George Garrett: Intrepid Reporter tells riveting tales of a bygone era in British Columbia

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      by George Garrett. Paperback, 288 pp, Harbour Publishing

      There's a revealing anecdote deep in retired B.C. radio reporter George Garrett's memoir, George Garrett: Intrepid Reporter.

      After six members of the extended Johnson-Bentley family had gone missing for months, the CKNW journalist was told by a "contact" that their bodies had been found in the back of a camper in the B.C. Interior.

      The RCMP in Kamloops wouldn't confirm the tip.

      After Garrett shared the name of his source with then news director Warren Barker, the story was approved. It went out over the Lower Mainland airwaves.

      But a staffer at the local station in Kamloops, CHNL, was in a quandary—the Mounties were refusing to comment. So the station contacted CKNW senior editor John McKitrick to determine whether the tape should be played.

      "Whom do you believe—Garrett or the cops?" McKitrick asked, according to Garrett's book.

      That was enough to convince CHNL to report the news.

      Garrett was later horrified to learn that family members had not been notified of the mass murder and only learned about it over the radio.

      It was something he never would have done deliberately—he was not that kind of reporter.

      In fact, Garrett was respected by his peers for his fundamental decency: "a lovely, sweet, ethical and generous man", in the words of former colleague Karen Tankard.

      But the sad tale of the Johnson-Bentley murders also reflected the rush of adrenaline that came to reporters with a major scoop in the heyday of Vancouver radio. There was immense pressure to be first. And from the 1950s to the 1990s, no one could match Garrett when it came to breaking blockbuster stories like this.

      George Garrett: Intrepid Reporter regales readers with true tales of crime and mayhem, political intrigue, protests, and amusing undercover escapades during his storied career. There's even a visit to a nudist colony.

      Garrett is a clever man, which was repeatedly reflected by the techniques he employed to obtain exclusives.

      He brought flowers to a woman in hospital who had been in the midst of a prison uprising. He played cribbage with former Surrey mayor Ed McKitka who was on trial for corruption, just as the jury was determining the politician's fate.

      Garrett even contacted judges to ask for their help from time to time.

      When Garrett used to visit the old RCMP E Division headquarters at West 37th Avenue and Heather Street in Vancouver, he would scan the sign-in book to see who else had visited the building.

      On one occasion, he noticed the name of a former NDP cabinet minister, Dave Stupich, then embroiled in a scandal involving a Nanaimo charity.

      So Garrett waited outside the building for Stupich to emerge, seizing on the opportunity to ask why he was there.

      "I knew very well he could not give me an answer beyond what his lawyer had told him to say: 'No comment.' Often that kind of response speaks volumes to listeners," Garrett writes. "It was obvious Stupich had something to hide."

      On another occasion, Garrett slipped into Government House in Victoria even though reporters were barred from the event. He pulled this off by arriving in a limousine, wearing a dark three-piece suit while carrying the type of briefcase used by lawyers. Security let him through.

      He then snuck into an upstairs bedroom, found a phone, and started filing reports to his radio station explaining how he had managed to enter the premises.

      After a while, he decided to drop his cover and hung around outside the washroom. He knew that this was where politicians would inevitably show up.

      Naturally, Garrett had his microphone ready when he spotted the then premier, Bill Bennett, and asked a question about the meeting taking place.

      Bennett wondered how Garrett had managed to enter the building.

      "Surreptitiously, sir," Garrett replied.

      At that point, he was escorted out.

      Lighter moments like this are offset by gripping stories of tragedy, perhaps most notably in Garrett's recollections of the ghastly serial killer, Clifford Olson, who terrorized British Columbia in the early 1980s.

      Garrett learned that Olson had demanded $10,000 for the location of every child and youth he had murdered. But Garrett held off reporting this fact until after Olson had pleaded guilty to the crimes.

      After Olson was locked up, one of the managers at his station encouraged Garrett to try to obtain an interview.

      "I politely refused," Garrett writes. "I felt our listeners had heard enough about Clifford Olson."

      Other heartbreaking murder stories are given vivid treatment in the book, including one committed by a former colleague of Garrett's at CKNW Radio.

      For British Columbians who remember these dastardly crimes, it's like living through them all over again.

      Garrett was almost always on extremely friendly terms with the police. That led to countless stories because he was so trusted by many cops on the beat. And late in his career he paid back the favour by reporting on how an unpopular chief of the Vancouver Police Department, Bruce Chambers, had been pulled over and given a roadside suspension in Coquitlam.

      That, along with Garrett's stories about poor morale at the VPD, led to the chief's departure, much to the delight of some old-guard members of the force.

      Garrett, like another journalism giant of that era, Jack Webster, was born poor, moved to B.C. with meagre means, and unwittingly became a member of the establishment in his adopted province.

      In Garrett's case, he was a dustbowl kid who grew up in the Dirty Thirties in Saskatchewan.

      After arriving on the West Coast, Garrett thrived in radio news through persistence, charm, guile, and kindness.

      U.S. politics chronicler Theodore White once said great reporters share four qualities: superb memory, keen intellect, relentless curiosity, and an ability to synthesize disparate information. 

      He might as well have been describing Garrett, who also brought a fair amount of humour to the CKNW newsroom.

      The short documentary below by George Orr captured his final day on the job, when Garrett revealed that a high-profile B.C. politician, Gordon Wilson, was about to cross the floor to become an NDP cabinet minister.

      Watch George Orr's short documentary, "The Golden Age of Radio", showing how George Garrett broke a major story on his final day on the job.
      George Orr

      In his private life, Garrett coped with the devastating loss of his only son in a canoeing accident, the emotional ride of a daughter's successful battle with cancer, and his patient wife's struggle with Alzheimer's disease.

      These are also revealed in his memoir with heartache and wisdom.

      Garrett was no revolutionary. Unlike some in journalism, he didn't set out to change the world or challenge the public mindset around the distribution of power in society, environmental degradation, or the rise of U.S. militarism.

      But through his own curiosity, he repeatedly quenched the public's thirst for knowledge about what was really going on in the courts and political backrooms, and with many of the biggest criminal investigations in B.C. history. And he did this in a decent and fair-minded way, which won him many friends.

      I like to think of Garrett as a friendly teacher—a man who taught his younger colleagues how to behave on the beat and someone who educated the public about the legal and political systems in place at the time.

      Garrett is also a damn good writer. Decades in radio clearly taught him how to get to the point quickly while creating, as he likes to say, "theatre of the mind".

      It's as important in books as it is in radio—something Garrett clearly understands. 

      In fact, Garrett's many fans may wonder why he waited until he was in his 80s to get around to writing his first book.

      The answer comes in the introduction.

      "I had been retired for more than a decade when it crossed my mind that my four grandchildren, then in their teens, might one day like to read about what their 'Papa' had done in his life," Garrett writes. 

      The grandchildren can be proud of their Papa, who spends much of his time nowadays raising money for the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society.

      And in case anyone's wondering, he employs the same persistence in this work that he demonstrated over more than 40 years on the beat as a radio reporter.