I started at Vickers & Benson on April 11th, 1972. The two main things I remember about that time were how cold the weather was.
And how kind the people were.
The first is no doubt misperception. The weather couldn’t have been any colder than what I had left in Detroit – 250 miles west. But somehow it seemed colder, maybe a reflection of how alone I felt at the start.
The kindness of the people, however, was real.
I was hired from Young & Rubicam Detroit. I had been there for six years, initially as a copy cub and eventually as a copy chief. Neither of these titles exists today, nor, in fact, does Vickers & Benson. I am not sentimental about these things…All things change -- All things should.
I am, however, extraordinarily grateful that I was around and at V&B during the years 1972-1978. They were some of the happiest days of my life and, to steal a Neil Young line, “all my changes were there”. Well, maybe not “all,” but a lot of them.
On that first April 11th, I woke up to the clock radio and an announcer telling me what the traffic was like on the “Dawn Valley Parkway”. In my mind, I had moved just a few miles up the 401 from where I had lived all my life, and I simply wasn’t prepared for the number of differences between Detroit and Toronto (or the U.S. and Canada). For instance, the pronunciation of the word “Don”.
The room I woke in was the sunroom of a rooming house I was renting by the week. Memorably, it was painted a rather bright aqua. I don’t imagine anyone has ever actually lived in a swimming pool, but I suspect I have a better idea of what the experience might be like than most people.
My oldest son was finishing his school year in Michigan and my wife, Trudi, and I had decided not to move the family until the school year ended in June. Meantime, each Friday after work, I’d either take the train down to Windsor, or Trudi would join me in Toronto for the weekend and we’d go house hunting and I’d show her around the Toronto I was, day by day, growing to love.
That was the weekends. But every weekday I’d wake up in the Aqua Room, lie in bed and listen to CHUM until I was sufficiently alert to go to the shared bathroom down the hall, clean somebody’s hair out of the bathtub drain, shower, shave and go to work at 980 Yonge. This trip involved catching the eastbound St. Clair streetcar at Spadina, and then transferring to the southbound subway and getting off at the Ramsden station. From there, it was maybe a three minute walk to the office. Mapquest tells me now that the trip is 1.9 miles and, as I describe it, it seems fairly uninteresting.
It was fascinating to me. I was in a new job, in a new city and (as it was finally starting to don, or “dawn” if you prefer, on me) in a new country. Let’s just start with the streetcar and the subway. Neither of these forms of transit existed in Detroit. Disappointingly, there was no major league baseball team in Toronto – but there was hockey! Hockey in a big way. The town was nuts about it. Way more than Detroit ever was; and remember, I grew up in the Howe-Lindsay-Abel-Kelly-Sawchuk golden era of Detroit hockey.
A great coup for V&B, for instance, was that we had been asked to help name and design the Canadian national team that was going to play Russia in an 8-game series later in September of that year. At the time, I had no inkling of how important this series would turn out to be in the history of hockey. How it would open up the NHL to the Europeans, and even change the tactics of the game. I forgive myself, however, for not recognizing this revolution at the outset because nobody else did either.
I take that back. Terry O’Malley did.
At the time, the conventional wisdom was that finally we’d be able to really show those Russians how hockey was played. For the first time we’d be able to put our best possible team on the ice against the Russians, who for years had dominated the international “amateur” tournaments such as the Winter Olympics. Everybody knew that their players were actually full-time professionals, though obviously not in the same league with the Canadians. They had maintained a veneer of amateur status by being paid by the Communist state (remember the Communists?) instead of by the capitalist NHL team owners. The format for this series allowed Canada to play with an all-star team of the NHL Canadians and, at the time, the NHL was probably 95% Canadian. So it would be basically the NHL all-star team. Playing our best, we’d undoubtedly sweep the series…this was the prevailing opinion.
O’Malley spoke to a few of copywriters – me included – and asked that we come up with some possible names for the team. I remember going over my suggestions with Terry several days later and touting my favorite: The Dream Team. Terry refused to even consider it for the short list he was going to submit to a group headed by Alan Eagleson, who had been the prime force in putting the series together. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “It’s just too cocky,” Terry said, “and think how stupid the name will look when Canada loses the first game.” Well that possibility seemed as remote as the Iron Curtain falling; or somebody hitting 70 home runs in a season. I remember thinking how ridiculously cautious Terry was. Still, a few of my other suggested names had sneaked into Terry’s short list so I felt I was pulling my weight.
