Beloved Vancouver writer Sean Rossiter dies at 68

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      Sean Rossiter was a special person. He was an immensely talented magazine writer and the author of 17 books. Yet his professional accomplishment alone is not what made him matter. Rossiter, as his friends often called him, was a gentleman. His open-hearted curiosity set him apart. The kindness and ability he had rarely come in the same package. In his case, they were inextricably connected.

      So when he died on Monday, January 5, at the age of 68, after a decade-long battle with Parkinson’s disease, tears were shed.

      Rossiter was one of the very best feature writers I worked with in my 11 years editing the Georgia Straight, and he was a great citizen for Vancouver.He made us all better.

      His idiosyncratic passions—old buildings and their stories, new architecture and its visionaries, planes of all types and their pilots, cars that look great but don’t always run—made him a fascinating person. But when you were with him, his humility and curiosity always made you feel like you were the special one. Sean Rossiter created trust.

      “I would have bought from him a used MG with a notorious Lucas electrical system without a second thought,” wrote longtime friend and colleague Alex Waterhouse-Hayward on Tuesday, in a tribute on his blog.

      Others, such as writers John Lekich and Jennifer Van Evra, wrote on Facebook about his generosity and mentorship. “During the rise of significant magazine journalism in B.C. in the ’70s and early ’80s,” added Rossiter contemporary Daniel Wood, “he and a few others led the way. They organized writers to work cooperatively under PWAC [the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, since renamed the Professional Writers Association of Canada], and created the Western Magazine Awards, and the Federation of B.C. Writers.”

      Veteran journalist Paul Grescoe credits him with saving Vancouver magazine in 1974, when it was on the brink. “He phoned me and my wife, Audrey, to ask if we knew anyone who might be interested and crazy enough to invest in the publication,” Grescoe wrote in 2012, when Rossiter received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western Magazine Awards Foundation. “Sean came to our home with a few other people to discuss the possibility—and it was his passionate sales pitch of what Vancouver magazine could be that helped convince Ron Stern, Audrey and me and a couple of artist friends, Iain and Ingrid Baxter of the N.E. Thing Co., to take a financial gamble on it.”

      Former Vancouver magazine publisher Ron Stern, now co-owner of the Winnipeg Free Press, was another Rossiter supporter for the award. He wrote that Sean not only shaped that incarnation of Vancouver magazine, he “continued to forcefully challenge us when he felt we were not meeting our objectives.”

      Rossiter’s column in “Vanmag”, called Twelfth and Cambie, appeared 110 times, from September 1975 until August 1991. The first was titled “Spartacus and the Fairview Slopes”. The last was about a Russian test pilot. It was a great column.

      Former Vancouver mayor and B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, who collaborated with Rossiter on the book City Making in Paradise, called it the go-to read on city politics. “Incisive, witty, and well informed, Sean peeled back the layers on political infighting, machinations in the bureaucracy, and the key issues, from transit to the Downtown Eastside and Expo.”

      Former chief city planner Ray Spaxman added that Sean described “what was going on in City Hall without destructive oversimplification” and explored very complex issues accurately, clearly, and in a way that was informative, rewarding, and positive.

      At the Georgia Straight, in the late 1980s and 1990s, he wrote regular cover features with similar elegance and aplomb. His history of the emblematic Beaver float plane led to two books for Douglas & McIntyre on its maker de Havilland’s defining influence on Canadian aviation. He credited his work at the Straight with one of his City of Vancouver Heritage Awards (two for writing and one shared with the Urbanarium Society for public events).

      There was also a raft of magazine awards. What did he do with them all, Lekich once asked. “He smiled at me and said: ‘I give them to my mother.’"

      His books—on Canadian test pilots and aviation history, on the Hotel Georgia and urban planning, on Mario Lemieux, and Dominik Hasek, and a series on how to play hockey like a pro—were exemplary, thanks to his quiet insight and wit.

