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Thursday March 25, 2010

Radio host with a gentle voice shared his love of the outdoors with listeners

After three-decade career with the CBC, his retirement projects included a weekly podcast and local news outlet

Special to The Globe and Mail

Gary Mittelholtz died while cross-country skiing, just days after interviewing a group of skiers.

An outdoors enthusiast, Mr. Mittelholtz created the weekly magazine-style program Doing Stuff Outdoors, a podcast about active people getting the most out of life. He called it people-powered recreation. Mr. Mittelholtz also ran the River Valley News, an online and print publication serving the River Valley area of southern New Brunswick.

These were his retirement projects. In 2008, Mr. Mittelholtz left a 32-year career at CBC Radio, most notably as host on Saint John's popular afternoon show Mainstreet. He was revered for featuring regular folks doing regular things, both indoors and out.

He won an Atlantic Journalism Award for the series Dirty Works. Guests included people who empty porta-potties and a woman who took urine samples from racehorses. ("She holds a plastic cup on the end of a long stick, holds it under the mare's tail and whistles," Mr. Mittelholtz explained to his audience.)

"Gary didn't have that sort of big, booming, testosterone-filled radio voice you hear in private radio," said Harvey McLeod, his former CBC producer and co-host. "He sounded like the guy you'd be sitting beside at Harbour Station [Entertainment Centre]. He never put on airs."

Born in Toronto, Gary Mittelholtz was the only child of Norbert and Irene Mittelholtz. His father worked in a sheet-metal factory and his mother worked in an office while Gary soared in athletics and academics at Michael Power High School. He spent summers with his family at Otter Lake, fiddling with radios on rainy afternoons and marching around with a mock microphone, demanding interviews.

In 1977, when he was 23, all his cards fell into place: he married Teresa after falling in love with her in Grade 12, graduated from Ryerson Polytechnic in radio and television arts, and took his first job with the CBC, working in Toronto as a technician.

Five years later, his hankering for on-air work drew him to Thompson, Man. He spent the next four years as a CBC radio host, while in his off-time watching the Northern Lights and listening to ice crystals slice the air.

On his first day on the job, he forgot to unplug his car after warming it up. Introducing himself to listeners, he said, "Good afternoon. I'm Gary Mittelholtz. This is North Country. And if you saw a car driving through town with an orange extension cord trailing behind, that was me."

In 1986, Mr. Mittelholtz transferred to Saint John and launched his Maritime career. His work as host on The Rolling Home Show led to Mainstreet and he was heard province-wide for two hours each afternoon. The show featured interviews, music, news and documentaries.

He had fun. "Gary was a giggler," said Harvey McLeod. "It didn't show very often on the radio, but every once in a while he'd lose it, and he'd lean away and he'd bite his upper arm."

Mr. Mittelholtz's voice became as familiar and soothing to listeners as the glide of a paddle at sundown or a nightcap at the pub.

Once, said Mr. McLeod, Mr. Mittelholtz was keen to explore the Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner when it was docked in the port of Saint John, but was refused entry by the shipping agent.

Undeterred, he smuggled himself aboard with a group of tourists and ended up sipping a pint of Guinness in one of the ship's bars.

"I asked him what he had to pay for it," recalled Mr. McLeod. "He said, 'They don't use money on these cruise ships, but this very nice man from New York bought me one.' "

This excursion became part of Forbidden Places, a series in which listeners were invited to join him in obscure Saint John locales.

His innovative reporting was also noticed by Jack Keir, MLA for Fundy-River Valley and a neighbour in Grand Bay-Westfield, who spoke of helping Mr. Mittelholtz interview a family of falcons.

"We had some falcons on the bridge that nested there every year," he said. "... Gary became quite enthralled with these falcons." According to Mr. Keir, the female falcon chased Mr. Mittelholtz and his camera around, refusing to comment. "I could hear the chuckle in his voice when he was telling it."

After his retirement from the CBC, instead of pausing, Mr. Mittelholtz cranked up the volume. He bought River Valley News, created weekly podcasts and videos for listeners as far away as Wales, the Swiss Alps and New Zealand, and operated Midwood Media from his basement studio in Grand Bay-Westfield.

In his broadcasts, he called himself "Gary the Outdoors Guy." One of his latest interviews included kite skiing on the frozen Kennebecasis River in southern New Brunswick, and learning how to telemark ski in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A recent message on the Doing Stuff Outdoors website is from a listener determined to remember Mr. Mittelholtz's work: "Whenever I ski in the Chic-Chocs," he wrote, "I'll carve some turns for you."

Gary Brian Mittelholtz was born May 28, 1954. He died on March 13 of a heart attack while skiing near Sussex, N.B. He leaves his wife, Teresa; children Christine, Erin, Brendan and Rory; grandchildren Ava and Will; and his father, Norbert.

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