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Pierre Berton

Family, friends pay tribute to beloved Berton
Historian-author remembered for defining Canada's cultural identity

Pierre Berton

With piercing eyes glancing outward and a trademark bow tie undone around his loosened collar, Pierre Berton's image towered formidably in a giant black-and-white portrait over hundreds of friends, colleagues, family and fans who gathered last night for a public celebration of his life.

Dozens of family members wore bow ties in tribute to the fiercely prolific writer, journalist, popular historian, television personality and Canadian icon who died last week at 84.

Friends delivered brief, humorous testimonials during the two-hour ceremony in the Barbara Frum atrium of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. building in downtown Toronto.

Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson hailed him as "a comrade, ally, friend and colleague" and praised his contribution to the nation's culture and identity. "He gave us our story," she said. "He has helped to create our image of ourselves."

Others recalled a more mischievous streak.

Rick Mercer recalled Mr. Berton rolling a marijuana joint on his show, Monday Report, in what would be one of the author's last appearances on the network after more than 40 years of contribution.

The comedian said Mr. Berton agreed to the idea, adding only: "Bring the pot."

Then, as the television crew packed up to leave, Mr. Mercer thanked the family for their hospitality. "Leave the pot," Mr. Berton said in parting.

Authors Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson paid tribute to his support of the Writer's Development Trust. Penny Dickens, former executive director of the Writer's Union of Canada, spoke of Mr. Berton's unwavering support of younger Canadian writers. "He was a great ocean liner with an enormous wake for smaller crafts to safely ply their trade in," she said.

Several speakers discussed his love of the outdoors, especially the North, where he was born and raised. "The fact that he was from the North meant that he was forever a part of it," Ms. Clarkson said.

Mr. Berton's sister, Lucy Berton-Woodward, recalled the games the two used to play growing up in Dawson City, including one he invented and was inclined to win called Be a Boy.

She also described him as a Peter Pan figure. "He never grew up, and he never lost his sense of curiosity, nor his sense of adventure."

Former Toronto Star publisher John Honderich spoke of Mr. Berton's four years at the paper, during which he penned more than 1,000 columns, at the staggering rate of five a week, about "anything that came into my head."

"He was absolutely fearless," said columnist Allan Fotheringham.

Author and journalist June Callwood told the crowd of a Maclean's magazine get-together in the fifties, in which Mr. Berton recited all 11 verses of Robert Service's poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew, before clutching his heart and collapsing to the floor in full dramatic fashion.

John Neale, chairman of Mr. Berton's publisher, Random House of Canada, marvelled at his tireless efforts in promoting the 50 books he wrote in his lifetime.

Mr. Neale also joked about Mr. Berton's request to have his typewriter brought to his room at Sunnybrook hospital in the final weeks before his death.

"He wanted to write poetry, a publisher's worst nightmare," he said with a laugh. "Pierre maybe left us at the right time."


Hundreds gather for celebration to remember prolific author Pierre Berton

TORONTO (CP) - The Governor General told some backstage tales. Publisher John Neale hawked some of Pierre Berton's books. And curmudgeonly columnist Allan Fotheringham wept.

It was the kind of night Berton would have loved, from the sentimental to the irreverent. Some 500 people - friends, family and just plain admirers - came in out of a mild autumn rain and crowded into the atrium of the CBC broadcasting centre Tuesday evening for a public celebration of the life of the broadcaster, journalist, author of more than 50 books and, all agreed, a one-of-a-kind nationalist who will be greatly missed.

Berton died of heart failure Nov. 30 in hospital at the age of 84, triggering a national outpouring in recent days that culminated in the event, A Celebration of Pierre Berton, with a who's who in Canada's cultural and literary establishment present. Speakers at the gathering included Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, Margaret Atwood, June Callwood, Lister Sinclair, Betty Kennedy, Rick Mercer, John Honderich as well as members of the immediate Berton family.

"You'll never die, Pierre," Callwood said in a voice that shook slightly with emotion. "You're gone, but you'll never die."

Fotheringham told a story of the night a teenage Berton got drunk, stole a car and got arrested in Dawson City, convinced his life was over, and how in later years one historian accused the writer of making Canadian history interesting just as a ploy to sell books. But as the laughter ebbed, Fotheringham began to choke up on his closing words.

"One of a kind, and there'll never be another Pierre Berton."

Back on the lighter side, Neale, chairman of Random House Canada, held up a copy of Berton's last book, Prisoners of the North.

"With the collective will of all of us in this room, I know this book will be back on the top of the (best-seller) list very soon," he said to laughter. "I'm a salesman. Crass commercialism, yes. Pierre would have wanted me to do this."

A giant black and white photo of the smiling man of honour, with arms crossed and trademark bow tie untied, served as a backdrop for the stage.

Clarkson shared personal stories of their friendship, talking about the time she was a guest panellist on Front Page Challenge, Berton's birthday party at Rideau Hall and get-togethers at his home in Kleinburg, Ont., where he barbecued "to a crisp all those sausages."

"He was really a remarkable person and I think of him always as a comrade, an ally, a friend and a colleague," Clarkson said.

"We were allied in all sorts of battles together, as many of you were, against capital punishment, against the libel laws, but the causes were always many and we were always, I'm happy to say, on the same side."

Berton's longtime manager Elsa Franklin took the stage wearing what she called a "silly" bow tie, and described him as a "dynamo."

"He wrote and he wrote and he wrote and he wrote," she said. "For Pierre, family and friends came first, after writing."

Author Margaret Atwood recalled a long-standing rumour in the literary community that Berton was the only writer in Canada who had his own "forger" - someone who supposedly sat in a back room in a Vancouver book store filled with Berton books and signed them.

Singer Dinah Christie played her guitar on stage, and sang what she said was the first folk song she ever learned - one Berton taught her.

But it wasn't all praise. His shortcomings as a singer, poet, artist and motorist were eagerly referenced, too.

Comic Rick Mercer got the final laughs, describing how he and a TV crew went to Berton's house in October to tape the now-famous sketch in which Berton taught a lesson in how to roll a marijuana joint.

He said Berton willingly agreed to the idea, adding only: "Bring the pot."

As they packed up to leave, Mercer thanked the family for their hospitality, and Berton's parting words were: "Leave the pot."

Mercer said Berton was not only a shit-disturber but "the Wayne Gretzky of shit-disturbers."

Berton's widow Janet, recovering from a broken hip, looked frail in a wheelchair but was smiling and serene as she spoke to VIP well-wishers paying their respects before the event began.

"This is overwhelming," she said. "It's so sweet and warm, and very difficult."

Berton's sons and grandsons all wore bow ties in honour of Berton's famous neck attire.

Some quotes from A Celebration of Pierre Berton, held Tuesday night:

"He just couldn't stop writing. It was compulsive, obviously. And he had, luckily for us, the talent to go with the compulsion." - Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson

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"Pierre was in fact a Peter Pan sort of person. He never grew up, he never lost his sense of wonder and curiosity and his love of adventures. It was what made him a great storyteller." - Berton's sister, Lucy Berton-Woodward

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"He had a great reverence for life. For his family, for begonias, for cats, for dogs, for rascals, losers and friends, often the same person." - June Callwood

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"Pierre was big. He was big in every way. He was big in physical stature and he had a heart to match the frame. We shall miss him dearly." - Betty Kennedy.

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"As you can see, the banana is very odd and the grapes are questionable. And I'm very glad he stayed with the writing! It's of course worth a fortune." - Vicki Gabereau, holding up a painting Berton the amateur artist once gave her father.