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Saturday October 15, 2016

PEERS, Frank Wayne

Frank Peers died this week in Toronto, after a full life of almost 99 years. Throughout his many years, he retained a lively and informed interest in politics, public broadcasting, and the Blue Jays.

Frank was born in the Acadia Valley on the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta, where his father was the village merchant. There were eight children in a large family that was a struggle to support during the drought-stricken depression.

Frank went off to university against those odds, and at a remarkably young age. He was only eighteen when he completed a first-class honours B.A. in History at the University of Alberta. He began his career as a teacher and school principal, and those years two friendships that he would eventually honour in naming scholarships at the U of A - Hugh McCall, and especially John Garrett.

At twenty-five he became assistant director of Extension for that university, leading a new venture that combined CBC radio broadcasts and the formation of groups to discuss public affairs. Four years later, he started at the CBC, and quickly rose to the leadership of the Public Affairs Department. Frank believed to his core in the educational and social role of 'Public Affairs,' which he saw as stepping back reflectively from the immediacy and 'randomness' of news, as well as from the magnetic pull of entertainment. He spearheaded the creation of programs that won international awards and years later were still talked of in reverential tones by young producers. He was also devoted to creating public programming reflective of Canadian interests and values. He believed in broadcast independence, enough to help lead a mass resignation to protest a cave-in to pressure from the John Diefenbaker government of the day - a protest that made sufficient headlines to reverse that decision and their resignations.

It is no small measure of his impact that his 90th birthday celebration was attended by such legendary broadcasters as Peter Herrndorf, Mark Starowicz, Pierre Juneau, Kildare Dobbs, and Patrick Watson. Frank had resisted anything so public as a birthday celebration, and through his life he retained a lifelong aversion to being in the public limelight. But this time he relented, and in his low key way he charmed the room.

In 1963, Frank joined the Political Economy Department at the University of Toronto, and in 1969 published The Politics of Canadian Broadcasting, on the history of the radio network. Ten years later he followed that with an equally important book on CBC television, The Public Eye: Television and the Politics of Canadian Broadcasting. These remain, decades later, standard references in the history of Canadian public broadcasting. Frank retired in 1983, but retained a knowledgeable interest in politics, fueled as ever by newspapers, thoughtful magazines, and CBC broadcasts.

Frank is survived by an extensive set of nieces and nephews, and his brother Ken. The death of his beloved sister Ina was a heavy blow, as was the loss of his longtime friend Vincent Tovell, who occupied a unit on the same floor as Frank's wonderfully modernist condominium on St. George Street. Frank had other close friends who would accompany him to the opera, symphony, ballet, or occasionally to a bar. In his last years, he was close to his former academic colleagues David Rayside and Rob Vipond, and to his loyal and attentive friend Tony Bartlett. In the final weeks, and especially his last days, he was supported by the wonderful staff at Belmont House.

Frank was private and even shy, but unshakeable in his commitment to public broadcasting and to social justice, and capable of disdain and even flashes of anger for those he thought were undermining the best of what his country stood for.

He was generous with others; frugal in his personal life. He established scholarship endowments for those he admired at the universities of Toronto and Alberta, and devised bequests that would keep supporting the education of young people, giving others more access to the kind of opportunities that schooling opened up for him.

A memorial service will be held at the University of Toronto in November. If anyone wishes to make a donation in honour of Frank's extraordinary life, gifts may be added to the scholarship funds already named after him in the political science departments at the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta. Contact david.rayside@utoronto.ca for more details.

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