Then there was John Diefenbaker. I’ll always remember him placing his hand flat on top of my head and saying, “Son, mark my words, I’ll be Prime Minister of this great country when this great country celebrates its 100th anniversary in 1967. Son, mark my words”.
On the last afternoon of April 1943, when I was wondering what to do, I dropped by the Trib to say hello to Gib. Erling P. Gibson was chief photographer at the Winnipeg Tribune and I knew him from having carried out freelance assignments for the paper. His son, Orland and daughters, Lois and Fredl were friends. My visits were never more than ten minutes. When I was leaving, Gib said, “George, keep in touch with Mr. McIlroy (the managing editor), I may be retiring soon. Not right away. In a few months. Probably by summer.”
Arriving home an hour later, my mother met me at the door with a message to call a Mr. McIlroy. When I reached him, he was brief. He said, “Gib just quit. D’ya want his job?” Dropping by his office early next morning to discuss the job, I questioned the salary offered. I think it was a hundred bucks a week. His reply was that I shouldn’t worry about salary as the paper had an excellent pension program. I told him I wasn’t interested in a pension as I would only be staying two years, even though I didn’t have a clue what I would be doing after that. I started that day, May 1 and as it turned out, my last day at the paper was April 30, 1945, two years later to the hour.
The night editor screamed, “St, Mathews Church is burning down! Get over there right away!” Smart-ass George replied, “The church is brick. It can’t burn down. Call Bruce.” After another call, I rang Bruce. We decided we should both go. Hell, at 2:30 we arrived to find one of the biggest fires Winnipeg has ever seen.
It was the best of times to be at the Winnipeg Tribune as they had an illustrious staff. John Bird was the Publisher with Carlyle Allison the Editor in Chief and John Gordon the City Editor. The other editors and the reporters made a wonderful gang to work with. Bruce Watson was the other photographer and we were on shift 24/7, although that term wasn’t used back then. Two staff photographers, Gordon Aikman and Terry Rowe were away in the service. The Winnipeg Free Press staff were o.k. people as well. Veteran photographers, Harry Steele and George Young, went out of their way to help me when I bumped into them on assignments. I don’t think I realized just how lucky I was. There was no great sense of competition between the papers but we at the Trib always got a kick out of scooping the Free Press.
It didn’t take long to find out that life and excitement in newspaper photography was not as glamorous as it would appear from the movies. We did have some interesting times, however. Take the time I photographed flamboyant New York City mayor, Fiarello LaGuardia in his suite at the Fort Garry Hotel. After the interview and photo session, reporter Fred Brickenden and I left the room with him and as we walked down the hall an elevator door opened. The operator put his hand up to stop us, saying, “This is a freight elevator.” Pushing in, the mayor responded with, “What the hell, you’re going down, ain’t-cha?”
Then there was John Diefenbaker. I’ll always remember him placing his hand flat on top of my head and saying, “Son, mark my words, I’ll be Prime Minister of this great country when this great country celebrates its 100th anniversary in 1967. Son, mark my words”. I especially enjoyed photographing another celebrity, the Hon. Tommy Douglas, also from Saskatchewan. He impressed me as being a super person and made me appreciate all the more being from his province.
It wasn’t long before I learned of the unwritten newspaper edict, “If you don’ t come back with the picture the editor requested, don’t bother to come back at all. Save the embarrassment”. I can add another edict, and that is from personal experience. It goes like this: “If you want to get smart and make a shot that is not as requested, make the requested shot first and then get smart”.
This is how I learned the lesson. The sports editor, Vince Lea, gave me an assignment to photograph Mayor Garnet Coulter making the first pitch of the season at the ballpark at my alma matter, United College. What a dull picture that would make, I thought. My reluctance heightened when mother had an excellent dinner on the table that evening and I stayed for a second helping. I missed the opening pitch, of course, but figured I could make a shot of something more interesting.
As it turned out, I didn’t even go into the ballpark to make my shot. When I was parking the car, I noticed two kids climbing a pole across the street from the high fence surrounding the field. I jumped out just in time to catch the second lad sliding down a wire into the bleachers. When I placed a print on Vince’s desk next morning, he loved it and marked it up for four columns. That layout didn’t last very long. The city editor, in passing by the sports desk, noticed the shot and was told Hunter made it the previous evening at the stadium. Having nothing for his page, the front of the second section, he seconded it. It didn’t last long in that layout either. Later in the morning the news editor saw it and grabbed it for his front page. Was everyone happy about this shot? No way. Sports editor Vince was sore as hell. He didn’t have anything for his page.
Incidentally, Mayor Coulter had his own little nickname for me whenever I showed up when he was officiating. It was “What? You again!” I didn’t mind it. He was a good guy. I accepted it as a term of endearment.
The society editor was Lillian Gibbons. Did she ever love me! She loved me so much she wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. I was photographing a group of high society women and with each of the eight clamouring for position, Lillian had me re-shoot it four times. The final photograph looked great, but when the paper came out next day, all hell broke loose. The phone in the society department didn’t stop ringing for two days. My subconscious mind, having been provoked by the retakes, must have taken over in the darkroom. I had printed the negative backward and all the names were reversed. Hell, Lillian should have noticed that when laying out her page.
As mentioned, Bruce and I were on call 24/7. The night editor made sure of that. In a one-week period this editor had each of us out at least once a night after midnight. Not a single image made the paper, none of the incidents being that newsworthy. Bruce and I stood for it too long. We were suffering sleep deprivation. We put our heads together and decided on this particular night not to answer our phones. I told mother I wouldn’t answer the phone and requested she not do so either.
