Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Peter Kavanagh: Author and radio producer had a ‘furious intellect’

Peter Kavanagh was a veteran producer on high-profile CBC programs and wrote of a life marked by health challenges.

Debi Goodwin

Fiercely intelligent and occasionally cantankerous, Peter Kavanagh – the storied CBC producer, author and devoted family man – suffered from pain all his life but was loath to let others see it. Along with the bushy, bearded mien of a skeptical Santa Claus, he had a marked limp left by an early bout with paralytic poliomyelitis, a congenital dislocated left hip that went undiagnosed until he was an adolescent, and a series of surgeries.

In his 2015 memoir, The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times, Mr. Kavanagh described learning how to walk as a toddler in a leg brace, as a 12-year-old with a silver plate that affixed his left femur to his pelvis and then, unexpectedly, for a third time, when he was turning 60.

He had gone in for surgery because that silver plate doctors had implanted years earlier was painfully cutting into his pelvis; it was to be removed and replaced by a new hip, socket and ball made of more modern titanium. During the procedure, the surgeon also happened to screw some artificial bone into his left leg with the result that it was the same length as the right one.

Story continues below advertisement

All of sudden, Mr. Kavanagh had to do something most people take for granted: learn to walk all over again. But this time, there was no awkward, clanking leg brace; no crutch or walker. Instead, there was only the unsettling sense of perfect balance, of putting one foot in front of the other and hitting the ground sooner than he was accustomed to.

Speaking about his memoir with CBC host Shelagh Rogers, he described learning to walk at 60 as akin to learning when he was a toddler. "You actually have a sense of perspective," he said. "You actually understand that some things in life are more important than other things. When you're 60 you understand, 'You know what? Spending a few hours a day, spending a lot of time a day … trying to learn how to walk is pretty much your job … so in a strange way, you actually, as a 60-year-old, develop the type of stubbornness that a toddler has."

Mr. Kavanagh, who died on Sept. 7 at the age of 63 after suffering a massive heart attack, lived that lesson as if it was his mantra: Work hard, get up when you fall down and try again until you get it right.

Peter Gerard Kavanagh was born on June 12, 1953, in Deep River, Ont., the third of Cyril and Thelma Kavanagh's five children. It was the summer of polio scares in North America and young Peter contracted the disease when he was two months old, spending much of his first year at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. Deeply religious Catholics, his father was a project manager who moved the family anywhere he could find work, and his mother, a housewife. They visited the hospital when they could.

Young Peter underwent one procedure after another, curatives and operations meant to make the little boy's leg work better. Sometimes, the recovery period was short. One time, in Fredericton, where the family was then living, he lay in a body cast for nine months, listening from his bedroom upstairs to life passing by and scratching itches with a bent-wire coat hanger.

"Out in the rest of the house people had meals, people went to school and they went to church," he told the Toronto Star. "I've never felt as lonely in my life as during that year."

He envied the kids who raced down the street in sneakers without a care, but with a furious will and philosophical bent, he excelled in school. Although he graduated with a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, he knew that the law wasn't for him. Instead, he turned his questioning mind to journalism; he began his first job at the CBC just over 28 years ago on the morning radio show in Sydney, N.S. Soon after, he moved to Halifax and then Toronto, where he worked on a number of national programs, from Morningside with Peter Gzowski to The Journal and, finally, The Sunday Edition with host Michael Enright.

Story continues below advertisement

He counted among his accomplishments initiatives such as Canada Reads, the popular annual "battle of the books" that airs on CBC Radio (he came up with the idea after hearing of a similar program on U.S. public radio). The format was simple and elegant: Five Canadian luminaries each select a book they think people should read and make the case for it on-air; listeners then vote to choose the winner. After co-producing the first season, Mr. Kavanagh left to work on other projects and new ideas.

"That was Peter. He wanted to be engaged in creating new things all the time," said his wife, Debi Goodwin, who met her husband more than 27 years ago when both were working as producers for The Journal. "He loved to donate to Kickstarter projects, the weirder the better. Our mailbox was often filled with strange CDs and inventions."

Life with him was like that, Ms. Goodwin continued, in both big things and small. He took parenting courses to be the best father he could to Ms. Goodwin's daughter, Jane, who was three years old when he entered her life. Last year, to celebrate Ms. Goodwin's 65th birthday, he found the "biggest sand dune in North America," in Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park, and travelled there with her even though he had problems walking, never mind hiking in sand and scrub.

And then, there was George the rat. It was young Jane's pet, yet he came to love it. One day, when it was accidentally left in a hot car for a bit too long, Mr. Kavanagh shooed the family away as he carefully fed it drops of sweet grape juice. "George recovered," Ms. Goodwin said. "It was that kind of compassion that set Peter apart."

Another of Mr. Kavanagh's accomplishments was Suffer the Children unto Me; An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal, a book he wrote with the author and academic Michael Higgins. The two became close friends.

"Peter always had a strong opinion and a furious intellect but was amenable to changing his mind as long as you could persuade him," said Dr. Higgins, now vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. "You couldn't just say it, though. You had to prove it."

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Higgins admired his friend's strong ethical bent, for he was never easily comforted by platitudes. Perhaps because Mr. Kavanagh grew up in the Maritimes, where life could be a struggle, he identified with the underdog, with people fighting for justice in the face of unfavourable odds. "And he always tried to probe a bit further," Dr. Higgins said.

Susan Mahoney, executive producer of The Sunday Edition, recalled chatting with Mr. Kavanagh in her office just before he retired in 2013. He told her that he began each day with a different Buddhist principle and on that particular day, it was this: "When you throw a stone into a pond, you see bubbles appear and burst. Human life is that short length of time that bubbles exist."

One wonders if he was thinking this at his wedding on Aug. 6, when he and Ms. Goodwin married in the expansive garden of their home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, before close friends and family.

"To describe myself as a lucky man is to truly beggar the language," he said as part of his vows. "Nothing I have done in the past quarter-century – becoming a dad, truly learning the meaning of love, travelling the world, learning to walk a third time, confronting cancer, becoming me – none of this would have been possible without the support, companionship and encouragement of this remarkably generous woman who stands next to me," he continued.

At the time, he was optimistic and full of plans, for it appeared that he had beaten an esophageal cancer into remission. He could resume his life as it had been, he thought. He could plant trees, write and travel.

Sixteen days later, Mr. Kavanagh learned the cancer had come back with a vengeance. He died one day after he and Ms. Goodwin had celebrated one month of marriage while sitting on their porch sipping grappa and espresso.

"Our garden is full of weeping pines, red maples, magnolias, dogwoods and fruit trees," Ms. Goodwin said. "In August, he spoke of how he wanted another Japanese maple and he showed me the spot he would plant it. That's exactly what we're going to do."

Along with his wife and daughter, Mr. Kavanagh leaves his siblings, Mary McCurdy, Kathy Martin, John Kavanagh and Paul Kavanagh.

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Globe Newsletters

Get a summary of news of the day

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.