(I must admit, however, to feeling a bit of unwarranted vindication when 20 years later, the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team – the first to allow NBA professionals – was named The Dream Team.)
For me, the work at V&B was wonderful. In Detroit, I had worked exclusively on cars for six years. The fact is, virtually everyone in the entire city of Detroit works exclusively on cars. But here at V&B, I was working on everything, from financial services to hand lotion to diet drinks to the Insurance Bureau of Canada to, my personal favorite, the Ontario Jockey Club. I had been a horseracing fan since the age of 5, and getting to make it my business was a dream. The truth is, there was so much variety at the agency, I even enjoyed helping out on Ford when there was a full-agency push on some new product or at new model announcement time.
On the other hand, I was – not surprisingly – very lonely those first few months. I had come to a city where I literally did not know a single person. And this is where the kindness came in.
Knowing I had essentially nothing to do at night except go back to the Aqua Room and cry, Terry and his wife, Mary Jane (who, for reasons I never fathomed, Terry called “Reins” or possibly “Reigns”), had me over to dinner any number of times those first weeks. After dinner, Terry and I might watch a ballgame on television or talk a bit about some agency project. They had two children and I’m sure there was plenty they could have been doing besides having an at-loose-ends colleague over to dinner once a week or so, but they did it. It’s very likely that today, almost four decades later, they may have forgotten those evenings…but I haven’t. It was sheer kindness.
Another kindness, of course, was Terry’s giving me the Jockey Club account once he knew my passion for horseracing. He also asked me casually one day if I’d like to play a little softball. There was a team he was involved with, and they were going to be playing their first game that week at Ramsden Park, just down the street from the office. I said I’d love to and was dressed and ready at 5:30 on the day of the game. Terry was supposed to take me to the field and introduce me to the team, but he was stuck in a meeting. He excused himself briefly to come out and tell me that the team was Toronto Life and that I should just go down to the field and introduce myself. I had only been in the country a few weeks at the time, and I assumed that Toronto Life was an insurance company.
I went off in search of a bunch of guys who looked like insurance executives and agents. When I got to the field, one team was attempting a very ragged infield practice. The second baseman looked a lot like Jimi Hendrix, and the catcher had a longer pony tail than Northern Dancer. The rest of the team looked as if they’d been called up from a very bad softball team based in Haight-Ashbury. These were definitely not insurance guys.
The problem was that a glance at the other team didn’t exactly produce a bunch of guys that looked like they knew their way around an actuarial table either. Their hair was also longer than one expected on insurance types, but at least they didn’t look like a heavy metal band.
I approached one of the members of this second team and introduced myself as having been sent by Terry O’Malley. Of course, anyone who’s been in Toronto for three weeks would know that Toronto Life was a magazine and these were all editors, art directors and writers. At the time, however, I hadn’t passed that three week mark. For instance, the guy I first approached, a slovenly looking, 40-something guy with an untrimmed moustache and a cigarette that would later kill him dangling from his lips as he warmed up, introduced himself as Peter Gzowski. The name meant nothing to me.
Thanks to Terry’s introduction, I went on to play 11 years in the Toronto Press League for Toronto Life and its successors. The last 10 of these I played shortstop to O’Malley’s second base, a keystone connection that has been one of the main planks in a, so far, 36-year friendship. Other former V&Bers that played on that team included Bill Durnan, Gary Alles (memorably) and John MacFarlane, who most people know as a magazine publisher but actually ran a V&B public relations division for a short time.
In case you’re wondering about the other team in my first game with Toronto Life, it was a short-lived underground newspaper called Guerilla. (5 points if you remember the paper; another 10 if you ever read it.) We beat them handily, and our victorious squad retired to the nearby home of the Toronto Life publisher Michael Depencier for post-game beers and pizza. By the end of the evening I had a new set of friends.
