Story and Photos by Ken Warren (ISN)
June 12, 2013, Victoria, BC (ISN) – Welcome to the sixth article of Ken’s Blog, where historian Ken Warren takes us through some of his childhood memories, sharing with us the lives and times of his sports oriented family growing up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the 1900’s and beyond. In this article Ken shares his experiences after joining the Winnipeg Tribune as well as some personal experiences that were totally unexpected.
By the time I was 20, my father could no longer get me passes on the railway and I needed to get to Winnipeg from Vancouver in order to apply for a job with The Winnipeg Tribune. I had many reasons that I wanted to work with the Tribune as a sports reporter. I had delivered the paper for five years. I had read Jack Matheson’s column every day. There was no better Blue Bomber fan than me. I was a good quarterback, a great baseball pitcher, a fair hockey player, and a good skip in curling. In short, I loved all sports, and I also loved writing. Good combinations for a sports writer, eh?
So what I decided to do was join the airforce, get sent to Ontario, but jump off the train in Winnipeg and apply for a job with the Trib. I had also always had an interest in becoming a jet fighter pilot. It was an especially good time now to act on that interest since the greatest fighter plane in history, the Canadian built CF-105 Avro Arrow was rolled out October 4th, 1957, the same day that the Russians shocked America by launching the first space satellite, Sputnik, and started the space race.
I joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1958 just after the first flight of the Avro Arrow March 25, 1958. That first flight was so successful that thirty more were put into production. I was excited as I passed my air crew tests and was being sent by rail to Centralia, Ontario, hopefully to be trained in jet fighters, and eventually the Avro Arrow. I knew that the Arrow had an extremely light Iroquois engine built of titanium with more thrust than anything in the world. It was an exciting time. The train would stop in Winnipeg for an hour. I’d take a taxi to the Tribune. If I couldn’t get a job within half an hour of getting to the newspaper building, I’d get back on the train and pursue a career in the RCAF. Was I worried about going AWOL? No, not in Canada. Good Grief, if a man didn’t want to fly your 25 million dollar jet, would you rather force him to, or let him go? Now, had I known at the time that my first ever friend, Bob Carscadden, the little Grade 2 guy who took me to school for my first day in Grade One; had I known at the time of my decision that Bob was in the RCAF flying helicopters, I might have skipped jumping off in Winnipeg. I’m saving my story on Bob because I went to his funeral not long ago, so I want his whole story together. Anyway, there was no certainty that the Tribune was going to offer me a job when I was only giving them about 15 minutes notice. What if Jack Matheson wasn’t even there anymore? And please do remember that I only signed on with the RCAF because it was my only way to get a ride to Winnipeg and a Tribune interview short of hitchhiking IN THE WINTER.
What do you know about that? The train stopped in Winnipeg and Jack Matheson hired me on the spot. He had never seen me before, but he knew that anybody who had read his column every day for six years between the ages of eleven and sixteen must be an intelligent fellow. “Smart and selective” is the way he put it. I immediately wired the O.C. at Centralia that I wasn’t going to be on the train, and had found other employment. I lucked out when it came time for the government of Mr. Diefenbaker to penalize me for going AWOL. They made me pay for my railway ticket. Dief was indeed the Chief.
Finally Jim and I are living in the same city! – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)
Anyway, my life in the Tribune Sports Department didn’t last long. I was somewhat disillusioned with the fact that John Robertson, the baseball writer, was always passing out beer there. Mattie and Gorde Hunter did great with the football, and Jack Wells wrote some stuff, but was really a great broadcaster. What was a real bother was all the hangers-on who draped themselves around the Sports Department wasting everybody’s time as they shot the breeze about sports, drank Robertson’s beer, and tried to get coverage for their personal teams or kids.
Eventually I talked to budding reporter Peter Liba about getting into the news end of reporting, and he suggested that I get a job where he had started, with the Portage la Prairie Daily Graphic. This I did and enjoyed every minute of it. In Portage la Prairie, home of controversial Mayor Lloyd Henderson, I got a chance to do everything in the editorial end from reporting sports and news, writing a column, and editing. I lived with photographer Yosh Tashiro and his family. Only two things went sour that first year in Portage la Prairie.
