Bombastic broadcaster recalls talk radio heyday

Appeared in the North Shore News – January 13, 2017

Rafe Mair, astronomically paid battling broadcaster in the balmy days when CKNW styled itself Vancouver’s Top Dog, is in shaky health and thinks he’ll die in 2017.

Mind and speech, he’s as sharp as ever. I assured him he looks fine.

“I wish I felt as well inside as I look outside,” Rafe replied. He turned 85 on New Year’s Eve, has balance problems probably due to a long-undiagnosed stroke, and uses a walker in his Lions Bay townhouse shared with wife Wendy. An electric scooter at the door gets little use these days.

Rafe would not like the formulaic panhandling-for-pity story reserved for the old or ill, and he won’t get one here. Even less, the definitive account of his riveting life, where the line between his private and public affairs was tremulous. Nor, a study in itself, his aggressive pride in B.C. – a Don Quixote tilting at windmills that sometimes blunted his lance in retaliation. (Such was his contempt for Eastern Canada that he once yielded as far as pronouncing this Ontario-born word-grinder “an honorary British Columbian,” but withdrew it when in my Vancouver Sun column I accidentally wrote kindly of Toronto.)

No, Rafe’s chronicle requires at least three volumes – and his biographer would have to tread carefully quoting him. He is particularly fond of giving vigorous exercise to that vernacular construction translatable as: “Depart, begone, go hence, get thee out of my sight.”

He wore an XXL-size personality and brandished a Napoleonic bravado in attack. (Daring a one-way ticket to Elba?) Always in motion, Rafe kicked up so much dust that his career in the Bill Bennett cabinet – health, environment, constitutional adviser – is almost lost in the memory clouds.

He’s proud of it. His own cryptic list: ‘‘Enabled cottage wineries. Beat back banks. Also fought several environmental battles including Kemano Completion Project, saved Skagit, placed moratorium on uranium, stopped killing of wolves.’’

He praises Bennett, albeit “a prickly bugger, and so am I,” as “a fine, fine guy. … Of course, I left blood on the carpet like everyone else.’’ (“The only thing that I worry about with criticism,” he told me, “is that I might agree with it.” And added: “No one likes to have unpleasant things said about them any more than a baseball player likes to be hit by a 100-mph fast ball, but I, like him, can’t wait to step up to the plate again.”)

Restless, Rafe quit politics. Money was thin. And, to speak ill of the dead: He claims the extravagance of his wife Patti and her failure to file income tax returns for some years landed them in a tax arrears and bank muddle totalling $250,000. He begged, successfully, to pay off each debt at $25 a month.

His first NW talk show, midnight-2 a.m., blossomed, and his salary with it: Initially $80,000, it soared to $125,000 when he reached the coveted 9 a.m.-noon spot. Close friend Fin Anthony, apprised of this intolerable exploitation, said he’d double it and add a $50,000 signing bonus. Anthony returned, confessing failure: He got the $250,000 but ‘‘only” a $40,000 bonus.

This was NW’s bombastic heyday. The station was a wacky zoo of naked ambitions, bruised and bruising egos, stabbings front as well as back, yet dominated by the universally respected Warren Barker. (I omit other names on the ground that they represent actual people and may sue.) Rafe’s audience adored his harsh have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife style of cross-examining politicians, many of whom refused return bouts. And his chocolate Lab Chauncey became part of his radio family.

But some faithful wearied of Rafe’s causes – notably his relentless is-he-on-that-topic-again crusade, allied with activist Alexandra Morton, championing B.C.’s fishery – against the detested fish farms raising Atlantic salmon. And with the territory came envy, gossip, new love. Rafe’s split with then-wife Patti bitterly divided loyalties within NW because she was, and for some time continued as, his producer.

The show closed in 2003 after a running battle with his then boss, starting with a female staffer’s complaint that Rafe had high-handedly ordered her to fetch coffee for him. Rafe denies it. The trigger, he says, was when he took to the mic to scorch NW owner Chorus Entertainment for firing 25 employees. His contract, with perks, was then an eye-popping $455,000.

He declares: ‘‘Everybody fired me. … When asked about my radio career, I reply: ‘I started in my 50th year, was B.C. broadcast performer of the year, received the Michener Award and was twice shortlisted, received the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jack Webster Foundation (and elevation to) the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame – during which time I was fired three times!’”

In our four-hour friendly lunch that grew into this interview – which Rafe had expected – I asked the stock question: What was his worst experience? It was the only time he hesitated. The human, not the career, voice answered: The irreparable loss of his beloved daughter and poet Shawn, 17, killed in a car accident in 1976.

