Dizzy Gillespie, the bebop king of trumpet, once said of Louis Armstrong: So it is with every hot-line, open-mouth host on the continent. No Jack Webster, no them. Long before Rush Limbaugh, long before New York’s Don Imus or Vancouver’s Rafe Mair, the burly Oatmeal Savage who died last week at 80 perfected the medium— an electric chair for guests, disguised as a microphone.
Webster would have been an instant candidate for that old Reader’s Digest feature “My Most Unforgettable Character.” He opened his pioneering open-mike show on CKNW radio at 9 a.m. “precisely!" By that time he would have finished his first 20-cigarette pack of the day.
More than 20 years ago, a doctor looked down his throat to his lungs and said it was like gazing into the bottom of a Welsh coal mine. “Go away,” he told Webster, “there’s nothing I can do for you.”
I was once with him in a Winnipeg restaurant when he set fire to a waiter, his flailing arms during one of his typically outrageous stories knocking over the flambé cart. “I could have saved him,” he confessed later, “but I was wearing a new suede jacket.”
Haggis McBagpipe, as I called him, had beneath all the distinctive burr and gruff exterior the heart of soft coffee cake. Every sidewalk drunk outside his studio in Vancouver’s gritty Gastown knew he was the easiest mark for five bucks for another bottle of vanilla extract.
Just as Walter Cronkite used to be judged in polls as the most trustworthy American figure, the dropout kid from the Glasgow waterfront was for decades the most trusted figure in British California by the Great Unwashed out there at the other end of the radio dial.
He left school at 14 for three jobs, delivering milk in the morning and racing between copyboy slots at two newspapers. To qualify for cub reporter status in the National Union of Journalists, he read on the streetcar each day Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. To the end, he constantly corrected grammatical mistakes in the conversations of his more educated drinking companions.
He had a very good war, ending up a major in Ethiopia. One of his better yarns—once the time frame for the Official Secrets Act had expired—was being seconded for his famed shorthand speed to be the recorder at a court-martial trial at British Army headquarters in Cairo, formerly the town’s finest bordello, of 18 British and Australian officers, lonely in the desert, who had established romantic, urn, relationships with sheep.
He was in Ottawa one day and suddenly remembered it was his 65th birthday. In his usual tumultuous, non-stop rounds, he suggested every politician and journalist he ran into drop up to his
hotel room for a celebratory drink. So many eager supplicants showed up that they were standing on the chairs, no room on the floor left.
Embarrassed that he couldn’t take them all out to dinner, Webster called for room service and ordered up club sandwiches. As the mob grew even thicker, he phoned down and ordered them to cut the sandwiches into smaller portions.
A young blond woman expired on the bed, a well-known host now on CTV offering more-enthusiasticthan-required chest massage. Fearing scandal, Webster wailed: “Here I am on my 65th birthday, attempting to get a woman out of my bed.” The room-service bill came to $887. Precisely.
He was, first on This Hour Has Seven Days and later on Front Page Challenge, the rare combination of a superb reporter who was also natural showbiz, a ham. With those two skills, he became the highest-paid working journalist in the country— without having to move to dreaded Toronto—making $300,000 a year in days when that was actually serious money. In doing so, he helped all the rest of us scribblers. It’s called salary creep.
One day he and his best buddy Pierre Berton were in a small float plane in bad weather headed up the B.C. coast for their annual fishing trip. ‘You know, Webster,” said Berton, “if this kite hits the drink, every paper in Toronto will have a headline: ‘BERTON DIES—Webster also aboard.’ And every paper in Vancouver will have a headline: WEBSTER DIES IN CRASH— Berton also perishes.’ ”
It was a good line, but it wasn’t true the day after Webster died, surrounded at bedside by his four children. The National Post had his picture on page 1 with a story and a terrific obit inside that took up almost a whole page. The Globe and Mail had his picture on page 1. The Toronto Star had a big obit. He was instantly a lead item on the national news on TV. The next day the Globe had an editorial— fittingly opening with a quote from Shakespeare—and finishing with a simple, “Thanks, Jack.”
He was sui generis—one of a kind. His like shall not pass this way again.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.