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GARY LAUTENS:
1928-1992

Gary Lautens was born on November 3rd, 1928, in Fort William, Ontario, the son of Joe and Bertha Lautens. Joe was a serious, hardworking man, and Bertha was a warm outgoing woman who insisted on naming their first child after her movie idol Gary Cooper. Shortly after Gary was born, the family moved to Hamilton, Ontario where Joe had accepted a position at the Hamilton Spectator reading and maintaining their wire services and teletype machines.

Gary began his lifelong love of the newspaper business early. At age 13 he went to work after school and during the summers at the Hamilton Spectator. He graduated from Hamilton Central Collegiate Institute and went to McMaster University. From 1948-50 he was editor of the McMaster Silhouette. The year he was editor, the Silhouette won for the first time the prestigious Jacques Bureau trophy, an award for small circulation newspapers.

Gary graduated with a Bachelor's degree in history in 1950, and immediately joined the Hamilton Spectator where he would work for the next twelve years at various assignments such as police reporter, sports writer and columnist. His sports column was called "The Gab Bag". He won numerous Western Ontario Newspaper Awards for journalism. He also had the honour of once being burned in effigy at a halftime show for something unflattering he had written about the Hamilton Tigercats football team. Hamiltonians took their sports and hometown teams very seriously. In the days of mostly un- or underpaid athletes, it was not unusual for entire football or hockey teams to be invited back to his house to be fed by his mother Bertha.

In early 1957 while judging a Miss Tigercat pageant he met a pretty 18 year old contestant named Jackie Lane. Although he cast his vote for another woman, Jackie got a call from him a short while later, and after six months of dating they were married in 1957. Their first son Stephen was born in 1959, followed by Jane in 1962 and Richard in 1964.

Gary joined the Toronto Star in December, 1962, replacing a void left by the departure of columnist Pierre Berton. In 1963 Gary won a National Newspaper Award for Sports Writing for a column he had written while still at the Spectator. Eventually moving away from sports, he began to write a human interest column which evolved into the humorous daily column he was best known for. His column frequently described the trials and tribulations of raising his young family. When he tried to address serious topics in a serious manner, he inevitably received a torrent of mail asking that he keep it funny, because his readers felt the news in the rest of the paper was more than depressing enough.

In the early '60s Gary also hosted a number of radio shows, usually interviewing famous entertainers and newsmakers throughout North America. In the 1970s and early 1980s he was the writer, occasional panelist and guest wrangler for the Canadian TV institution, Front Page Challenge. Part of his duties at Front Page Challenge was to meet the mystery guests, take them out to dinner and otherwise keep them under wraps until the show, where the permanent panellists - Pierre Berton, Gordon Sinclair and Betty Kennedy - would try to guess their identity. Gary ended up becoming friends with many of the guests, including politicians, astronauts, sports figures and entertainers.

During his career Gary came into contact with a broad cross section of Canadian society. He diligently read his often voluminous mail every day, and carefully hand-wrote replies to all his readers - even when the letters were offensive or insulting. One of his favourites was a letter from Canadian multi-millionaire E.P. Taylor. Once, at some event Taylor found himself without a dime to make a phone call. Gary was there and gave him a dime. Later Gary announced, tongue in cheek, that he had been forced to make an emergency loan to one of Canada's richest men. Not only that, but Taylor had defaulted on the loan by failing to repay him. Shortly thereafter, Gary received a letter from Taylor with two dimes taped to the bottom, saying he was repaying him with 100% interest.

Some of Gary's favourite recollections included the time he spent half an hour alone with the Beatles in their hotel room when they came to North America for their concert at Shea Stadium. He also enjoyed the time he had dinner with Ed Sullivan or briefly met Richard Nixon at a World Series game. Nonetheless, Gary got just as much (if not more) pleasure chatting with strangers on his daily walk down Church street to his office at the Star.

Gary did other occasional TV shows, including being a roving reporter for the CBC at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and a two-season, shoestring budget game show called "It's Your Choice". The budget was so thin that the guest panellists not only brought their own wardrobes, but when shooting several episodes on the same day, the men had to change jackets with each other to make it look like they were wearing different clothes. For most of the shows, Gary remembered that behind the desk the men were secretly wearing gym shorts.

The popularity of his daily column grew steadily, until he was the most read columnist in Canada. He resisted offers to move to the United States to become the next Art Buchwald or Erma Bombeck. He loved Canada too much to leave it for money.

Although it was considered an odd choice at the time, Gary was named Executive Managing Editor of the Toronto Star in 1982. He didn't seek or even want the job, but was convinced to take it "to breathe new life" into the Toronto Star. The Star had also recently gone through a series of Managing Editors. His critics forgot that Gary had been a serious journalist all his life, and watched with surprise as he increased the Star's circulation, profits and newsroom morale at a time when the entire newspaper industry was in a slump. He had a good sense of what the Star's readers wanted, and he gave it to them over the objections of those in the newspaper industry who "knew better".

Ultimately, and in spite of his success, office politics saw him replaced as Executive Managing Editor in 1984 and he was given the title "Editor Emeritus". It was not a happy time for him. Shortly afterward he returned to writing his humour column three days a week. His readers were delighted to see him back. From 1985 until his death in 1992, Gary was at the top of his game as a writer.

Gary published four books in his lifetime, twice winning the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for his collections of columns titled Take My Family... Please! (1980) and No Sex Please... We're Married (1983). Both were runaway bestsellers, selling more than 100,000 copies (a "bestseller" in Canada is only 5000 copies). Two collections of his columns have been published posthumously: Peace, Mrs. Packard and the Meaning of Life (1993) and The Best of Gary Lautens (1995). A third and final collection of his family columns from 1983 to 1992 is waiting for a publisher.

Gary wrote over 10,000 articles over his long career, sometimes writing as many as seven columns a week, at the same time doing work for TV and radio.

To set the record straight, it has often been repeated that Gary was a Liberal and that it coloured his opinions. That wasn't true - he had many friends from all political parties. He himself never joined or supported any political party. He felt that it would have compromised his freedom to criticize those in office who needed a gentle (or not so gentle) jab in the ribs.

Gary died of a sudden heart attack on February 1, 1992 at the age of 63. His premature passing shocked Canada and he was mourned nationally. The Toronto Star set up a memorial book in their lobby for people to sign, and were unprepared for the thousands of heartbroken people who lined up for three days and filled over seven books of condolence. Canadians felt they had lost a friend they had never met.

For someone often in the public eye, he was a shy, private person - a man of principle who disliked the slightest trace of insincerity or ostentation. His friendships crossed all boundaries of class, money, race, politics and status. He was happier shopping for bread at Toronto's St. Lawrence Market on a Saturday morning than being the guest of honour at an awards dinner.

Throughout his 40 years in journalism, Gary believed that humour should be used primarily for kindly purposes to point out life's ironies and contradictions. He never used his humour cruelly, and was more likely to hold up his own foibles and embarrassments as a lesson for his readers. His column was used to express joy and gratitude for what mattered the most to him in life - family, friends and country.

 
 

© Stephen Lautens 1997-2009