By Jim Withers
Without even knowing anything about his writing ability, I always thought Leon (a.k.a. Night Train) Harris would be the perfect person to write a book about life at the Montreal Gazette.
For my money, no one was a better raconteur of war stories about the good ol’, profane, booze-fuelled days and nights of newspapering, when colourful characters – like Leon himself – made it a joy to be part of the profession.
I was out of town when Leon died Aug. 17th and unable to attend his sendoff, but I’m sure the stories flowed like Molson Ex – his brew of choice – about our friend and former Gazette colleague.
y first memory of Leon dates back to the mid-1980s, when I was a rookie and attending my first Gazette Christmas party. Leon approached me and, looking askance at the beverage I was holding, questioned my manhood for drinking wine instead of beer.
That was Leon – an old-school newspaper warhorse who delighted in browbeating rookies, especially when they were reporters and he was night assistant city editor. No matter how minor the offence, Leon wasn’t gentle in pointing out their errors. I recall overhearing him once setting a young reporter straight, and thinking that I was witnessing a one-way clash of generations. I couldn’t hear any response coming from the soft-spoken reporter; there was just a lot of nodding as Leon said: “Gimme the grim details. All the grim details. The grimmer the better.”
Yep, Leon could be gruff, but it was a ruse to cover up a sweet, funny guy. And while I never quite got used to his habit of shuffling around the newsroom in his socks – and sometimes, after he’d finished copy editing a story, putting those feet up on the desk, with his hands clasped behind his head, like a man without a care in the world – I was never disappointed to find myself seated next to him in the bar after my shift or at boozy Gazette social events. (I love the Peter Wheeland photo of him yukking it up with Mike Boone, above)
In addition to bringing me up to speed on his sons’ hockey exploits or his fishing misadventures, I could count on Train to roll out his greatest hits of stories about the ink-stained, larger-than-life scoundrels who somehow put out the newspaper each day, back when newspapers were a real thing.
His punchlines were always delivered with an impish Leon grin.
One such story starred photographer J.P. Rivest, whose oddball characteristics included a refusal to get on airplanes or go to protest demonstrations. On this particular day, Leon said, J.P. was to take a photo to accompany a story by David Bird, our aptly named bird columnist, about a breeding program involving a rare type of falcon. The program had had many failures. An egg would be laid, but no bird would be hatched, or one would be hatched but only live for a few hours. Finally, though, a hatchling looked like it would survive into adulthood.
J.P. snapped a photo, but it caused the panicked mother, who was tethered nearby, to try to take off. As she did, the cord attached to one of her claws wrapped around the chick – here Leon emitted a guttural sound, closed his eyes and twisted his head to imitate a bird having its neck wrung.
When he got back to the office an editor asked J.P. if he had the picture. “Non,” J.P. said – and here Leon effected the same exaggerated French-Canadian accent he used whenever he imitated Jean Chrétien – “der’s no photo ... duh bird is dead!” That was it. No other explanation.
“Duh bird is dead!”
Then there was a story Leon told about sportswriter Bob Morrissey.
Back in the pre-computer days, when reporters pounded the keys on typewriters, Bob had been assigned to do a series of feature stories on junior hockey. One evening, when it was time for the typesetters to be handed Bob’s story, no one could find it. Panic ensued. There was a gaping space on the sports page where the story was to go. With deadlines approaching, Bob and colleagues frantically searched for the story. In desperation, someone decided to check a garbage bin and found it smeared with tomato sauce, cheese and other pizza toppings. Bob had unwittingly used the very copy paper on which he’d typed his story as a serviette after devouring dinner at his work station.
The typesetters, Leon said, “must have loved working with that soggy mess.”
Another anecdote Leon loved to tell was about himself. Decades ago, an overly refreshed Leon stumbled out of the press club around 5:30 a.m. Climbing into the back seat of what he thought was a taxi, Leon instructed the driver on where he wanted to go.
Then, looking up, Leon noticed that the driver wasn’t a cabbie, but a police officer. He’d mistaken a cop car for a taxi.
