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Saturday July 25, 2009

Writer's stories hold up after 60 years

Her sensitivity to her subjects helped her become the first woman to win a National Newspaper Award

Special to The Globe and Mail

When veteran journalist Dorothy Howarth left The (Toronto) Telegram in 1958 to work for the Vancouver Sun, her Tely colleagues staged a satirical play to mark her departure.

In the first scene, Ms. Howarth is depicted as a rural schoolteacher being driven to distraction by bratty students. She threatens to leave and tells the students she's dreaming about getting another job.

"I'm going to be a sob sister," she says. "I'm going to be the biggest, sobbiest, most famous sob sister this country's ever seen."

By her own admission, Ms. Howarth did indeed become a sob sister, a female reporter whose stories were designed to wring tears. But she was also an extraordinary journalist, which is why Tely colleagues could mock her so openly when they bid her farewell.

In 1949, she was the first woman to win a National Newspaper Award, the highest prize in Canada for newspaper work. It would be 17 years before another woman would win the award. In 2001, Ms. Howarth was inducted into the Canadian News Hall of Fame for superior writing and reporting over a career that spanned parts of four decades.

Dorothy Jean Howarth Richardson grew up in Weyburn, Sask., the hometown of author W.O. Mitchell, with whom she went canoeing as a youngster on nearby Lake Carlyle. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her sister Bertha in April of 1913. Three weeks later, Bertha would also disappear from Dorothy's life, adopted by an aunt who lived in Vancouver.

Dorothy remained with her father, Thomas, who operated a tobacco shop and poolroom in Weyburn. After graduating from Moose Jaw Normal School, where she trained to be teacher, she worked in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Saskatchewan, boarding with a farmer two miles away and walking to school no matter the weather.

Many of her pupils were first-generation Canadians, and later she would write a series for The Tely about the challenges faced by immigrant families. Her $400 a year salary was never paid. During the Great Depression, local farmers had no money to give her.

Ms. Howarth didn't enjoy teaching, and on impulse, she wrote to the editor of the Regina Leader-Post asking for a reporting job. She was hired in the classified advertising department instead. But when the women's editor of the paper offered her a chance to cover concerts and meetings at night, she jumped at the opportunity. Three years later, she became a full-time reporter for the Saskatchewan Farmer, the Leader-Post's weekly farm paper, where among other duties, she wrote an advice column for the lovelorn.

"I could have had a husband any time then," she recalled in an interview published in The Telegram following her National Newspaper Award win. "There were hundreds of them there for the taking."

She instead remained single and left the Saskatchewan Farmer for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, where she worked in the women's department until 1942. In an audacious move, she decided to head east and look for a job in Montreal, a boomtown in the war years and then Canada's largest city.

Out of sheer curiosity she got off the train in Toronto and tested the job market by seeking employment at the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maclean's and Chatelaine. All turned her down. The Evening Telegram, however, offered her $25 a week on a trial basis. She took it.

She was assigned the university beat and established her reputation for solid reporting by covering a teacher's strike in Montreal.

Six years later, in 1949, she won the National Newspaper Award in the feature-writing category for a story published the day before Newfoundland officially became a province. The story holds up well even today. In fact, The Walrus republished the story in its April 2009 issue to mark the 60th anniversary of Newfoundland's entry into Confederation.

Ms. Howarth, interestingly, was unsure she was the right reporter for the Newfoundland assignment. But Tely editor J.D. MacFarlane wanted a human-interest piece, not a political story. While most journalists did their reporting in St. John's, Ms. Howarth went to the little villages, travelling by train and boat to places like Pouch Cove to file a "series of graphic word pictures," as the Tely would inform its readers, from the home of "Mr. and Mrs. Newfoundland and their family."

With a keen ear for dialect and a trademark sensitivity for her subjects, Ms. Howarth captured the poignancy of what others treated as a straight news story.

It was a grueling feat. In a letter to her best friend from childhood upon her return from Newfoundland, she spoke of working day and night and losing six pounds. "I've decided I don't want to be famous," she told Gertrude Murray. "I'd just like a little life of my own."

