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Editor Neil Reynolds fought for free speech and liberty

Neil Reynolds, a near-legendary figure in Canadian journalism, died Sunday at his Ottawa home. He was 72. The cause of death was cancer.

Neil Reynolds was a near-legendary figure in Canadian journalism, many of his protégés holding positions of power and influence in daily newspapers across the country. He was a daring and innovative editor who fought for free speech and personal liberty and treated (and trusted) his readers for what they were: readers.

As top editor of five papers – the Kingston Whig-Standard, the Telegraph-Journal and the Times-Globe in Saint John, the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Sun – he exposed corruption, righted wrongs and threw open his pages to every conceivable point of view, however odd or unpopular. In all of his editorial jobs, he preached the gospel of narrative, believing that journalism ("a minor literary form") was in essence a variety of storytelling.

Mr. Reynolds, who wrote an economics column in The Globe and Mail from 2005 to 2012, died Sunday at his Ottawa home. He was 72. The cause of death was cancer.

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Globe editor-in-chief John Stackhouse, who worked for him at the Whig-Standard, remembered Mr. Reynolds as "a wise, passionate columnist – a natural – who brought an intellectual vigour to what he did." His columns, Mr. Stackhouse said, "were brilliant."

Neil Leslie Reynolds was born May 28, 1940, in Westport, Ont., outside Kingston, where he grew up. He was a tall, handsome man, left-handed, with thick dark hair and piercing eyes, and was both charismatic and shy.

Soft-spoken and polite, indeed almost courtly, he revealed little about his origins. He was descended from the Loyalists for whom the Ontario community of Reynoldsburg (later called Oak Flats) was named. His father, Clarke Reynolds, was a clergyman in the Free Methodist church, an evangelical movement that refused to join with mainstream Methodists and Presbyterians in forming the United Church of Canada.

"Like all sons of Methodist ministers," Mr. Reynolds enjoyed saying, "I was a communist at 16." In his maturity, he was a libertarian but far from the right-wing extremist of the current stereotype, about which he worried. Rather, he was a political philosopher and idealist. In 1982, he interrupted his journalistic career briefly to serve as the first full-time national leader of the Libertarian Party.

As such, he stood for a parliamentary seat in a by-election in the riding of Leeds-Grenville, campaigning against what he called Aztec economics. In his stump speech, he explained how, in the early stages of Aztec civilization, the people lived in simple democratic harmony, in a society that in economic and political terms did not transcend the village level. But then, he went on, this Mesoamerican utopia was ruined by the priestly class he called "the first professional economists," who commanded that pyramids be built.

The result, Mr. Reynolds said, was taxation. He concluded by drawing a parallel to modern Canada. Although he lost the election – of course – he nevertheless considered the outcome a moral victory.

An autodidactic intellectual (he was a serious book collector who from time to time would relax by yet again rereading Evelyn Waugh's complete oeuvre from first to last), Mr. Reynolds dropped out of high school and learned his trade on the Sarnia Observer and the London Free Press. In time, he worked his way to the Toronto Star, where he became assistant managing editor. But he left in 1977, disappointed by one of his superiors who, in Mr. Reynolds' view, was campaigning to lower the paper's brow.

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He returned to the Kingston area, took up subsistence farming (Aztec style) and faced the choice of becoming editor of either Harrowsmith, the back-to-the-land magazine, or of the Whig-Standard. He chose the latter and gave it a national reputation such as no other small daily had ever acquired.

For two generations the Whig had been owned by the father and later the brother of Robertson Davies (who began his literary career there as a 13-year-old proofreader). By the 1970s, Robertson's nephew Michael Davies had become the paper's proprietor and was determined to make it something out of the ordinary. In Mr. Reynolds, he found the right person to realize the dream, a leader who radiated a strange magnetism and was brimming with ideas.

Mr. Reynolds fought against the over-development of the city's waterfront and ran pioneering investigative series – long ones, sometimes lasting weeks – on important health and environmental issues, the tax system, prison abuse, drug trafficking and the trade in endangered animals. He cast light on a highly placed ex-Nazi collaborator who had lied about his past when immigrating to Canada. He exposed start-up companies that turned out to be fraudulent; the innocent investors in one of them included Michael Davies, who swallowed hard but didn't complain that the exposé had cost him money.

In one of his most remarkable projects, Mr. Reynolds sent a three-person team to infiltrate Afghanistan and return to Canada with a group of Soviet PoWs being held by mujahedeen rebels. The most controversial series was one that broke a conspiracy of silence around a history of sexual abuse at Kingston's Anglican cathedral (which, as it happened, was also the Whig-Standard's landlord). The city seemed to be in a constant uproar, divided into Whig admirers and Whig haters, just as it was fiercely polarized in most other ways.

The paper was nominated seven times for the coveted Michener Award for excellence in public-service journalism and regularly stirred envy in rival newsrooms. Editorial costs accounted for an usually high proportion of the company's revenues. The paper only once achieved a circulation of 40,000 copies, yet had its own bureau in Ottawa, published a much-admired weekly magazine supplement and was not averse to dispatching writers overseas.