      Even as Parkinson’s took from Sean the things he loved to do—tell stories, play goal, build model airplanes—his boyish enthusiasm and humour often remained in evidence. When he was given that lifetime achievement prize, he was unable to come to the podium to speak. Yet before he received it, I asked him what brought an ex-army brat to Vancouver from Ottawa. He said he came here because he couldn’t find anyone in Ottawa to fix his Austin Healey.

      That was in 1972, and he drove the car down Route 66 to California, then up the coast to Vancouver. In Ontario, he’d worked as a commercial illustrator (by many accounts a very good one) and as a cartoonist and then a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen. In his adopted home, he began with a spell as the Vancouver Sun’s religion editor. He told a friend he chose writing over illustration because it was harder.

      One of his most affecting stories was among his last, in 2008. It was called “Bench Strength”, andit described Sean’s experience as a beer-league hockey goalie who must tell his team that he has Parkinson’s disease.  “You resort to metaphors to condense the essentials, saying that you're heading down a highway that will become a rocky road and then a footpath that peters off into the chaos of unpredictable movement, possibly a complete lack of nervous control,” he wrote.

      “At the time, the only symptom I had was in my right leg. The joints would go rigid at exactly the same corner every day on my jog through Lower Shaughnessy. My play in the net had declined, too, although there are better-qualified observers who say it was always pretty bad.”

      In the article, which canvassed arcane brain science and what he called locker-room “badinage”, Sean wrote quite a bit about the importance of friendship. He had it, and it meant the world to him. Our journalism community, and our city, has been lucky to have Sean Rossiter as our friend. It’s meant quite a bit to us.

      Sean Rossiter leaves behind his wife, Terri Wershler, two brothers and a sister, and their families. A memorial service is being planned.



      Kate Hildebrandt

      Jan 8, 2015 at 3:37pm

      Farewell, Sean. You will be missed.

      Martin Dunphy

      Jan 8, 2015 at 4:15pm

      Dave Watson, Mark Harris, Ian Caddell, and now Sean Rossiter: and all of them too young.
      I first encountered Sean the year his <em>Vanmag</em> column ended (not counting guest lectures at Langara College while a journalism student). At the time, he was one of three local writers (who I dubbed "the Unholy Trinity", in a <em>good</em> way) who seemed to rule the freelance roost in Vancouver. His features for the <em>Straight</em> that I edited reflected his areas of interest and expertise: urban planning, architecture, airplanes...
      He was always easy to work with, even when having to show patience with a relative rookie fact-checker/editor who knew squat about DHC-2 Beaver bush planes and their history. We both played goalie in beer leagues (me recently "retired", and him making me feel like a wuss by still going strong), so we had something in common outside of producing and polishing prose. He was always willing to entertain ideas about bettering his writing, although I didn't come up with too many of those, and he was invariably cheerful for those sessions.
      I hadn't heard much from him since about the time of his diagnosis, and this news came as something of a shock. So sad.


      Jan 8, 2015 at 5:09pm

      Sad to hear of Sean's death. I used to play hockey on occasion with him at Kits arena and he was indeed good-natured. I remember over-hearing city Councillor Harry Rankin saying somewhat excitedly to a colleague 'did you see the article by Sean Rossiter'-can't remember what the article was about, but it reminded me that Rossiter had significant clout covering civic politics.

      Bruno Madsen

      Jan 8, 2015 at 5:31pm

      Great guy... remember him well from my time at Western Living and Vancouver Magazines in the 80s. Sad news... RIP Sean.


      Jan 8, 2015 at 7:32pm

      No no no. Rest in peace, Mr. Rossiter. So sorry to hear this news. To the folks at the Straight who have lost so many friends and colleagues, and prematurely, in such a frighteningly short space of time (including sales dynamo Sydney Clease), my thoughts are with you.