Fame came whether she wanted it or not. In 1949, she won both the National Newspaper Award and the Memorial Award given by the Canadian Women's Press Club (CWPC). Ms. Howarth's work was so exceptional that year, a judge for the CWPC contest said that had she not been selected for the story on Newfoundland, she would have been chosen for her remarkable coverage of a knitting mill strike in Paris, Ont.

And while her enduring legacy as a journalist lies in the stories she wrote from Newfoundland, Ms. Howarth's reporting capers are legendary, straight out of The Front Page. Her coverage of Marilyn Bell's swim across Lake Ontario in 1954 is the most notable.

The Toronto Star had paid for the rights to Marilyn's story. The Telegram, in contrast, had not given much attention to a local girl's attempt to swim the 40-mile distance since professional marathoner Florence Chadwick was in the race and expected to trounce 16-year-old Ms. Bell. But when Chadwick dropped out and Ms. Bell kept swimming, The Tely had to scramble as thousands of Torontonians, following her progress through radio bulletins, made their way to Sunnyside Beach to see if she would finish.

Interviewed when she was 93 and asked to recall that day, Ms. Howarth insisted that the story of her reporting escapade has been embellished over the years. She claimed that she did not purposely dress like a nurse so she could bluff her way onto an ambulance to accompany Ms. Bell to the hospital, thereby scooping The Star. But there's no doubt Ms. Howarth tried to climb aboard the ambulance and that someone recognized her and exposed her.

Even though she was foiled, Ms. Howarth managed to gather every detail she could about the dramatic 20 hour, 59 minute swim. She wrote a stirring first-person account under the name "Marilyn Bell," The Tely having obtained the teen's signature from her high school yearbook and attached it to the Page 1 story, so it appeared the paper had the exclusive.

As her reputation as an intrepid reporter and first-rate writer grew, other newspapers courted Ms. Howarth. In 1958, she was hired by the Vancouver Sun. Her stint on the paper was short-lived. Tely publisher John Bassett had publicly stated she could return any time and Ms. Howarth took him up on it.

Back in Toronto, she continued to be assigned to the biggest stories. She covered John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963 and interviewed Martin Luther King and Alabama governor George Wallace during the heat of the civil rights struggle.

By that time, the climate was changing at The Tely. "They wanted tighter copy and Dorothy kind of moseyed along and gave you the whole scene. She felt that her style had gone out of style," remembers close friend Marilyn Dunlop, a rookie at The Tely the year Ms. Howarth won the National Newspaper Award and later a medical writer at The Toronto Star.

Strong motivation to retire from journalism came in the form of Harold "Hal" Richardson, a widower with two teenagers still at home. The couple married in 1966, when Ms. Howarth was 54. She quit the news business, raised her stepchildren and took courses in art and creative writing. The couple went boating in the summer and moved from Scarborough to downtown Toronto in the 1980s. They were together until Dr. Richardson's death in 1995.

Though her hearing and eyesight weakened considerably, Ms. Howarth continued to live in the four-story townhouse she shared with her husband. She moved to an assisted living facility two years ago and more recently, a nursing home.

A few years ago, veteran Toronto Sun journalist Peter Worthington, who sat behind Ms. Howarth as a cub reporter at The Tely, spoke about his former colleague. "In all the years she was there," he said, "there wasn't any big story that Dorothy wasn't essential on. She always brought an extra dimension into what she did. In Toronto, if she wasn't doing something on [a story], it wasn't that important."

Dorothy Jean Howarth Richardson was born in Weyburn, Sask.,on Feb. 27, 1912. She died of respiratory failure in Pickering, Ont. on July 14, 2009. She leaves her five stepchildren, Robin (Karen) Richardson, Jim (Luba Lyons) Richardson, Patricia Harley, Penny Ghartey and Peter (Gillian) Richardson; nephew Robert (Nadya) Murdoch and nieces Sally (Harry) Beattie and Moira Murdoch; brother-in-law Bill Murdoch, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A celebration of her life will be held on Thursday, August 13, 2009 at the Al Dente Restaurant in Pickering from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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