Peter Gzowski (1934-2002)
Gzowski, Peter (1934-2002)
While Peter Gzowski’s bearded, bespectacled face became well-known to millions of Canadian television viewers, it was his distinctive, unmistakable voice on radio that Canadians would think of, and would always remember, when news came of his untimely death at the age of 67. Yet it was not until he was well into his thirties that Peter’s flourishing career in journalism finally got him involved in broadcasting.
Born in Toronto in July 13th 1934, Peter moved with his mother in 1946 to Galt (now Cambridge) Ontario. In 1948, through intervention by his paternal grandfather, he attended Ridley College in St. Catharine’s, from which he graduated in 1953 with two scholarships. Peter then attended the University of Toronto, where he enrolled in social and philosophical studies. While he never graduated from U of T, his subsequent stellar career in the print and broadcasting media earned him no less than eleven honorary degrees (including one from U of T in 1995), and at the time of his death he was Chancellor of Trent University, having been appointed on Canada Day, July 1st 1999.
His first full-time job in journalism was in northern Ontario, as a reporter for the Timmins Daily News, but by 1956 he was back at U of T, this time as editor of the Varsity magazine, while doing part-time work as a police reporter at the Toronto Telegram. By the spring of the following year he was city editor of the Moose-Jaw Times-Herald, but by the fall of 1957, his drive and ambition had taken him back to Ontario, to become Editor of the Chatham Daily News. Yet within a year he was on the move again, this time to join the staff of Maclean’s magazine, and by 1962 he was Managing Editor of the magazine at the age of 28.
Peter resigned from Maclean’s in 1964, and after freelancing for various magazines for a couple of years, in August 1966 he became the Entertainment Editor for the Toronto Star, and later Editor of the Star Weekly Magazine.
While the first CBC radio show to bring Peter Gzowski to the nation’s attention in a big way was This Country in The Morning, it was Radio Free Friday, the predecessor to another successful CBC series, As It Happens, for which Peter was first hired to do interviews, from 1969-71. It was on this series that he honed the interviewing skills which were to serve him so well for over thirty years. It was on Radio Free Friday, incidentally, that a young producer named Mark Starowicz was honing his own skills which were later to earn him a place at heady levels in the CBC hierarchy.
In 1971, CBC Radio producer Alex Frame hired Peter to host his new show, This Country In The Morning, a weekday three-hour live radio series that launched in October of that year. Peter hosted this show until 1974, when he left “to take a rest and recharge his batteries” , but in the summer of 1975 he accepted an invitation to act as host of As It Happens while Barbara Frum took a two month vacation. In the fall of 1975 Peter turned up on CBC FM doing yet another interview show, Gzowski on FM, (having originally told As It Happens listeners it was going to be called “Everyone Should Learn to Play the Flute – But Not Well” !).
But inevitably, his success as a radio interviewer had been noted by CBC Television, and when Peter’s old This Country In The Morning producer Alex Frame moved to television to do a late night talk show, it was no surprise when he tapped Peter Gzowski to be the host. Ninety Minutes Live had a three-week tryout in April 1976, and returned for several months in each of the 1976-77 and 1978-78 seasons, but was not subsequently renewed. In 1986-87, Peter made another equally abortive attempt at a television interview show with Gzowski and Company, during the production of which his travels across the country earned him many new friends, but insufficient viewers to keep the series going longer than one season.
For the next few years, Peter returned to the written word, and turned out several books, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Sacrament in 1980, and The Game Of Our Lives (about Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers) in 1981. Then, in 1982, he was lured back to CBC Radio. It began with a chance meeting with Barbara Frum, who asked him to again fill in for her as host of As It Happens, this time for six weeks. Then Don Harron, who had been hosting the CBC daily three-hour interview/talk show Morningside, announced his retirement from the show, and Peter was delighted to be offered the host’s chair in Don’s place.
Morningside would last for another fifteen years, and Peter was with it to the end. His warm, thoughtful interviewing style once again proved ideally suited to this new role, and in the course of an estimated 27,000-plus interviews he came to be regarded in so many people’s minds as their “Mr. Canada”. He was as at home talking to heads of state as he was talking to sportsmen, artists, or men and women on the street, and whoever they were, their stories became that much more interesting because it was Peter who was asking the questions.
The series ended in May 1997, after over 3000 episodes had been broadcast, but Peter continued to write, and his total output of sixteen books included The Morningside Papers, An Unbroken Line (about horse-racing), two collections of his columns, Canadian Living (for which he won the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour), and Friends, Moments, Countryside, and his final book, The Peter Gzowski Reader. His writings also earned him a Peabody Award. His passion for literature prompted him to devote a great deal of time to raising funds for Frontier College’s reading programs, for which he raised may millions of dollars with his annual Invitational Golf Tournaments.
For his prodigious body of work in both broadcasting and the written word, Peter Gzowski won many well-deserved awards. He won seven ACTRA awards. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1986, and was elevated to Companion of the Order in 1992. He received the Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts in 1995, and was made a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame.
And it was the incumbent Governor-General, Adrienne Clarkson, who on learning of the death of Peter Gzowski on January 24th 2002, offered this appropriate epitaph: “Through him, we listened to voices from every corner of our vast land. As we say goodbye to this respected Canadian, we thank him for bringing us closer together.”
Written by Pip Wedge - February, 2006