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Remembering: Peter Desbarats

by David Estok, BA'79 (King's, Eng/Hist)


Peter Desbarats spent a lifetime “making news” so it came as no surprise that his death in February was covered extensively by national media across Canada.

“A media man of the Mad Men Era,” was the headline in The Globe and Mail, “a journalism giant,” the London Free Press said, and a “first class journalist” was how his former Global TV network colleagues described the handsome, intelligent and, and at times, controversial Canadian.

However, Peter Desbarats was so much more than that.

A writer, newspaper reporter, TV anchorman, author, academic, playwright, poet, and citizen, first of Montreal, but for the past more than 20 years of London, Ontario. It seems there was little that Desbarats could not turn his hand to without success. His best-selling book, Rene: A Canadian in Search of a Country, was just one of 13 works he penned during a career that took him across Canada and around the world in search of news. A 2002 play about former London Mayor Dianne Haskett, LLB’77, a children’s book and of course his Somalia Cover-Up: A Commissioner’s Journal, all added to his life work. Desbarats had a keen sense of what news was all about and also was known for “being ahead of the curve” when it came to what was coming next.

“He told me that when something is new, that’s the best time to be there,” Larry Cornies, MA’86 (Journalism), a former student, colleague and editor of Desbarats told the London Free Press. “He was always good at sensing the next wave and adapting.”

Starting his career as a copy boy for Canadian Press, Peter Hullett Desbarats worked at the Montreal Gazette, Reuters, The Winnipeg Tribune, a nightly television show called Seven on Six on CBC in Montreal, the Toronto Star as well as Ottawa bureau chief for Global Television and eventually co-anchor of the Global News with Peter Trueman.

At Western, we knew him most for his role as Dean of Journalism, a job he took in 1981. Desbarats’ appointment was controversial given his lack of a formal education, but he quickly made his mark on campus as an intellectual, a great teacher and most importantly a leader not only in the field of journalism at the school but across the country.

It was at Western that Desbarats would lead a national campaign to keep the journalism school alive in the mid 1990s. The fight was classic Desbarats: public, aggressive and ultimately, successful. Two of Desbarats former students – CBC news anchor Heather Hiscox, MA’87 (Journalism), and CBC reporter Adrienne Arsenault, BA’90, MA’91 (Journalism) – were both in Sochi, covering the Olympic Games when Desbarats passed away.

“We both remember well his personal magnetism and commanding presence, “ they told the Free Press. “He taught the creative writing class during my year, so I have always associated him with learning how to craft and tell a good story. Years after he retired from Western, I would see Peter on Saturday mornings, in the market, enjoying the company of his friends and, it seems to me, sharing good stories. Very fitting.”

When he first moved to London, he complained openly about the city. In typical Desbarats fashion though, he got involved and he worked hard to make London a better city. Whether it was with his work with Orchestra London, Museum London or the Colborne St. United Church, Desbarats became a citizen of London. (I remember him most at the downtown Y where folks from every walk of London life – businessmen, academics, journalists, lawyers and others – would seek his help, opinion and his advice.)

Desbarats won several honours during his long and distinguished career including two ACTRA awards and was an Officer Of The Order of Canada.

Desbarats died due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 80. He is survived by his wife Hazel, 10 children and 11 grandchildren.

David Estok is VP Communications at Sick Kids Foundation in Toronto. He is the former editor of The Hamilton Spectator and former Associate VP of Communications and Public Affairs for Western.

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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