Jim McNeill – Eulogy

Posted on May 17, 2009
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May 21, 1998, David Cadogan

How does one do justice to the memory of Jim McNeill? For every tribute and story I know, you each know two of your own.

The facts of his achievements have been noted in reports in papers and on radio and television across the country.

He came to Canada from his home in Barra after serving a stint in the Royal Navy. He came to PEI to marry Shirley before they left for British Columbia. He got into newspaper work with the Summerside Journal Pioneer because he couldn’t find any other work. He was moved from ad sales to news because he brought in more stories than the reporters.

Fate and the allure of the Shirley and the Island conspired to make a home for a legend.

He founded both of Prince Edward Island’s English language community newspapers. The Eastern Graphic was first printed on an offset duplicator, then collated and stapled at home. Later, as the children arrived, they remember joining Shirley licking and applying each subscription label.

For the record:

Jim was a founding member of the Atlantic Community Newspapers Association. When Atlantic publishers gathered to form the association in the early 70’s, Jim was the entire Island delegation.

Jim is the only person ever to have been an Honourary Life Member of the Canadian Community Newspapers Association and then, after that, president of CCNA.

That’s partly because no one ever expected him to agree to become president. The idea smacked too much of politics for Jim. Even thinking of it made him want to investigate himself. He had left the CCNA board.

One dawn, at a CCNA convention in Ottawa, he yielded to a plea to rejoin the board to represent strong editorial principles. I read an article recently that said that CCNA has a feeble editorial credo. That’s because people like Jim resisted codifying what we do. Most of the best papers today began by flouting the conventions of the times. Credos are often used to exclude bold innovation.

He wrote a book, a calendar of newspaper story ideas for each month of the year. That book alone can keep any newspaper staff busy forever.

Jim was also the first Canadian president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. For some reason the initials, ISWNE are pronounced Eyes Wine. It’s a group of especially enthusiastic and outspoken newspaper people. He won that organization’s two highest honours, the Gold Quill award and the Cervi award. One is for achievement in a given year. The other for a lifetime of achievement.

When a national CCNA award for enterprise journalism was created, Jim won it for the first two years.

Jim was a finalist a decade ago for the Michener journalism award. In the announcement, there was his name, Jim McNeill; his paper, the Montague “EasternGraphic;” his circulation, 5,989; alongside Canadian Press and Southam with their millions.

Jim was also the Atlantic Provinces journalist of the year in 1993 in a competition co-ordinated by the University of Kings College.

Finally, of course, he was awarded an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Kings College in Halifax last week. According to the family, he was amazed and delighted by the honour and reveled in the realization and celebration of it.

Dr. Sheamus. Imagine that!

In professional terms, Jim probably understood Lord Acton and Lord Northcliffe as well as anyone ever did. Acton, a brilliant analyst of the elements of liberty, is chiefly renowned for one statement and a corollary.

It is: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The corollary is the line after that: “Great men are almost always bad men.

Lord Northcliffe, a British newspaper magnate, asked what news is, replied “News is something someone, somewhere, is trying to suppress. Everything else is advertising.

I think Jim truly appreciated that power itself, not the individual who holds it, is the problem. Like a doctor he would look for signs of the disease and attack the behaviour it caused without seeming to bear any personal ill will toward the patient.

When the patient became angry with Jim for attacking the disease, Jim’s reaction was usually to laugh.

He knew that sunshine and fresh air are a big part of the cure for most infections. He did his best to bring the light to bear. Incidentally, he knew that press conferences by Northcliffe’s definition are advertising.

I don’t think he believed great men are usually bad men. I think he felt they were infected and that it was his job to root out the infection and keep them as healthy as possible.

We’ve all heard a lot about Jim’s news sense, courage and style. What is often missed is his dogged drudgery. He read every page of a pile several feet high of the Confederation bridge link agreement. Can you even imagine the dedication and hunger it would take to focus that kind of concentration?

He was a tireless warrior for the interests of the people.

Jim was more, much more, than his career.

People, news people in particular, are used to the idea of celebrating lives of accomplishment and success.