The first thing was that I wrote a column that took a swat at the school principal and School Board for deciding to expel several high school students at Christmas for failing grades. The school board members complained to my boss, Bill Vopni, who himself was a member of city council. As he read my column, Mr. Vopni criticized it and me, but seemed more concerned that I hadn’t recognized that most of the school board members were business people who took out advertising in his paper. He fired me.
The next day, I packed my stuff at Yosh’s house, said my goodbyes to his family, and went to the Daily Graphic to pick up my payout cheque. The girl at the front counter said Mr. Vopni took the cheque because he wants to talk to you. I went upstairs to his office and was totally surprised when he apologized profusely for firing me. He said scores of people had called him and thanked him for finally taking a stand on something worthy.
“Those kids that are getting kicked out of school for failing needed somebody to help them,” he said. “I’m sorry that I didn’t see that.. I’ve always viewed the newspaper from an advertising point of view. This is the first time that I’ve ever felt like a real news man, and it feels good.”
He raised my salary rather than firing me–though it was a modest raise, so he still had lots of the business end of the paper in his personality. So this sour item turned out fine in the end; not so the other thing.
Still kicking myself for saying “No” to Barry – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)
A handsome young fellow named Barry Greenslade worked in the advertising department of the Daily Graphic. One day he asked me if I had ever curled. I told him “yes”, that I had quite a lot of experience in the sport and quite liked it.
“I need a lead,” Barry said. “Would you be interested?”
I told him I’d get back to him on it, but frankly, after being the high school skip who had won our school’s championship, and having played third in the men’s league, I already knew that my answer was “no”. In fact, I was somewhat insulted to be asked to play lead.
As it turned out, I needn’t have been feeling insulted, because Barry Greenslade’s team kept winning bonspiels and local championships, and in 1959 ended up in the Manitoba men’s championship final. The winner would represent Manitoba in the MacDonald’s Brier. Greenslade lost 8-7 in an almost full house at Winnipeg Arena, and there was me, covering the game for the Daily Graphic rather than playing in it. How sadly ironic!
‘THE MANITOBA SCHOOL FOR MENTAL DEFECTIVES’
Can you imagine it? ‘Mental Defectives’, that title above was the actual name of an institution in Portage la Prairie in 1959. I did a feature story on the place in 1959, or was it 1859? You’d think from the name that 1859 would be more appropriate, but then even “school” is a real misnomer because of the 500 or so inmates at this “hospital” or “prison” only about 20 were in an actual school setting, albeit a ‘mentally-challenged’ one.
Dr. Jack Lowther was in charge of the Manitoba School for Mental Defectives. He gave me a lab coat to wear as we walked to the first area of our tour. We entered a room about the size of a large gymnasium. However, that’s where the similarity ends. This room had a cold concrete floor, bare concrete walls, windows about 15 feet high from the floor, and wood bench seats anchored to the walls and running their entire length. Inside this unfriendly room were 150 or so males aged six to sixty. Several were nude, but most had white hospital gowns on. The gowns lying around on the floor had earlier been on the nude fellows. Many of the males wearing gowns were also wearing vomit down the front of them. There were no toys, no supervisors, no objects of anything , other than the discarded gowns on the floor.
It soon became abundantly clear why Dr. Lowther had given me a gown to wear. Some of the boys, maybe teenagers, hugged me and called me ‘doctor’. I tried to avoid too many hugs from the ‘vomit’ boys, though most of that offensive matter had dried. I could see their loneliness, but at 21 I was at a loss as to what alternative options existed.
“You did very well in there,” Dr. Lowther said. “The last visitor we had was a policeman investigating a death last year, and he vomited from the experience.”