      Charles Campbell

      Jan 9, 2015 at 12:37pm

      There will be a private memorial for Sean next Thursday, January 15. Anyone interested in attending can reach me at

      D. B. Scott

      Jan 9, 2015 at 8:48pm

      It has been many, many years since I saw or spoke with Sean. In fact I knew him before he chose to use that name. At Western in the late 60s, he was known to his friends as Tom or Tommy (based on his middle name) or Rossiter. I was the editor of The Gazette. Tommy was the editorial cartoonist. He drove me crazy with his perfectionism (one more bit of crosshatching done at the printers in the middle of the night; his cartoon was usually the absolute last thing to go to film) but I knew I was dealing with a real and rare talent, one which earned that kind of latitude. I'm not sure about getting his Healey repaired being his reason to move to the west coast, but it seems very like Rossiter. Through the years I read many of his columns and articles about Vancouver politics and planning and heritage. From all that has been written about him by his Vancouver friends, I am only sorry that we didn't keep up. But I have a couple of originals and a caricature of me (he nailed it, natch) to remember him by.

      John Jukes

      Jan 11, 2015 at 12:04am

      News of Sean’s passing has opened a window long closed and a chord that has been long silent. It took me back to the halcyon days at Western when DB and DR, Jim and Joan, John and Rod and I took a tired weekly and built something we were all proud of. Tom, as I knew and remember him, was an essential part of that journey. I might be able to take credit for his first job as an illustrator on a paper, though he preferred cartoonist and sometimes satirist. He came into my office as a freshman – and was fresh. His initial attempts were sometimes naive but always found their mark. As his editor, I more often fought off enraged readers who had felt the lance at the point of his pen than readers who objected to mere words. Tom did not know what a deadline meant but he had an eye for the story – though in those days had no desire to write. Never cynical, piercing but never malicious, his editorial cartoons and illustrations were often the first pages turned to by our readers. Others remember him as a gentleman. I recall him as a gentle man who taught many the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. We are poorer for his passing.

      Patrick Donohue

      Jan 12, 2015 at 6:39am

      Another voice from the distant past -- I too knew "Tom" Rossiter on the UWO Gazette staff. I wasn't able to keep up with his journalism career but flashes of his brilliance occasionally reached me. It's mainly as a cartoonist that I remember him. His contributions to the Gazette had much to do with making the paper the distinctive publication that it was.

      In particular, I remember one cartoon of his that was one of the best cartoons that I've ever seen. The university was looking for a new Big Wig (president I think) and Tom offered this suggestion visually: The recently retired cabinet minister Judy La Marsh floating down the Thames River and into the campus, naked, as Botticelli's "Venus."

      I'm very proud to own the original of an excellent cartoon that Tom did of me. (I wrote a column for the paper.)

      It is very sad to think that one of us has gone so soon and that he faced so much difficulty towards the end. But it is inspiring to know that he handled it with humour and courage.

      Kim Lockhart

      Jan 12, 2015 at 2:52pm

      More condolences from the East. I was a cub reporter on the UWO student paper when Tom Rossiter reigned as its hugely talented cartoonist and illustrator. By then he was a near-deity on the masthead and could be a pain in the ass to deal with, as acerbic as many of his cartoons. I’d get sent sometimes to pick up the weekly cartoon he produced at the frat house where he lived. He wore Coke-bottle glasses and baggy sweaters and would hover only inches from the drawing board to put ink on paper. Dwindling eyesight, it seemed to me, was the only thing likely to stop him from a Jules Feiffer-like brilliant career.
      A decade or more later, I was a magazine editor staying at a Vancouver hotel when I noticed a familiar figure interviewing and simultaneously romancing a pretty woman in the lobby bar. Sean Rossiter -- no longer Tom. No longer a cartoonist: a writer. No sign of eyeglasses. Blonder, it seemed to me. And a nicer guy, more at peace with himself – while as intent and uncompromising as ever about his craft. And so he became my go-to freelancer for tricky West Coast assignments. Now and then I’d see him when a tailwind took him to Toronto. But the occasions for contact got rarer and we fell out of touch. And there it is. A guy with deep water and strong principles, nuts about airplanes and hockey, a hard-core journalist. Gone. Missed.