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Radio mainstay McGarvey wanted to honour the past

Pete McGarvey (left) interviews Gordon Lightfoot

courtesy of the McGarvey family.

As an essentially private person – an odd trait for someone whose voice reached millions – James (Pete) McGarvey practised the first rule of radio: speak as though to a single friend, not multitudes of anonymous listeners.

"He was really a shy man," said his son, Peter. "To him, a microphone was a person."

Mr. McGarvey, who died of natural causes in Orillia at the age of 86, was a beloved figure in that community, where he led the effort to preserve both the memory and the home of Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. He also had a radio career that spanned more than four decades, spiced with plenty of civic involvement.

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It was Mr. Leacock's legacy that drew Mr. McGarvey to Orillia in 1947. He had devoured Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town while still in school, and his father had known the author personally. Mr. McGarvey was surprised to discover that locals hadn't paid much attention to the writer or his work.

While still in his 20s, he headed a four-year campaign to save and restore the author's dilapidated house, called Old Brewery Bay, where he lived and worked for some 30 summers.

Mr. McGarvey wanted the city to buy the 30-acre estate. But the municipal council balked at the $50,000 price asked by the author's son, Stephen Jr., and it was sold instead to developer Lou Ruby (father of Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby), who planned to demolish the house and subdivide the property.

Over time and several meetings, Mr. McGarvey convinced Mr. Ruby to spare the house and a little more than an acre of land, and hand it over for $25,000. That was still considered steep, but the city bought it in 1957.

"It would have been a terrible thing if he did destroy the home," Mr. McGarvey told The Orillia Packet and Times in 2008. "It's the most important literary landmark in the country. It was the best investment this city and community ever made."

Indeed, the home held 30,000 pieces of Leacock memorabilia, including handwritten manuscripts, journals and diaries, along with photographs and hundreds of books. The collection was later estimated to be worth at least $7-million.

For his efforts, Mr. McGarvey was named Orillia's Citizen of the Year in 1957, and the Leacock Museum opened in 1958. His book, The Old Brewery Bay: A Leacockian Tale, was published in 1994. City council later named him director emeritus of the museum.

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"Fundamentally, he was a good listener," said Fred Addis, curator of the Leacock Museum National Historic Site. "I think this speaks to some of his broadcasting experiences, where he let people tell their own story. In the course of listening to their stories, he was always able to find some kind of common ground."

Mr. McGarvey also got his hands dirty, serving for 11 years on Orillia's municipal council, as councillor, deputy reeve and reeve. Though more of a jazz fan, he helped establish the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1961, suggesting the name Mariposa in honour of Mr. Leacock's fictional name for a thinly disguised Orillia in Sunshine Sketches. (While on council, Mr. McGarvey himself voted to kick the festival out of town in 1963, however, following a near riot by 25,000 unruly attendees. It would not return to Orillia for decades).

But radio was his first great love, and Mr. McGarvey became a mainstay of the medium in three Ontario cities: Orillia, Chatham and Toronto, with a smooth, distinctive baritone audiences came to know.

James Albert McGarvey was born in Toronto in 1927, one of four sons of a father who found himself out of work in the wake of the Depression and ended up as a night watchman. An uncle pronounced that the lad looked nothing like a "James," and more like a "Pete." The moniker stuck.

During the Second World War, he was transfixed by broadcasts from the front lines by the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. While a student, Mr. McGarvey wrote scripts for a local CBC radio show, which reported news from area high schools. He was still in basic training in Toronto when the war ended but his enthusiasm for radio was sharpened further during a stint he spent in the Army's communications unit.

Not yet 20, he moved to Orillia to work for radio station CFOR. He stayed for 18 years, advancing from copywriter to assistant general manager, and was a booster of a local kid named Gordon Lightfoot, who sang and played guitar. The two remained friends. Mr. McGarvey "did everything" at the station, his son said. "On-air work, administration. He probably mopped floors too."

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Tayler (Hap) Parnaby, now a 50-year news-radio veteran, was all of 14 when Mr. McGarvey hired him in Orillia as an operator and producer. One day, the awed teen carried his boss's tape recorder to a big fire downtown. "Pete and I were standing behind a burning building when an oil tank exploded," recalled Mr. Parnaby, with great pleasure. "[It] knocked a fireman down and I swore. He had captured it on the microphone! And he kept a disc of that, of me swearing on the air."

Ultimately, "the radio and the trains that went through Orillia were our intellectual connections to the outside world," Mr. Parnaby said, echoing a Gordon Lightfoot sentiment. Later, in Toronto, Mr. Parnaby would become Mr. McGarvey's boss, "but it was never that kind of relationship. I was always 'Hap' and he was always 'Pete.'"

Seeking a bigger market, Mr. McGarvey eventually moved to CFCO in Chatham, Ont., as news director. He covered the 1967 Detroit riots that left 43 dead in a smouldering city, and in 1969, was in Honolulu for the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts. He was so close to their isolation trailer that he could describe their facial expressions. He won back-to-back Dan McArthur Awards for documentaries in 1971 and 1972.

His awards opened doors, and he returned to Toronto in 1973 as a featured newscaster and commentator for CKEY, where he built a large and loyal audience over the next 14 years. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Mr. McGarvey broadcast from a number of global hot spots: Moscow, Jerusalem, Beirut and Tokyo.

But it was his non-confrontational interviewing style that won him admiration. As CKEY's arts editor, he queried – never grilled – hundreds of actors, writers, musicians and comics. Margaret Atwood was a favourite. He caught crooner Tony Bennett off guard when asked about the singer's love of painting. British comedians Dudley Moore and Peter Cook performed an impromptu bit in the back seat of Mr. McGarvey's car as he drove the duo to a restaurant.

If there were any interviews that didn't work, Mr. McGarvey didn't dwell on them, his son said. "He wasn't the type."

Beginning in 1986, Mr. McGarvey wrote and narrated 1,200 historical vignettes for Heritage Ontario. Each lasting 10 minutes, they were heard on 40 radio stations across the province over a five-year period.

Mr. McGarvey then returned to his idyll in Orillia, where he wrote weekly columns for the local daily, and where 200 friends and colleagues gathered in 2000 for a tribute to him that raised $7,000 for the Leacock Museum and the Stephen Leacock Association.

In 1995, he was inducted into the Orillia Hall of Fame. Mayor Angelo Orsi, declared June 4, 2011, as Pete McGarvey Day in Orillia.

He leaves his wife of 64 years, Eileen (née Giles); sons Peter, Will and Doug; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held at Leacock House on June 8.

Mr. McGarvey served on the board of the Ontario Heritage Foundation, and besides journalism, the theme of his life was heritage. "I wanted to honour the past," he said in 2011, "and leave something for future generations."

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