Reporters and editors frequently laboured 12 hours a day and were pleased to do so, because journalists with smarts and ambition all seemed to want to work for Mr. Reynolds. The list included figures from the Toronto Star, Canada's biggest newspaper, and others with backgrounds in Fleet Street. A former parliamentary reporter for The Globe happily covered meetings of Kingston's city council. And when it came to young people, no one was a better talent scout than Mr. Reynolds. Today his former employees include, for example, the publisher of the Toronto Star and the Prime Minister's speechwriter.

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Through it all, Mr. Reynolds, for all his leadership skills, displayed a mercurial personality. One couldn't take one's eyes off him when his blood was up in pursuit of a story. Yet, like Sherlock Holmes, he would sometimes slip into languor during periods when the game was not yet afoot. He more than once handed over the editorship to someone else temporarily while he retreated to run the editorial page, a spot he found conducive to creative thinking.

His thoughtfulness led him to introduce, or to introduce to Canada at least, ideas that later became commonplace, such as a community editorial board made up of civilian worthies and a special section of the paper designed for use in public schools. But other innovations, such as elimination of the editorial "we" through use of editorials actually signed by the individuals who wrote them, failed to catch on elsewhere.

In one experiment, he abolished the traditional news beats – education, prisons, military and so on – and replaced them with thematic specialties with titles such as Triumph & Tragedy. As no one seemed to understand, for instance, exactly what constituted a Triumph & Tragedy story, the change did not take root.

When he was on one of his internal retreats, anything might happen. Once, when an aggrieved party sued the Whig for libel, as people liked doing, he told the paper's usual counsel to step aside. He himself then argued the case, demolishing the plaintiff's argument in a brilliant cross-examination. When he was on the attack, opponents sometimes found it difficult to remember that he was a vegetarian who loved dogs.

He was commonly said to possess a strange genius. When the Ottawa Citizen stopped running letters-to-the-editor by a former mathematics professor on the grounds that they were absolutely incomprehensible, Mr. Reynolds brought him to Kingston to write editorials – including one whose subject was "the speed of light." Whether the argument was for or against the speed of light, no one could say.

To keep his budget within reasonable bounds, Mr. Reynolds encouraged reporters and columnists to take book-writing leaves. He also came up with a system for using the weekly Whig Magazine to introduce a topic that would then be pursued in depth over several days in the paper the following week, or vice versa.

In 1990, Michael Davies, astutely gauging the depths of a worsening recession, reluctantly sold the Whig-Standard to the Southam newspaper chain (it is now part of the Sun Media group). Mr. Reynolds lingered unhappily under the new owners and resigned in 1992.

The Irving family of New Brunswick then hired him to be the editor, and later the editor-publisher, of the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, which he not simply reinvigorated but practically reinvented, drawing once again on his unusual skill at recruiting and inspiring staff.

His tenure there was rudely interrupted when antagonists in Kingston planted a false rumour in Saint John that Mr. Reynolds had inflated the value of his Ontario house, which the Irvings had purchased as part of his employment contract. When the truth came out, the executive who fired him was himself relieved of his position and Mr. Reynolds returned to his post.

He left Saint John in 1996 and was appointed editor of the Ottawa Citizen by its new owner, Conrad Black, who charged him with relaunching the paper, which he did in only four months, raking in awards, as usual.

In 2000 he was made editor-in-chief of the Vancouver Sun but resigned in 2003 after Lord Black sold his Canadian newspapers to Canwest, the Winnipeg-based media company controlled by the Asper family.

With his wife, Donna Jacobs, whom he married while they were both working at the Whig-Standard, he returned to Ottawa and purchased Diplomat and International Canada, a magazine for diplomats and other foreign policy professionals. He commuted between Ottawa and New Brunswick, where, following an editorial scandal at the Telegraph-Journal, he was asked to be the overseeing editor-at-large of the Irvings' major newspaper properties.

In this period, he also began his influential weekly columns on the op-ed page of The Globe and in Report on Business – columns that proved him no less serious and original a writer of prose than he was an editor of it.

"He was the most thoughtful and most eloquent writer I've ever handled," said Natasha Hassan, who was his editor on the Comment page. "And he was a gentleman scribe."

Mr. Reynolds was first married to the former Constance Grass, now of Sarnia. They had two children: Deborah Kirkland and Warren Reynolds. In addition, he is survived by Donna Jacobs and their daughter, Jessie Reynolds.

Visitation is 6-9 p.m. Thursday, May 23 at the Trousdale Funeral Home in Sydenham, Ont. There will be a graveside funeral for family only, followed by a reception at the Verona Free Methodist Church in Verona, Ont., at noon on Friday.

A purely personal note. I knew Neil Reynolds for almost 40 years and wrote for him for nearly 30. One morning at the Whig-Standard, when the villagers were gathering outside the castle with torches and pitchforks, demanding my head, as was usual in Kingston, Neil – walking silently on the balls of his feet, like a hunter in the forest, the way he always did – came up behind my chair and whispered, "Anybody can be brave when things are going well." He himself was brave throughout his long fight with cancer, keeping his own counsel, tolerating no pity and extending his generosity to others right up to the end.

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