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Thursday March 31, 2011

Trudeau, rock 'n' roll and the Springhill Mine Disaster

Broadcasting entrepreneur had a knack for public relations and 'an incredible enthusiasm for life'

Special to The Globe and Mail

He was a man who loved people and politics, so it was not surprising that the highlight of Arnie Patterson's varied life was criss-crossing the country with Pierre Trudeau as his press secretary in the campaign leading up to the 1979 election that saw the Liberals defeated after 11 years in power.

Patterson, a former newspaper man and owner of CFDR radio station in Dartmouth, was reluctant to take the position when asked by his long-time friend Dick O'Hagan. But O'Hagan, who was leaving his post as Trudeau's chief press secretary for a job at the Bank of Montreal, needed to find a replacement and was persistent. After agreeing to take the job for one year, Patterson went to talk to the prime minister at his office on Parliament Hill. He was given a warm reception, but Patterson couldn't help but express his hesitation, "Prime Minister, the only concern I have it that you don't like reporters," Patterson recounts in Arnie Patterson: A Nova Scotian's Memoir.

"Arnie, Arnie, that is not so," Trudeau said. "I like you very much."

Patterson took the job, but he was never convinced Trudeau, who was famous for his disdain for reporters, had been honest with him. In Pierre: Colleagues and Friends Talk About the Trudeau They Knew, Patterson recalls a fond memory of his former boss during the 1979 campaign. Following a press conference during which both the prime minister and the media were jovial, he walked to the elevator with Trudeau, who turned to him and said, "Your colleagues were in a good mood today."

Patterson told him that he thought the etiquette sessions he was holding with parliamentary reporters on how to treat the prime minister with more respect were working. Trudeau expressed surprise that anyone would show up for such a session.

"Pierre Trudeau was probably the smartest guy in any room he entered - but maybe not elevators," Patterson wrote. "I never did tell him I was just kidding."

Patterson, who died in Halifax on March 9 at the age of 82, couldn't resist trying his own hand at politics. He ran twice for the Liberals in 1968 and 1974 in the federal riding of Dartmouth-Halifax East. Despite losing both times, he never regretted the experience.

"He was a real political animal," said Pat Connolly, Patterson's long-time friend and a retired sports journalist.

Campaigning door-to-door was a highlight. "He could make a connection with whoever he met," said his daughter Lori Patterson.

He chalked up his losses to the fact that many in his riding wanted to see Robert Stanfield, the province's popular premier, as the next Conservative prime minister of Canada.

"I always had the feeling, in both my campaigns, that he was the opponent I personally faced," Patterson wrote in his memoir. "His was the name I encountered. Stanfield was running just across the harbour in the Halifax seat."

Gerald Regan, Nova Scotia's premier in the 1970s, remembers Patterson as a cheerleader who encouraged him to run for a federal seat in the 1980 election, two years after being defeated as premier. Using an early polling machine, Patterson was able to convince his friend that he had a chance at winning a seat, and he was right.

Patterson remained keenly interested in politics until the end of his life. In the evenings, he often ventured over to Regan's house, near his own, to have a Scotch, talk politics and solve the world's problems.

Charles Arnold Patterson, best known as Arnie, was born on July 2, 1928, in Dartmouth. His father, Charlie, died when Arnie was 2, leaving his mother Mary to raise four children on her own. From the time he was in Grade 5, he knew he wanted to be a sports writer or broadcaster. After university he went to work as a reporter at Halifax's Chronicle-Herald and Mail-Star before heading to the Toronto Telegram in 1954. He then made his way into public relations and eventually joined the Dominion Steel and Coal Corp., or Dosco.

Patterson was the company's public relations director on Oct. 23, 1958, when a massive "bump" shattered the No. 2 colliery in the coal mining town of Springhill, N.S., trapping 174 miners 3,900 metres underground. Off-duty miners worked for days trying to rescue them. In the end, 75 men died in the accident.

The disaster caught the world's attention, and Patterson spent the next month in Springhill relaying information to the miners' families and the more than 150 reporters who descended on the town. When Ed Sullivan called, Patterson arranged for some of the survivors to appear on the popular television show and accompanied them to New York. For his work, he was named public relations man of the year in Canada by his peers.

Thirty-nine years later he went back to Springhill to remember the tragedy. He wrote about his experience in a column in 1997 in the Halifax Daily News, where he was a columnist for close to 20 years. "I said a silent prayer as I stood near what I thought was the location of the entrance to the mine, remembering the saddened, huddling figures of the wives and children of the men who had not returned to the surface. A heart-rending scene; one that has never left me."

Not one to stay put for too long, Patterson was intrigued in 1961 after spotting a notice in the paper that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission was granting new radio licences. With a bank loan of $250,000, plus $75,000 in an operating line of credit, CFDR hit the air on Dec. 5, 1962, out of an office upstairs from a paint store in the heart of Dartmouth.

Soon the station was in financial difficulty, with Patterson holding down an outside job to keep it running. But by the late 1960s, Patterson took over running the station and was involved in all aspects of the operation, including being on air covering sports and interjecting his newscast with his own popular features and vignettes. The station eventually moved to a bigger office, and in 1983 Patterson applied for an FM licence to open a rock radio station.

Known as a prankster, he went to great lengths to pull off a joke. When Q104 hit the airwaves, it was in direct competition with existing station C100. One night he visited a quarry and found a 1.5-metre-high rock that weighed 300 kg. On the side of it he had painted: "Q104 - The Rock of the Atlantic." He hired a truck driver to dump the massive rock in the parking lot of his competitor. Having let a Daily News reporter in on his prank, it was caught on camera. The next day, a front-page photo appeared in the paper with the caption: "Obviously the masked man shown above is a fan of Q104 radio and is today the subject of an extensive police search. ... Evidently they play rough in radio wars around here."

"[Patterson] had an incredible enthusiasm for life and for what he was doing and for people," Connolly said.

As a sports enthusiast, reporter and broadcaster, Patterson never stopped promoting sport and talented athletes. He loved hockey and for years CFDR covered broadcasts of the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, a professional team that played in the American Hockey League. Patterson was twice named the American Hockey League Broadcaster of the Year. He also played a major role promoting golf throughout the Maritimes, and served as director of the Nova Scotia Golf Association.

"He never really looked back," his daughter Lori said. "He always said, 'Life is like a magical carpet ride.' He felt that when opportunities came up he should take them."

Patterson leaves his wife, Glenora, daughters Carol and Lori and four grandchildren.

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