By Jim Withers
They don’t make ’em like Russ Peden (1934-2021) any more.
I, along with other members of the Montreal Gazette family, are in mourning after learning that our beloved friend and ex-colleague died May 31.
You couldn’t describe Russ without using adjectives like “affable,” “easygoing,” “old-school,” “chivalrous,” “considerate” and “unflappable.” In addition to being a gentleman – a word you don't hear much any more – Russ was a tall, quiet, pipe-smoking, no-nonsense, consummate newspaper editor, which I got to appreciate up close when I joined The Gazette in 1984.
He was the City slotman and I was his side guy, a kind of side-order cook, but instead of flipping burgers and frying eggs I edited copy and whipped up headlines.
Russ was one of a kind in many ways, and one of those was his unique way of masterminding his section of the paper. He was amazingly meticulous when it came to page layouts, which he would quietly work on while studying his computer screen and puffing on his pipe – smoking was de rigueur in the newsroom in those days – and I would twiddle my thumbs waiting for something to do. Occasionally, Russ would make a wry observation, but he was no chatterbox.
This was long before page organization was done electronically, when editors would roll up their hand-drawn layouts and fire them to the composing department via pneumatic tubes. With any editor but Russ this was always an inexact science, and often X-Acto-knife-wielding compositors had to be directed to make the final cuts to stories, which could be stressful on deadline. With Russ, though, everything fit to a T. It was no wonder that the compositors loved him. Russ was pagination before pagination.
“Fifteen two and the rest won’t do,” he’d say when he gave me a story to cut. Sometimes it was “16.4 and the rest don’t score.” It was Russ-speak, and I soon learned that when he told me how long a story should be, there was no such thing as “close enough.”
Russ’s calm, cool demeanour also reduced newsroom stress.
I recall his little chuckle when I, a newbie, first answered our hotline with the composing department, and someone screamed in my ear, “Where the fuck is Page 3?”
“That’s jolly jumping Jack (Marsters),” Russ explained. Funny, whenever I heard Russ dealing with jolly jumping Jack on the hotline, everything seemed so much calmer and quieter. Russ could calm a hurricane.
Throughout the course of every shift, Russ would do this idiosyncratic Russ thing in which he’d pound his chest, almost Tarzan style – at first I thought he was checking a pocket for matches – and he’d say, “Can I get you some slop?” By that he meant coffee from the cafeteria. (He never once referred to it as coffee.) And so we took turns buying each other slop, except that I would drink only one cup per shift and Russ would down three or four. Russ had amazing kidneys, especially when you consider the prodigious amount of beer he put away every night. He would routinely inhale – and I mean inhale – two quarts after the first deadline, when he’d dart across the street to the American tavern. There, in the din, while surrounded by an almost exclusively male clientèle playing pool, watching the hockey game on TV or washing down pickled eggs with their suds, Russ would proofread photocopies of his City pages. Then Russ would return to the newsroom to set things up for the second edition. He’d say something like, “We got her by the shorts,” and then he’d go back to the tavern for another couple of quarts before heading home to the West Island by public transit. I was amazed at how alcohol never seemed to have any effect on Russ. He was always the same quiet, good-natured pro.
At first I couldn’t get any of my headlines past him. He’d change everything – and for the better. I considered it a personal triumph when Russ finally started to accept my headlines.
Before getting me to work on Nick Auf der Maur’s notoriously sloppy column, he’d ask me if I was up for a challenge. We had a standing bet: Russ said he could always find at least three typos in Nick’s column after I’d given it a thorough edit, and he always did.
I didn’t work much with Russ after those first couple of years, but I always saw him there as a calming presence in the newsroom. Every newsroom should have a Russ.
(And Russ was so much more than a newspaper man. For example, his obituary revealed this: “He worked in a pulp and paper mill, for a wire and cable company in Canada’s north, and across the Prairies as an assistant mechanic for the CNR, living in a boxcar and climbing signal poles in all weathers. For a year and a half, he taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Port Coldwell, a tiny fishing port on Lake Superior served only by rail, without electricity or running water.”)
In retirement, Russ switched from beer to wine, did volunteer work (driving for Meals on Wheels, etc.), and accompanied wife, Barbara, to the theatre, concerts, the Brome County Fair and ballroom-dancing classes. You could tell by the sparkle in her eye and the adoring way she looked up at her much-taller man, and that shy Russ smile and affectionate look he had for her, that theirs was a beautiful, enduring love story.
Merci, Russ, for all the wonderful memories.
All these years later I can still hear it:
“We got her by the shorts" and "Fifteen two and the rest won’t do.”