint. The boy was Jack I Sullivan, now CP sports editor.

Big Chance Postponed

One of Livesay’s more eccentric touches was his habit of saving personal letters to read later—often later than he realized. Once he read a letter from an English artist friend asking if it would he possible to have an exhibition of his art in Toronto. Livesay investigated, then cabled: "Yes. When?" It was several days before be found the letter had been carried unopened for a year.

Livesay built a shaky news service into a good one and groomed Purcell as his successor. When he retired in 1939, however, Purcell was only 35 and the board of directors thought he was too young yet. J. A. McNeil, managing editor of the Montreal Gazette, became CP’s general manager and worked amicably with Purcell until retirement in 1945. Then Purcell was the inevitable choice.

At home with his wife and five

children, in their comfortable sevenroom home in Leaside, a good suburb of Toronto, he’s not without resemblance to the office Purcell. He’s not easily pleased, but generous when pleased, and he works hard to make his family a close-knit unit. The Purcells are Catholic (one of his sisters isa nun) and he goes to church not regularly, but frequently. He follows all sports closely and leaves his family many summer week ends for fishing trips with his closest friends, Burritt, his news editor; Dan McArthur, head of the CBC’s news organization; George H. (Chief) Carpenter, executive editor of the Montreal Gazette; and others. But he also spends a lot of time at home, reading, talking to his children, working with hammer and nails to build such objects as a hike garage for his eldest son, Peter. He dabbles in sketching and oils without particular talent and a few years ago whiled away some of his idle hours writing an M.A. thesis on wartime censorship. His wife, Archy, is a former CP secretary and a woman of deep understanding, both of Purcell and CP.

He doesn’t get any head start in the

affections of the wives of CP men, who each night listen to a blow-by-blow account of life with Purcell, hut he tries hard to make this up. Often he succeeds in becoming a friend instead of an ogre. As one CP man said, "It’s no use going home muttering about Purcell. Half the time after scalding you at the office he cuts the ground from under your feet by beating you home with flowers or candy for the wife.”

This is typical, too: Once, hearing by chance the children of CP men in London had been trying without success to get a football, he sent one to them in the next mail.

And so is this: Once he told a former CP man, "I heard of a good job today that I would have recommended you for, except that it’s a hard job and you haven’t the guts to stick to it.” For the same man, he and Harry Day arranged a bank loan for $700 to help buy a house, Purcell putting up a bond as security to get the man a lower rate of interest.

When you consider it further, the blind men actually described the elephant very well. ★