“Duh only plaaaace you’re going,” Leon said, mimicking the officer’s accent, “is Station 10.”
“Oh, that’s all right, sir,” Leon said as he reached for the door. “I’ll find my way home.”
When Leon decided to take the buyout package the company was offering in 2009, after 41 years at The Gazoo, it was my task to put together a mock front page for him. (In those days, whenever an employee left the paper, it was a tradition that the soon-to-be ex-staffer would get “a page,” which would feature sophomoric screaming headlines about what a reprobate the departing reporter/editor/photographer/graphic designer was, and how earth-shaking their departure would be.) In addition to having people practically lining up to contribute written material for Leon’s page, I had a wide assortment of pictures to choose from. One I went with was from maybe two decades earlier of Leon, his late brother Lewis and the rest of The Gazette’s softball team. I also shoe-horned in photos of Leon proudly holding up a large fish he’d caught (with a caption saying “Size matters”) and one from his reporting days in which he is shown bending over a jigsaw puzzle on the floor of the room where James Cross had been held captive in the October Crisis of 1970. In the sky box I ran a picture of Leon from his long-haired hippie days next to a photo of Frank Zappa with a cutline pointing out how curious it was that those two had never been seen in the same room together. Indeed, with his goatee, there was a resemblance, although Leon also had an Edgar Allan Poe look back then.
I included a list of Leonims like these:
“That's Côte des Neiges ROAD! Not STREET! Got that? And Côte takes a hat." (SLAM) – Leon phoning a reporter at 1 a.m. with questions about a police brief. “Don’t sugar-coat it, Bill.” – Leon after a fellow copy editor hollers: “You stupid arsehole system!” “I’m about to start singing old Negro spirituals. Tote that barge! Lift that bale!” – Leon after being assigned to edit more than one news story. “He’s probably got the 40-ounce flu.” – Leon’s comment after learning that a colleague had booked off sick. “Man’s been in this country for 30 years and he still calls it ‘ice hockey’.” – Leon’s mumbled comment after a Brit colleague asks whether the ice hockey season has started. “You can’t put 10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag.” – Leon, after being asked to trim a 30-inch story to fit into a 10-inch news hole. “He’s got a name like an eye chart.” – Leon, referring to an Eastern-European acquaintance.
In 2010, I received a phone call from someone who, without first identifying himself, opened with: “Ninety weeks!” It took a second or two for me to recognize Leon’s voice and another moment to realize that he was referring to the maximum number of weeks’ salary The Gazette was offering in its latest buyout offer to longtime employees. Before I could respond, Leon said: “How can you not go for it?”
Until he’d called, I wasn’t sure what to do.
We talked about how lucky we were to have experienced the newspaper business before all the downsizing, outsourcing and soul-destroying technological advances took over. As for the fate of our beloved, incredible-shrinking Gazette, Leon said: “The ship’s still afloat, but listing badly to the port side.”
I last saw Leon in late June when we were seated across from each other at a lunch celebrating the life of Matt Radz, one of five former Gazette colleagues who’ve died this year. Leon related one of his favourite Matt anecdotes: “Matt said his Polish uncle was a diplomat and he changed the family name because it was so long, by the time he introduced himself at embassy parties, the party was over.”
It was a case of one gruff, but loveable newspaper guy quoting another.
In an old email to me, John Simpson – yet another of the five ex-Gazette colleagues to die this year – said this about Leon: “I know it’s difficult to think that anybody could love Leon, but I do. You know something, Leon has had a fucked-around life, and he’s an amazing father. He’s married and faithful and madly in love with a woman he knows is smarter than he is (Christ, she’s a hell of a lot smarter than I am). I’ll tell you something: if you want somebody to help you, ask Leon. Don’t ask him to do overtime at The Gaz, but ask him to help you personally, and he’ll be there.”
I’m so glad I took Leon’s advice to retire, but I can’t recall if I lived up to my offer to at least buy him a thank-you Molson Ex.
Like so many others, I’m going to miss that guy and his newspaper stories.
Condolences to wife Lynn, sons Jake and Zach, sister Rosa, and the rest of his family and numerous friends.