Phoning up Larry Solway's open-line radio show could be an exercise in frustration and courage. There was a good chance he would hang up on callers with a gruff "sir, you're a bigot" or "I'm running out of time and patience." And an even better chance he would out-argue them. Solway was a great debater with a wealth of knowledge, self-schooled on a wide array of topics: current events, of course, but also classical music, jazz, film, sports, and especially history.
"He was a walking history book," says his son Joe Solway. "He spent his whole life learning things, even though he was the most knowledgeable man I know."
Larry Solway – talk radio pioneer, TV personality, author, actor, political candidate, sailor, doting grandfather, Toronto Maple Leafs fan, argument-winner – died Jan. 9 due to complications from bladder cancer, at Toronto General Hospital.
It's the same hospital where Lawrence (Larry) Solway was born on March 13, 1928, to parents Joseph and Susan. Joseph, a violinist, died when Larry was 14, leaving Susan to raise him and his sister Nancy.
He was a small kid, not a great athlete, and this may have contributed, Joe muses, to Solway's gravitation toward books – which years later would line the walls of his Forest Hill home.
"He always kidded me," says long-time friend Brian Barker. "I had 4,000 books – way more than he had – but he used to say at least he had read his."
School, however, was not for him. He left the University of Toronto after a year. He had been bitten with the radio bug at a radio drama workshop, and was anxious to get his career going.
He started off in Northern Ontario, with radio gigs in Timmins and North Bay, before landing a job in Oshawa.
That's when he met Shirley. Fixed up by Solway's cousin, they went out on a blind date: dinner and dancing. When Solway didn't call after a few days, Shirley picked up the phone with a proposal: She had her father's car, but didn't know how to drive. Would he like to go out somewhere? Six months later, on Nov. 29, 1949, they were married. The honeymoon was a road trip to New Orleans, two days there, and the drive back. It was all they could afford.
They had two children: Joseph and, 10 years later, Beth.
"He cast a large shadow," says Joe, who followed in his father's footsteps and works at CBC Radio. "Everywhere I went; 'Are you Larry's son? Are you Larry's son?' He was a big tree. And he was wonderful to have as a dad."
Early in his radio career, Solway held down various jobs to make ends meet: He drove a cab, worked on a lake freighter, sold storm windows and tropical fish. There were fish tanks all around the living room.
But things came together in the 1960s, at Toronto's CHUM radio, where Solway's jobs included running the copy department (and doing on-air shtick with Gary Ferrier called "Larry and Gary") and programming music. Joe remembers him bringing home a 45 that he promised would be huge once it got played on the radio. It was The Beatles' She Loves You.
But it was his evening call-in show, Speak Your Mind, that made Solway a legend. He quickly gained a reputation as an opinionated host; the irascible guy who hung up on people. The show became a regular stop on the circuit for visiting celebrities, from impressionist Rich Little to hair stylist Vidal Sassoon.
"It was because he gave them the time, he had a big audience, and he had a brain," says Ruth- Ellen Soles, who became Solway's call screener when the show moved into a daytime slot.
At the beginning of the 1970-71 season, following its most successful ratings year, the program became The Larry Solway Show.
But that November, Solway lost the show and his job after running a week-long series on human sexuality, an experience he wrote about in his 1971 book The Day I Invented Sex: "If I understood my audience, they indeed wanted to know or to reveal, to question. They would not be offended by explicit language. They were not tuning in to giggle."
Solway himself got the last laugh.
There were plenty of open doors for a guy with his talent. He was a reporter for CBC TV, a panelist on the TV show This is the Law, a columnist for the Sunday Star. He made documentaries, including the eight-part Our Fellow Americans for the U.S. bicentennial. He hosted a TV interview show. There were stints at various Toronto-area radio stations. He co-owned and operated a dinner theatre in Whitby, Ont., the Marigold, and got the odd acting gig (including a small role in Meatballs).
He was eternally curious. There was always a book on the go and he regularly polished off two or three a week. He learned to ski in his 30s. In his 70s, he returned to university, and began jazz piano lessons.
If he loved to learn, he also loved to instruct – whether it was teaching-by-example the craft of broadcasting to young colleagues (I include myself in this category), teaching at Conestoga College, or teaching religion classes at Holy Blossom Temple (Solway was Jewish).
In 1996, he took on a new student. Howard Hampton had just won the Ontario NDP leadership – quite unexpectedly – when he got a call from Solway volunteering to school him in the tricky art of the media interview. "He said 'look, you're going to have to learn how to handle radio talk show hosts; you're going to have to learn how to handle interviewers who are not always going to be fair,'" says Hampton.
Solway spent many hours with Hampton, conducting mock interviews and taping them on his recorder, playing them back and pointing out where the rookie political leader was making mistakes, and where he was scoring points.
Solway's lessons, Hampton says, "became a bible."
Things were not going well for the Ontario NDP in the post-Bob Rae era and Hampton was having trouble recruiting top-notch candidates for the 1999 election. Solway volunteered to run in the St. Paul's riding.
"He knew there was no chance he was going to win," says Hampton. "But he also knew the NDP needed a good candidate. And he was certainly that."
He was also a good boss, recalls Lisa Wyse Teranishi, who was offered a job in the 1990s producing Solway's show at Toronto's Talk 640. Her father advised her against accepting, "worried that his little girl didn't have a thick enough skin to work for Larry Solway."
She took the job. Despite his reputation, Solway turned out to be a nice guy. "He was appreciative and kind to me every single day."
She got engaged during that stint and Solway offered what she calls "the most meaningful advice" about marriage. "He told me to put nobody before your spouse, not even your children. He said to work at making time for one another without the kids, go out to dinner, take a vacation, stay connected, keep building that relationship. Because one day the children will leave you."
If you were looking for marital advice, Solway was a good bet. He and Shirley were married for 62 years.
They loved to entertain. Solway, a great cook, made a mean matzo ball (hard, never soft), and thought nothing of serving his outstanding chopped liver as an appetizer before following it up with more dinner party-appropriate fare such as risotto.
They eventually sold the house in Forest Hill and moved downtown. They liked to be close to the action – especially concert halls. He gave up his Leafs season's tickets years ago, but got to the symphony as often as possible.
Solway's "retirement" was hardly typical, but he wrote about it in a book he co-authored, Don't Be Blindsided by Retirement.
"When nobody would pay him to write anymore," says Joe, "he wrote letters to the editor." At 80, he started a blog called Looking Ahead.
He loved to sail, taking people out on his 48-foot yacht, Dreamsend, often through the 1000 Islands.
"We would sail around and talk about this crazy world," says Barker.
He and Shirley also made up for that truncated honeymoon with extensive travels – often doing house swaps. Last year there was a trip across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, followed by a few weeks in England.
When they returned, it became apparent the cancer – with which Solway had been diagnosed some 20 years earlier – was back. He carried on with life. There was a recent trip to the symphony, and he never forgot to ask how his beloved Leafs or Raptors had fared in a game. But at 83, his body could only take so much.
"I hope to survive," he wrote in his penultimate blog posting. "If not, it's been good."
The damn cancer was one of the few things to win a battle of any kind with Larry Solway.
He leaves Shirley, Joe, Beth, Nancy, five grandchildren and nieces and nephews.