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'Mr. Vancouver' seeks help to finish his magnum opus

Chuck Davis has been told it is time to write his final chapter.

The 74-year-old author met last week with an oncologist who delivered a grim verdict. His cancer was incurable. Radiation and chemotherapy were out. Nature was to take its unforgiving course.

In the dizzying aftermath, Mr. Davis realized he had not fully absorbed the prognosis. His wife and daughter, who had accompanied him, filled him in on the unhappy details. These he shared just two days later with an audience at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre.

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The long-time radio announcer asked to be the final speaker on the program. He stepped on stage in his usual wardrobe of a rumpled shirt and well-worn sweater.

Speaking in familiar dulcet tones, apologizing that his illness has made him less stentorian than in his days as a CBC staff announcer, he related his recent meeting with the doctor.

"I naturally asked, 'How long do I have?' While she couldn't be specific, the words 'weeks' and 'months' were in there somewhere."

He paused.

"I don't recall hearing the word 'years,' " he added.

He was sharing the "embarrassing and intimate details" of his health for one desperate reason – he needs help in finishing a massive history of the city he has chronicled all his adult life. He announced that he was seeking $30,000 to pay a writer to complete the project.

A man of boyish curiosity, Mr. Davis has been a radio host and a quizmaster, an author and a newspaper columnist.

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He has 17 books to his credit, including histories of Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver and radio station CKNW. He is best known as editor of The Vancouver Book, an urban almanac published in 1976, and The Greater Vancouver Book, an omnibus that won two major prizes but was an expensive self-publishing fiasco. ("Memo to self," Mr. Davis once wrote, "never publish, only write.")

Along the way, he earned a deserved reputation as Mr. Vancouver.

It has long been his ultimate ambition to complete a massive, popular history of the city. Some years ago, Mr. Davis told one of his many admirers about the project, promising the book would be "fun, fat and filled with facts."

"Just like you," the man replied.

That Mr. Davis repeats the story shows his good humour.

He has an insatiable appetite for facts and a storyteller's gift for finding the ironic, the interesting and, especially, the humorous in even the most ordinary details.

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Typical of his style is a tidbit about the city getting the first mechanized ambulance in the land in 1909. The crew proudly took the ambulance on a tour in which they accidentally struck and killed a pedestrian.

He has posted thousands of such facts, from the mundane to the macabre, at www.vancouverhistory.ca.

When not haunting the library or the archives, Mr. Davis works from a cluttered office at his Surrey home, a four-fingered typist immersed in what has been described as "the world's largest gerbil nest." Flat surfaces are covered by stacks of paper. Hundreds of files fill four cabinets.

In the coming months, he needs to complete a commissioned history for the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia ("formerly the B.C./Yukon Chamber of Mines," he added helpfully). With a centennial in 2012, the book has a fixed deadline. So, too, does its author.

As for the Vancouver history that was to be his magnum opus, Mr. Davis seeks a writer to complete the long-overdue manuscript for delivery to Harbour Publishing of Madeira Park, B.C.

At the conclusion of his address to the salon, Mr. Davis's voice cracked and he choked up. As he left, the crowd rose in salute, a tribute that went unseen by him.

It is also his cruel fate that he likely will not see the publication of a book that will tell the people of Vancouver more about themselves than they ever knew.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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