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Wednesday January 16, 2013

Colourful Vancouverite led stations to success

But blew it big time when he fired Peter Jennings, convinced the nervous, young, former bank teller would never make it

Special to the Globe and Mail

Broadcaster, political campaigner and raconteur, Don Hamilton was a huckster - in the very best sense of the word.

"Don was certainly a colourful Vancouverite, a colourful Canadian," says close friend Charles Pitts, president of Oromedia in Montreal.

"Flamboyant? A bit of window-dressing? Yeah, probably. A bit of embellishment? Yes, of course."

Hamilton developed and led CKLG radio and its sister station, CFOX FM, to unprecedented success in Vancouver's competitive rock-music market, establishing a profitable base for the expansion of the Prairie-based Moffat group into TV and cable acquisitions.

Former president of the B.C. Association of Broadcasters, he formed Broadcast News, a subsidiary of The Canadian Press dedicated to radio newscasting.

He was the Canadian delegate to the Inter-American Broadcasters Association, racking up air miles while preaching media in such places as Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro and Lima.

He worked as a consultant for B.C.'s Open Learning Agency, Knowledge Network, Expo 86, and the 1994 Commonwealth Games. He was the man selected by the Tories to shut down Lotto Canada; he even signed the final winning cheques.

"When [Hamilton] talks, you quit forking the salad at Trader Vic's and listen," wrote Vancouver Sun reporter David Smith.

Hamilton's media and business acumen were not limited to broadcasting. He was vice-president of the Progressive Conservative Party's national executive and B.C. campaign chair for Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney.

"Yes, he certainly had flamboyance and creativity," Mr. Clark recalls. "But the risk with the word 'flamboyance' is that it sometimes suggests insubstantial, and Don certainly wasn't that."

Donald Hamilton died of cancer on Dec. 2 in Victoria. He was 80.

Born in Pembroke, Ont., in 1932, he was in Grade 2 when his family moved to Toronto at the start of the war.

He could have easily followed his dad, Manfred, into the civil service. Or tagged along with his mom, Stella, who was a nurse, into medicine. But instead the skinny, freckled, Howdy Doody lad lived by his wits, risk and uncertainty often acting as incentives.

Shades of Horatio Alger characterized his early exploits, but in a postwar Toronto setting. He even resembled the author, right down to his snappy half grin and trademark bow tie. As a boy, after school, he delivered fish for Chambers Fish Market; swept up bloody sawdust from the floor of an A&P butcher shop; and schlepped groceries around town for Pelletier's market. On weekends, he worked as a "pin boy" at the swanky Granite Club. To keep up his strength, he'd snatch a few grilled shrimps and gin-soaked olives from the dumb waiter as it climbed past the bowling alley to the third-floor dining room.

But all that was kid's stuff. The real fun began with adolescence.

According to his unpublished memoirs, in 1948, the Canadian government hawked surplus army supplies from a Toronto warehouse. You could buy crates of tea towels, 60-foot trailer kitchens, or 40-ton Sherman tanks.

Around this time, Hamilton delivered telegrams in the north end of the city on his bicycle. Too slow, he decided. So he bought a discounted khaki Harley Davidson.

"No air, no power steering, no cruise control, and no warranty," he recalls. "Some even boasted German bullet holes."

He soon had four Harleys on the road and a dozen friends sub-contracted to move the telegrams. By the time he graduated from high school, he was earning $8,000 a year, twice what his father made at his steady government job.

"Little did I know that never in my life would I have more buying power than I did in my 17th year," he writes.

In 1951, after a year at Ryerson Technical School for Radio Arts in Toronto, Hamilton was hired as a radio announcer for CFCH in North Bay, Ont.

Then it was on to CJKL in Kirkland Lake, Ont., where, he claimed, the underground mine tunnels were so close to the surface he could hear gold miners chatting over lunch.

Next came eight years at CKOY in Ottawa, where he prowled the corridors of power at Parliament Hill with a fast-talking CBC French radio reporter named René Lévesque.

Some time between helping Lévesque with his antiquated equipment on the Hill, and rising to become director of advertising and sales at CKOY, he managed to woo Pat Kenny, the talented star of the station's Jay & Ginger morning show.

They were married in 1955 and Hamilton launched himself further into a lucrative career as an enterprising and ambitious broadcast executive.

But he blew it big time at least once while in Ottawa: that was the day he fired Peter Jennings, convinced the nervous, young, former bank teller would never make it in the news business.

"I think he's finally got the hang of it," Hamilton conceded 25 years later, when he gave Jennings, then a hugely successful ABC news anchor based in New York, a second chance (as part of an ABC syndication package Hamilton aired on his Vancouver stations).

After working briefly in 1960 as general manager at CKSL radio station in London, Ont., he and Pat moved with their two small children, Jeff and Leslie, to Vancouver. With his exuberant personality and solid business savvy, his career finally exploded.

On Aug. 22, 1964, the Beatles performed at Vancouver's Empire Stadium to swooning audiences. On that same day, in Don Hamilton's prescient fashion, his show Top 40 Rock & Roll hit the airwaves.

Teenagers slapped transistor radios to their ears, leaned against Gastown storefronts and tuned in. Ratings soared and advertisers flocked to the station, keen to profit from this new youth-directed niche.

"Don Hamilton was a larger-than-life kind of individual who never once wanted to be seen missing a beat," Pitts says.

Somewhere around this razzmatazz, his third child, Russell, was born. But he was almost too busy to notice.

In the late 1970s, Hamilton took a leave from radio and formed General Communications consulting, for many of British Columbia's most high-powered clients. He also sat on numerous boards.

He accomplished all this while excelling as a Tory campaign fixer, backroom boy and media manipulator.

"What was so remarkable about him was that he was always highly positive, always optimistic, " says Mr. Clark, who worked closely with Hamilton during his 1976 leadership campaign. "We didn't have a lot to be optimistic about, but Hamilton found things that we could build on. ... British Columbia has never been a simple place and it wasn't then, for the Progressive Conservative Party."

Hamilton endured personal tragedy with the loss of his wife in 1983 and his son Jeff in 1987. Again, he found his way through and accepted a position on the CBC board of directors in 1996 - an ironic turn for a career broadcaster with a lifetime commitment to free enterprise and retail radio.

Donald Hamilton leaves his sister, Susanne, daughter Leslie, son Russell, grandchildren Marlon, Colin, Corey and Ashley, and great-grandchildren Alice and Theodore.

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