'A steady rock': former longtime CP journalist Sufrin remembered as calm, caring

·8 min read

The billowing cigar smoke made it easy to spot Mel Sufrin in the newsroom.

It curled around him as he coached young journalists, championed a labour union for reporters, or regaled staffers with tales drawn from his front-row seat to history. His anecdotes were set everywhere from the press box of a small Toronto baseball field to the floor of the United Nations.

Over the course of a 69-year journalism career, including nearly 45 with The Canadian Press, Sufrin established himself as an avid storyteller and stickler for grammar, but above all is remembered by family and former colleagues as a sweet and thoughtful "gentleman."

Sufrin died Sept. 19 in a Toronto retirement home at age 96, daughter Jodi Sufrin said in a phone interview from her Boston home.

Sufrin worked his way up the ranks of the national newswire from teenage messenger to vice-president of editorial. Jodi said her father always took great pride in his work, whether he was reporting, editing or managing a team of writers.

She remembers how her father and late mother Malcah used to listen to the radio together in the living room and correct ill-structured sentences they heard through the airwaves.

"My dad loved the English language and protected grammar rules," Jodi Sufrin said with a laugh.

"There was one (time) he was asked about the phrase 'I feel badly.' And his response was to say: 'I will concede that one can feel badly if one can feel madly or sadly.' So he had great fun with that.

"But my dad was such a good sport and even in these past few years when he'd been declining, his sweetness still remained."

Sufrin began his journalism career in 1941 at age 16, hired as a copy boy at $11 a week by The Canadian Press after his father made him quit high school to join the workforce, he said in unpublished memoir notes shared by his daughter.

Sufrin retired from The Canadian Press in 1986, but went on to serve as the executive secretary of the Ontario Press Council for 23 years until 2010. The organization, which was amalgamated into the National NewsMedia Council in 2015, reviews and investigates public complaints about newspapers.

Sufrin's time with CP took him across the country with stints in Halifax, where he covered the VE-Day riots in 1945, as well as Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and across the border in New York City, where he revelled in writing NHL stories at a time The Associated Press was without a hockey reporter.

In autobiographical notes included in his CP file, Sufrin joked that his "career (was) distinguished by the opportunity to do a lot of things once."

That included one session of the United Nations, one NHL season, one Winter Olympics (Innsbruck, Austria, 1976), one Summer Olympics (Montreal, 1976), one Pan American Games (Mexico City, 1975), one Commonwealth Games (Edmonton, 1978) and one world hockey championship (Prague, 1978).

He was also lead writer on one federal election and recalled in his memoirs playing bridge with Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party leader M.J. Coldwell on a train ride through Saskatchewan in 1949, when he purposely dealt Coldwell a hand of four aces, four kings, four queens and a jack.

"He was so excited that (Coldwell) began showing the hand to other passengers," Sufrin said.

Sufrin also enjoyed his time covering the United Nations, deeming it "an easy job" during Lester Pearson's term as president of the General Assembly from 1952-53.

"Each morning (Pearson) would invite Canadian reporters into his office and fill us in on everything happening behind the scenes at the UN," he wrote in his notes.

As a parliamentary reporter in 1950, Sufrin encouraged many of his Ottawa bureau colleagues to join the Newspaper Guild, now known as the NewsGuild. Sufrin said in his memoirs that head office had warned guild members they couldn't cover politics out of "concern about bias," and he was removed from the House of Commons beat, reassigned "for the next few months" to Transport Department hearings about a Bell Telephone rate increase.

He told Gene Allen in a 2009 interview for Allen's book "Making National News: A History of Canadian Press" that he refused to quit the union even while co-workers withdrew their memberships in order to return to political reporting.

Sufrin held a variety of jobs at CP, including news features editor, chief of picture services, sports editor, general news editor and vice-president.

Colleagues knew him as a calm and thoughtful presence within a stressful, deadline-driven environment, albeit one usually enveloped in a cloud of cigar smoke.

"I remember the cigar," said Jim Poling, a former CP managing editor who worked under Sufrin for years. "The cigar was just part of Mel. You'd see him smoking that cigar and (staying) calm and thinking things through."

Sufrin was managing editor when Poling joined CP in 1969. While Poling didn't deal with Sufrin directly early in his career, he described Sufrin as "a steady rock."

"Even in the midst of a big story, with people running around, all kinds of things happening, Mel was calm all the time," he said. "If you wanted some advice, Mel was the guy you turned to."

Sufrin was an editor in 1957 when a 22-year-old Keith Kincaid started reporting for The Canadian Press.

Kincaid, who later became president of CP, said Sufrin was a natural leader.

"He was dealing with a lot of rookies," he said. "He knew how to handle them and how to get the most out of them, and how (to) turn them into something better.

"My career certainly benefited from that early on."

One of Sufrin's first writing assignments while he was still a messenger at CP was covering the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International Baseball League. The job involved sending box scores to The Associated Press along with 100-word stories, all for 50 cents per game.

He praised then-editor Russ Wheatley for cleaning up his messy copy, noting that while he could type well, he "didn't know how to write." Still, the gig excited him.

"I covered 70 games in 1941 and earned $35 which made me the richest kid in the neighborhood," Sufrin wrote in the notes shared by his daughter. "There was something special sitting in the press box at Maple Leaf Stadium with real sports writers and dining on free hot dogs and Cokes."

Jodi Sufrin said her father loved his time in sports, during which he covered five Grey Cup title games and at least one Brier curling championship.

Sufrin also took up curling and golf in his free time, and continued his sports fandom into retirement.

"He loved to sit in his armchair and watch sports," Jodi said. "He was passionate about every sport."

Sufrin's journalism career was interrupted by an 18-month leave during the Second World War, when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in hopes of becoming a pilot at age 17, he said in the memoir notes.

He spent the year and a half training in several cities across Ontario and Quebec while writing and publishing a weekly magazine for the RCAF called FLAK. He and another trainee "escaped" kitchen duty at one of his stations by volunteering to write and edit a newspaper.

Sufrin joked that he realized he wouldn't make a good pilot during a practice session when "after one spin, the instructor asked me where the airfield was and I didn't have a clue."

Sufrin said he caught hepatitis during a trip to Acapulco in 1986, and blamed its lingering effects for causing a "less-than-stellar performance" on the job, eventually leading him to retire from The Canadian Press later that year.

He became executive secretary of the Ontario Press Council shortly after, when the organization moved from Ottawa to Toronto. He retired in 2010 at age 85.

Sufrin's wife died in 2013 of cancer while his two sons, Kerry and Mark, both died of the disease in their 40s. Jodi, the sole surviving child of Mel and Malcah Sufrin, said the losses of her brothers "turned the family upside down."

Sufrin also had eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. While Jodi chuckled describing her father as "not a get-down-on-the-floor-and-play" type of grandfather, she said he was "engaged with all his grandchildren" and took pleasure in visiting with them.

Jodi hadn't seen Sufrin in person since before the COVID-19 pandemic due to border closures that spanned most of the last 19 months, but she was grateful to maintain a connection through video chats.

She remembers her father as a "loving, highly principled, non-judgmental, fine human being."

"A gentleman," she said.

As for her favourite memory of Sufrin?

"There are so many. I could keep going for hours."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

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