That night the phone rang, and it rang and rang. Mother banged on my door and said that if I didn’t answer it she would. Well, I finally answered. The night editor screamed, “St, Mathews Church is burning down! Get over there right away!” Smart-ass George replied, “The church is brick. It can’t burn down. Call Bruce.” After another call, I rang Bruce. We decided we should both go. Hell, at 2:30 we arrived to find one of the biggest fires Winnipeg has ever seen. We made some neat fire and firemen shots and spent the rest of the night processing them.
Would you believe none made the paper? What did make the paper and it was blown right across the front page, was a shot I made when I returned to the site before breakfast. It featured the skeleton of the burned-out church. Perhaps Bruce and I should have been fired, but not a word was heard about the hard time we gave the night editor.
I hate to wind up on a morbid note. Don’t read any further if murder is a poor subject for you. It concerns twice-convicted murderer, Albert Westgate. One morning the city editor called reporter Jimmy Anderson and me to his desk and said, “There’s been a murder down the street at the Marlborough Hotel. Run down and make a shot of the room”.
We didn’t hear till later that Bruce and another reporter were kicked out of the hotel earlier and sternly warned not to return. Jimmy and I thought it over and decided we must be as inconspicuous as possible and not look like newsmen. We rushed to our homes and changed to suits and overcoats to look more like detectives. I picked up my smaller camera, the Super Ikonta B with flashgun and extension, placing it all in one of my father’s leather sample cases.
We walked into the hotel looking like we owned the place. We walked straight to the elevators, not looking right or left. The elevators had operators in those days and we said rather sternly, “The floor please,” not knowing which floor the room was on. Arriving at the floor we saw a maid’s cart at a doorway and calling the maid, we said, “The room please”. We entered, locked the door, and found a badly disarranged room. We assembled the camera gear, made a few shots and got out as quickly as we could. When the paper came out that afternoon there was no picture of the room.
Asking the editor the next morning what happened, he told us the paper’s lawyers said that if one of the photographs had been published, the paper could have been sued for trespassing. Had we been caught in the room, we would likely have been thrown in jail for crossing police lines.
Weeks later, and prior to his trial, the paper heard that Westgate was to be transferred to a jail on York Avenue, a block over from the law courts on Broadway. I was assigned to cover his arrival there. A policeman came up to me and said in an emphatic manner, “No photographs”. He didn’t know I was stone deaf to a demand like that. It was dark and I mingled in the crowd that was assembling. When Westgate finally arrived in a paddy wagon, I grabbed a shot. I spotted reporter Shirley Scott and handed her the film holder and inserted a fresh one in the Speed Graphic. The cop must have seen me as a minute later he grabbed my arm and told me I was under arrest. He didn’t demand the film. He was walking me off, perhaps to the same jail cell where they would be holding Westgate when another officer came along. He may have been a sergeant, or even the chief, as he told the cop to let me go, saying they knew where to find me. The picture made the paper the next day and I never heard anything further about the arrest.
The final picture I was to make on the Westgate case came close to being the very last one I would ever make. The news editor assigned me to make a close-up portrait of him. How in hades do I do that, I thought. I couldn’t tell the editor it would be impossible. There is no such word in the newspaper business. Anyway, snooping around I found out that Westgate would be walked from the jail on York Avenue, across an open area, and into the back door of the courthouse. I decided I would park my car alongside the walk and close to the entrance, partially blocking it and requiring the guards and prisoner to walk around it. Detective work also provided a heads up on the approximate time.
With the car strategically parked behind the courthouse, and with my heart racing, every minute seemed like an hour. It was quiet and peaceful with no one around but I could be kicked away at any minute should an official exit the back door. Peering from beside the car and through the windows I finally observed three figures leaving the jail proceeding toward me. With the Speed Graphic pre-focused, I crouched down by the front bumper and waited for the precise second to jump up and make my shot. Almost simultaneously with the flash, Westgate’s foot came flying by my face as I instinctively jerked backward, swinging the camera above my head. He must have been very athletic, or perhaps he was a ballet dancer. He came mighty close to wrecking the camera and kicking my teeth out. Although his hands were cuffed behind his back, there didn’t appear to be any other restraints. The guards, also miffed with my presence, seemed delighted with Westgate’s action and did nothing to restrain him. The flash-in-his-face portrait made the front page.
That incident wasn’t the last of the Westgate case. A week or two later I received a call from the Manitoba Attorney General. Mentioning that I had been close to the case, he invited me to be his guest at the execution. Being young, curious, and perhaps a little naive, I accepted. Well, I won’t go into detail, as you have no doubt all seen hangings on t.v. However, I can’t refrain from mentioning a ludicrous incident at the end of the procedure. When the attending doctor pronounced that Westgate was no longer with us, the official witnesses were ushered in, or I should have said, “staggered in”. They were eight men who had likely been found on the streets after the bars had closed. They saw nothing of the procedure but had to swear before a Justice of the Peace that Westgate had met his end by hanging. It looked to me more like he had been run over by a truck. I might have felt a little sorry for him had it not been for the fact it was his second murder and that he had almost kicked my head off.
My best recollection of the entire affair was afterwards when we were invited to the cafeteria for refreshments, which were superb. Headingly Jail must have had a world-class chef. When I arrived back home at three-thirty in the morning, my only thought was of the wonderful roast-beef sandwiches.
© George Hunter