It wasn’t just Terry at V&B that showed me kindness. I remember the first time my sons, then aged 6 and 2, were up in Toronto and Trudi brought them to the office to be oohed and aahed over. At one point, we were in Don Murphy’s office and my younger son Andrew was acting up and making a bit of a nuisance of himself, as 2-year-olds sometimes do. I was embarrassed by his behavior and apologized to everyone. Don said to me, “Don’t worry, Terry, we’ve all had kids.” It was the smallest possible gesture on his part, but a kind one and something that obviously meant enough to me that I mention it almost four decades later.
The young Norm Glowinsky would invite me to go to the movies after work with him. It was with Norm, in fact, that I saw The Godfather and then had to endure two weeks of him saying that he was going to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse in a bad Brando accent. I assume it was Brando he was imitating, though it sounded an awful lot like his Cagney and his Jack Benny imitations.
And the very first week I was in the office, John Lloyd invited me to have lunch with him and Neil Beckwith. Neil was a good writer, the second best junkie copywriter I’ve ever worked with (Mark Levine was the first), and a nice guy. The two of them took me to the old Pilot Bar, then a block south of Bloor on Hayden. They hadn’t invited me to lunch as a political move because I was their new boss; they’d invited me because, having themselves emigrated from England, they knew how alone you could feel in a new city. They were being kind.
At lunch, I described the Aqua Room and John told me the story of one of his first places in Toronto. He shared an entire floor of a warehouse with another English refugee. The place had no bath or shower, and it became one of the qualifications for the women they went out with or picked up that they have nice showers in their apartments. Also, they had rented the place in the summer and were caught off guard when their first Toronto winter arrived. The warehouse was drafty and the heating was less than inadequate. They had to seal off a corner of the place with plastic sheeting and furnish it with several small electric heaters in order to survive. I had to admit, the Aqua Room was the Ritz compared to what John described.
John and his wife, Michelle, also had me over to their apartment for dinner several times during this period. I note here that I have mentioned three wives in this piece (mine, Terry’s and John’s), and that all three later became ex-wives. When I look back at it, it doesn’t seem all that surprising; I suspect that for different reasons none of us was really entirely easy to be married to. John and Michelle, however, managed to stay close after their divorce. The last time I saw Michelle was at John’s funeral in the fall of 1996, when she looked as ethereally beautiful as ever.
O’Malley used to call John “Jackie Clouds,” a nod to his penchant for including sky and clouds in virtually every layout he ever did. It could be an ad for a liquid floor cleaner or a can of tuna, but somehow John would manage to inject some cumulus content. I will also mention that while I’ve worked with a few better art directors than John in my career, I never worked with a better designer.
John was the unwitting catalyst in a funny incident that again pointed up a difference between the U.S and Canada. John’s parents were visiting him in Toronto at a time when – for reasons I cannot possibly reconstruct – V&B decided to have an interoffice cricket match one evening after work. (Even as I wrote that last sentence it seemed hard for me to believe, and yet, I assure you it is true.) Well, by coincidence, it turned out that John’s father was a certified cricket referee or umpire or whatever the proper terminology is. And he volunteered to referee the game. We gratefully accepted his offer and he showed up at the Upper Canada College pitch (that’s what they call it) dutifully dressed in what looked to us like a white lab coat but which we were assured was required cricket referee garb in England. It undoubtedly was a bit of a surprise to him that his duties included explaining the game to us, but he took it in good humour and the game (or some rough semblance of it) proceeded. It was great fun actually.
This improbable event happened to coincide with the day a photographer was following me around taking shots for a story being done about Trudi’s and my move to Toronto for Family Circle magazine. The article was a part of a series the magazine was doing on Americans who had totally changed their lives by picking up their families and moving to new and exotic places. For a woman standing in the supermarket checkout line in Des Moines, Iowa, Toronto was no doubt as exotic as Timbuktu. The photographer was very excited when he heard about the cricket match – he saw it as a great photo-op.
Fast-forward several months to the publication of the Family Circle story. In addition to a picture of John bowling (yes, that’s what they call it) the article included a prominent picture of me holding a cricket bat and wearing those shin protectors that kind of look like a hockey goalie’s pads except they’re cloth instead of leather. The problem was not the picture, however, but rather in the caption, which read:
“Although Terry had never played soccer before moving to Canada, he is now on a team.”
I suppose all those Des Moines housewives are now under the impression that soccer is played with hefty bats and awkward padding.