We next went to a room with girls and women. Same type of room. Same type of inmates. But we didn’t walk through it. Just long enough to see that it was the same unfriendly accommodation. I wondered aloud why there were no supervisors in the rooms, but Dr. Lowther said the rooms were monitored. The individuals in the rooms were classified as idiots. That meant their IQ’s were anywhere from 0-20. Most were not trainable, so it would be quite a depressing situation to put supervisors in the rooms for any extended periods of time where they could achieve nothing and might end up needing supervision themselves.
Next we went into a hospital wing where adult people with an assortment of deformities were lying on beds with ankles no thicker than a couple of my fingers, horribly distorted facial features, mis-shapen limbs and monstrous heads. One such man, 35, had a huge hump on one side of his back and very small arms and legs. He had lain on one side for 35 years. He never walked. Never talked. Probably didn’t have a real thought in his head. Fed exclusively intravenously.
Next, Dr. Lowther had to accommodate 100 nursing students who had come from Winnipeg to hear his lecture on microcephaly (small brain), so he pointed me to the school classroom and suggested I come to the lecture after I had interviewed the teacher. My stay in the classroom was short. There were 20 students in the room and all seemed to be between 8 and 12 years old. While I was asking the teacher, Miss Wilson, their levels (they were a combination of imbeciles 21-35 IQs, and morons 36-50 IQs) a young girl came up to the teacher’s desk and pointed to a boy who was experiencing an epileptic seizure.
“He’ll be all right on his own,” Miss Wilson told me as the boy squirmed erratically on the floor. “He gets out of the seizures by himself.”
We watched, but there was no evience that the seizure might end soon.
“I’m sorry, I guess I’ll have to attend to this myself,” she said. So the teacher went to assist the boy and I went to hear Dr. Lowther’s lecture.
Sitting on a chair on a slightly elevated platform in front of the 100 nurses was a man who looked somewhat like an early period caveman.
“You’ll notice as the man strains his head and neck to peer at all of you, he has a look that says I know what you’re thinking,” Dr. Lowther told the nurses. “Do you also feel that he thinks he can come down there and satisfy all of you? Do you feel that look? Do you think that’s what’s on his mind?”
Some of the nurses agreed that that seemed what he was about.
“That’s not it at all,” the doctor said. “In fact, he’s not thinking anything at all. He doesn’t know how to think. In the days of yore. In the days when Kings in Europe were in charge, microcephalics were the Fools or Jesters in Court. Nowadays they are rare and die early. This fellow is even rarer, to have reached the age that he has, but he doesn’t have a real thought in his head.”
I looked at the man amazed. He seemed to have a definite plan as he contemplated the nurses with the hint of a cheeky smile pursing his lips.
All of the above events took place in 1959, the next chain of events took place after 1991
Little did I know as I was listening to Dr. Lowther in 1959 that 32 years later my wife would give birth to our seventh son, Christopher, and he would be born with microcephaly; a candidate for the King’s Court Fool had he been born in 1191, or a candidate for the Manitoba School for Mental Defectives had he been born in the 1950’s. How horrible either of those scenarios would be. While our doctor warned us that Chris would likely die before he reached nine years old, and wouldn’t sit up until he was five, and would never walk on his own; the doctor was wrong about everything he said. Christopher at 22 walks, talks, runs, plays, jumps, works, and many times shows that he’s truly with it and understands concepts.
Precious baby Chris – Photo by Ken Warren (ISN)
Big Chris chooses ribbons for colour not wins – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)
Sure he’s intellectually two or three years old and yet, at 22, watches Barney, the Dinosaur, and Dora, the Explorer. So, professionally speaking, which is he: an idiot or an imbecile? It seems the professionals could pick better names in this new age for their intellectual classifications, but I’ll tell you what Christopher is: he’s happy, loving, helpful and has more friends and acquaintances than anybody in his family. He is loved by many and that could have been the same fate for Dr. Lowther’s guinea pig man up there in front of the nurses had he been born 30 years later. On the otherhand, that could have been Chris up there in front of the nurses had he been born in the 1940’s. There’s more on Chris later.