Maybe only old men, one calmly stating he expects to die this year ‘‘uncomplainingly,’’ know that tears are without gender – and don’t reject out of hand the possibility of the unbelievable.

Two people, neither close to him, separately informed Rafe that shortly after her death Shawn had spoken to them. She told them she was happy.

© Trevor Lautens, 2017

Olga was a triumphant original to the end

Appeared in the North Shore News – July 4, 2014

Considering its typically annoying inconvenience, Olga Kotelko’s death was as near to perfection as one can hope for.

Not for her the long lingering in death’s waiting room. Olga died at the high noon of life aged 95.

She was much too young to retire. She had begun serious track and field at age 77 and collected 750-odd awards, many world records. She was scheduled for more competitions and doubtless more records. North Vancouver writer Bruce Grierson wrote a hit book about her. She wrote her own too, published only in May. Death, June 24, was by intracranial hemorrhage. She died as all legends should. Swiftly, too quickly to reflect on life’s meaning.

Olga talked and looked as if decades younger. When my Agent M55je4 told me about her a year or two ago she was just entering the international spotlight. She was not boastful but not bashful either. Scientists poked and prodded her, fascinated by the mystery of her strength and endurance. She was five feet tall and weighed 125 pounds.

Short weeks ago she told Agent M55je4: “I want to live to 105.” A single disappointment after so many triumphs.

I have given up trying to illuminate the Capilano University dispute. I solicited the views of Pierre Coupey, who modestly declined the mantle that one old colleague would have bestowed on him, that of (perhaps spiritual?) leader of the restive faculty.

Coupey, fully retired only two years ago, believes: “As long as the administration fails to consult meaningfully with the Cap community, budget issues will continue to burn. As long as Capilano University continues to be underfunded and not treated equitably by the ministry of advanced education and the government, budget issues will continue to burn.

“And these are further burning questions: Does the current president (Kris Bulcroft) have the confidence of the faculty? Does the current administration and board believe in academic freedom?” “Consult meaningfully” … “treated equitably” … what makes me feel that I made a wrong turn into the aboriginal rights quagmire? The faculty effectively demand sharing power. Imagine academics peacefully deciding who/which department would honourably fall on its budgetary sword.

I interviewed Bulcroft.

An unlikely villain. She’s a gerontologist by training, an American in the pipeline to Canadian citizenship, former Fulbright scholar, taught here and there with her academic husband including a stint at UBC. Sometimes brings her dog to work. This not meant hurtfully – grandmotherly, nice. At 62 and two years into Cap’s presidency, this might be her last assignment.

Background. Cap is a child of rebellion, born in 1968, heady days of fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants spontaneity, cobbled together disproportionately by partly-credentialled young Vietnam-protesting Americans teaching and learning in numerous borrowed classrooms and old warehouses. Stuff of romance. Academic resemblance to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney teen films: “Let’s put on a show!” A new insta-book, The Dialogue Continues, collects their poignant memories of giddy youth – many now are just north or south of 70 – and slapdash innovation.

Much more to say, but for now there’s that issue of George Rammell’s widely publicized sculpture of Bulcroft, seized by the administration and risen to the lofty level of a Canadian Association of University Teachers cause (it was returned to Rammel Wednesday). Coupey responds: “A president worthy of being called a leader would not take personal offence to such a satirical comment, but would understand how it goes with the territory. A really smart president would have purchased the piece from Rammell and displayed it with pride on his/her front porch.”

My view: It’s brilliant, technically skilful, constitutionally protected, freedom-tested and unkindly insensitive.

My old eyes blinked twice on seeing, in a list of people to be prayed for at West Van’s St. Francis-in-the-Wood Church, the name of broadcaster and columnist Rafe Mair.

I yearned to discover whether this prayer was urged by an indignant parishioner seeking heavenly intervention for something outrageous Rafe had advised. No, Rafe has always been outrageously on the side of righteousness.

Oh, just jesting. Rafe has a record of outraging this or that pooh-bah or faction – in CKNW days some politicians refused to be interviewed on his show because of his “where were you at 10.26 on the night of the 26th of July?” cross-examination style. The call for prayer at St. Frank’s, as intimates call it, more likely flowed from Rafe’s bad fall, breaking a cervical vertebra, last December in his Lions Bay home.

No joke: His recovery has been slow. On May 1 he emailed fans that he was home from 4 ½ months in hospital “where I had three brushes with death.”

Last month he was back in full writing stride, thundering: “The Northern Gateway pipeline is a terrible idea, and in my opinion must be opposed with every sinew in our fibre, starting now. This must include massive civil disobedience. We must fully support First Nations in their struggles.”

Is this conciliatory tone permanent, Rafe?

© Trevor Lautens, 2014