But no matter how varied my days and evenings were those first months of my time at V&B, there was the constant of waking each morning to my clock radio introducing me to the day and, in many ways, to Canada. I have not owned that clock radio for more than 35 years now, but it was such a salient part of my life for that time that even now if I close my eyes I can picture it in perfect focus. Likewise, any time I hear the song “A Horse With No Name” by America or Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” the two most played songs of that spring, my mind, Proust-like, immediately starts again swimming in the Aqua Room and it’s 1972.
And I vividly remember one morning, just a few weeks before I would leave that room for good, waking to CHUM telling me: “Well, they’ve announced the name of the Canadian hockey team for the upcoming series with Russia. They’re calling it Team Canada. I wonder what genius came up with that?”
I was that genius! Team Canada had been one of the names I had given Terry for submission to Eagleson and his committee. And despite the put-down of the CHUM announcer’s question, I couldn’t have been more thrilled if I had been named to the team myself. Of course, there had been no actual genius involved. I had pretty much stolen the idea for the name from a well-known auto-racing team of the time – Team McLaren. I thought placing the adjective after the noun, in the manner of most non-English languages, made it sound vaguely international. I was also pleased when, several years later, the United States christened their national hockey team as Team USA. (I wonder what genius came up with that.)
One of the perks of working for V&B that year was that I was given a much coveted ticket to the second game of the “Summit Series” which was to be played at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Unfortunately, we were scheduled for a new business pitch for the New York Tourism account the very day of the game. The pitch was in Albany, New York, and there was no airline connection that would get us back in time for the game.
Fortunately, the three of us presenting included Bryan Vaughn who was V&B’s Chairman, and who was not about to miss the game. He chartered a pilot and a small private prop plane that left from Island Airport.
We flew to Albany, made our presentation, caught a cab to the Albany Airport, crammed into our little plane and headed back to Toronto. There were only four seats in the plane, two behind and two up front, with dual operating controls for the pilot and co-pilot. Because we didn’t have a co-pilot, Ross Downey and I hunkered down in the back while Bryan sat in the second front seat.
Perhaps this is the time to reveal that under any circumstances I’m not the world’s most courageous flyer. I have never been absolutely satisfied with the answers I’ve gotten to the question: What keeps a plane in the air? And I’ve asked that question a lot. The circumstances here were that I was in a plane that could have fit in the Aqua Room, and that jolted every time we encountered even the mildest breeze. The pilot laughed at my joke about where the parachutes were kept, but it hadn’t been a joke. I wanted to know. Such was my state when we took off for the return to Toronto.
Next to me, Ross quickly fell asleep while I tried to mask my fear looking out the window. Up front, Bryan chatted amiably with the pilot and it was during this conversation that Bryan revealed that he had, several years before, taken flying lessons and that he had even logged a dozen hours of soloing. At this point the pilot made a suggestion so dangerously reckless that I considered bringing charges. He offered Bryan the chance to take over the controls and fly the plane. Bryan happily accepted, and for the next half hour or so he flew the plane, blithely unaware of my mounting terror. Some measure of relief came when the pilot took over the controls for the approach and landing. Canada won the game that night and I was there to see it.
A couple of weeks later, on September 28th, a half dozen of us at the agency sneaked away from the office for the afternoon (as, I suspect, did 15 million other Canadians) to watch the broadcast from Moscow of the eighth and final game of the Canada-Russia Summit Series. We were at someone’s apartment not far from the office, and I remember our wild joy (and, to some extent, disbelief) when Henderson popped the most famous goal in Canada’s history. It is, of course, one of those moments (like John Kennedy’s assassination or the attack on the World Trade Center) that everyone can tell you exactly where they were when it happened. I remember that John Lloyd, who had designed those first Team Canada uniforms, was there celebrating with me.
I pointed out to him that a year ago, neither one of us was even in the country and here we were celebrating this historic victory for a team I’d given a name and he’d given a look. I guess that’s a big part of what I loved about V&B. The agency took us in -- a lot of us who didn’t grow up here -- and welcomed our contributions, while really never making us feel like outsiders.
I guess I’d say much the same about Canada. But then I always had a hard time separating V&B from Canada in my mind.