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Saturday May 20, 2006

GEORGE BAIN, JOURNALIST AND TEACHER 1920-2006

He compensated for his minimal education by hard work, deep research and a fastidiousness that won him a string of plum reporting jobs at The Globe, writes SANDRA MARTIN. It also won him the ire of Pierre Trudeau after he pilloried the then prime minister for swearing in the House of Commons

A self-described contrarian, George Bain was the pre-eminent political columnist of his era, and undoubtedly the most versatile. He was equally adept at skewering prime ministers and crinkling the morning pages of the good grey Globe and Mail with clever playful conceits. Self-educated, debonair and proud -- some might say arrogant -- he was proprietorial about his prose and he rarely brooked interference with either the content or the style of his copy.

Mr. Bain opened The Globe's first foreign bureau in London and in Washington. He was an early opponent of the War Measures Act when it was proclaimed by Pierre Trudeau as a Draconian defence against a feared separatist insurrection and he later took Mr. Trudeau to task for swearing in the House of Commons and fibbing about it afterward in what came to be known as the "fuddle duddle" incident. That gave Mr. Bain another first -- the deliberate use of the word "fuck" in a Globe and Mail column.

"He combined the free-spirited moxie of the old school with the thoughtfulness and professionalism of the new," wrote David Hayes in Power and Influence, his 1992 history of The Globe. "He was a master at developing sources, learning that small fry within the departments were often more useful than big-name politicians and bureaucrats."

Intense, and suffering from diverticulitis, a disease of the colon, Mr. Bain often vomited from stress when he was writing his column. Poking fun at himself, he once mockingly denied the "widespread belief" that "when the Bain stomach suffers an overdose of acidity, the Bain wit flowers most brilliantly."

High principled, bristling with integrity and fastidious in his attire, Mr. Bain was "impossible" to manage, said Clark Davey, a former managing editor of The Globe and a friend since the 1950s. "George had his view and the rest of the world could go to hell, which is a great thing in a columnist and a helluva problem in an employee."

Describing Mr. Bain as passionate about writing, reading, drinking fine vintages, building stone walls and the practise and process of politics, Mr. Davey said he will always remember his elegance -- not only in the way that he dressed and wrote, but in the way he thought about the world. "He made me feel good about myself because I was in the same business."

George Charles Stewart Bain was the eldest of four children of William Steward and Mary (née Ross) Bain. His father was president of the Bain Coal Co. and his mother was a homemaker. The family lived in north Toronto, where George attended Hodgson Public School and then North Toronto Collegiate.

At 16, he wrote a letter to the city editor of the Toronto Daily Star, presenting his services as a "journalist," an offer that was politely declined. Finish the school year, the editor advised, and then come and ask about a summer job as a copy boy. When George showed up in June, the editor was on vacation. So he went to the rival paper, the Toronto Telegram, told them he had come from the Star and was hired right away. "Newspapers are like that. They have a tendency to think the people at the other place are better than the ones they have," he observed later. "In any event, it turned out to be a good move; the Tely was paying $8 for a five-and-a-half-day week, whereas the Star was paying only $6."

Two dollars was an important distinction in the mid-1930s, especially since his father had died of a heart attack that summer and his mother passed away in 1939. "We were sort of adrift," said Mr. Bain's younger brother, Ian, now a retired social worker. "George was on his own and the rest of us were farmed out to relatives." Ian was sent to Winnipeg, and Moyna and Sheila to Scotland.

As for George, he stayed at the Tely and never again saw the inside of a classroom -- at least as a student. For the rest of his working life, he camouflaged his lack of formal education by hard work, deep research and meticulous attention to his literary and sartorial style. Sounding, reading and looking the part of a well-educated professional became a protective armour. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 and spent four years overseas as a bomber pilot. Assigned to 424 Squadron, he flew Wellingtons over Europe, North Africa, Italy and Sicily, returning to Canada late in 1944. On Dec. 16, he married Marion Jene Breakey, whom he had met before the war when both of them were working in downtown Toronto. A former secretary and an accomplished cook, she typed all his book manuscripts and supplied all the recipes for his 1972 book, Champagne is for Breakfast. They had one son, Christopher, who was born in 1953. She died in 1998.

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