The reaction to the news of Jim’s passing has been different. Jack McAndrew choked up talking about Jim on CBC Radio’s “As It Happens.” Richard Dooley choked up doing interviews for the Halifax “Daily News.” All week, we’ve all heard stories of spontaneous demonstrations of emotion on the news of Jim’s death.

We didn’t just admire Jim. We loved Jim. And Jim loved us. He made us all feel alive and significant for who we are and what we do and who we would like to be.

How did he do that?

For one thing, he sat up with all of us all night talking about writing or music or whatever it is we do. Journalists in the thousands have spent the night with Jim in dormitory corridors, hospitality suites and bars all over North America. Many of us have seen more dawns with Jim than without him.

To a real news person, Jim was a treasure. He knew what they were talking about. So many other people just don’t get it.

Jim never told jokes. He told stories. Great stories. He always delivered the climax by leaning forward, lowering his voice and punctuating with a curled forefinger.

Who will ever forget those dancing eyes and that hypnotic brogue?

Allan Lynch remembers the time he was with Jim in a huge iron station wagon heading for the Charlottetown airport late. The plane was visible coming in for a landing. Jim put two fingers on top of the steering wheel and announced, “Plenty of time! If I can still see the plane with two fingers on top of the wheel, we’re okay.”

His idea of plenty of time and Allan’s were apparently a bit different.

I’ve never heard of Jim ever making any kind of off-colour or snide or prejudicial remark. He never flaunted his faith. He was simply a model of tolerance and decency. Priests were his personal friends as much as news, entertainment or sports cronies.

There was nothing stuffy, nothing of the fogy about him. He was one of few men who could fit in easily and comfortably with every age group including many of the maligned and dreaded teens and early 20’s.

Jim could be overbearing. Anyone who has ever wrestled him for a bar tab knows the meaning of “generous to a fault.” Shirley remembers that when she roomed with two other girls in Toronto, they could borrow beer from Jim and he’d even deliver it — on foot!

All week I’ve heard more stories of his generosity. Just today I heard of a new employee whose father died. Jim paid her fare home for the funeral.

Jim helped make Island and hospitality synonymous. At the first Atlantic Community Newspapers Convention here in Montague, our entertainment was “Ryan’s Fancy.”

That was in the days of their national stardom. They didn’t just stay for a set either. I’ll never forget Denis on the lawn at Brudenell singing to the moon at three thirty in the morning.

They weren’t there for ACNA. They were there for Jim.

Jim’s friends in the entertainment world are, in a word, awesome. Ryan, Rankin, Rodgers, McIsaac, McMaster. Just a few.

Jim was loved by curlers and golfers too. He told stories of trips and people he met. I never once ever heard him mention the outcome of a game or a round. For Jim, I don’t think winning ever had anything to do with his, or anyone else’s, score.

We loved Jim for his love of his family. His love for Shirley was absolute. With her he raised a family that are still like a basket of puppies — warm, curious, cuddly, adventurous and playful. But don’t get me wrong. They can and do run with the big dogs.

Gail, Kevin, Paul, Sheilah, Jan. You’re our family too.

Many of us remember a year the Canadian Community Newspapers Association convention was in Winnipeg. There was no way he could afford eight airline tickets and accommodations.  Jim bought an old converted school bus and took the whole family and a visiting cousin from Scotland.

The children remember taking turns watching out the back for escaping parts. Gail says the sight of a service station seemed to remind it to break down 25 miles later. They remember leaving the bus running for the ferry trip on the way back because the starter was finally gone (really gone) so it would never start again.

As the news of Jim’s death spread across the country and beyond, no fewer than six people commented how fitting it was that Jim died on the ferry, The Confederation, heading home to the Island.

Ultimately what we most love and will remember about Jim is his exuberantly joyful enthusiasm for life. Its light warmed and nourished all of us.

I would like to close with some lines by Jack London. I used them in memory of my father, George, another great friend and admirer of Jim McNeill. I was reminded that Jim would never have used these words about himself. He would never say anything that might sound boastful.

I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather than my spark should burn out

in a brilliant blaze

than it should be stifled by dry rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor

every atom of me in magnificent glow,

than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The proper function of man is to live

not to exist.

I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

Slainte, Jim. Slainte!

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