Lessons learned from one of the best sportswriters in the country

kernie

When Jim Kernaghan left the Toronto Star for the London Free Press in the early 1980s, it was the Big Smokes’ loss and the Forest City’s gain.

He was arguably the best sports writer this city has seen and one of the best in the country.

Personally, some 15 years after his arrival, it also became my great benefit.

When I joined the Free Press sports department, I was stationed next to Kernie, as we all called him.

A gentleman, mentor, leader, who became a friend.

This preeminent sportswriter passed away Sunday, his family gathered around him.

It was just last month that I received a call from Kernie asking for a small favour. For the many times he helped me out – including walking me to my car when I was pregnant and giving me a night mask for my eyes, that was soothing and kept out the light because I had insomnia  – I was glad to be able to assist him.

Kernie had a 3/4 tape he wanted converted so that his grandchildren could see a 1980 commercial produced for The Star that featured him. So good was he at what he did, The Star focussed its ad campaign on him.  By then he had written many times about Muhammad Ali and interviewed the likes of Pele, Rocky Marciano, Bobby Orr, Rocket Richard.

Since I work for CTV London now, he wondered if I could help with the tape. I think he knew then that he wouldn’t be around too much longer.

We have a 3/4 player that sits idle and has for some time. But it wasn’t hooked up to any other player. A co-worker suggested Producers Post on Wharncliffe Road might be able to help. I took the tape there and for a small fee, they converted it to digital for him.

Here is the 30-second commercial:

Kernie and I had daily talks over the better part of a decade while working side by side.

We’d talk about everything from cold remedies to our families to the ups and downs of life. And of course, sports.

He told me about picking up Ali and the other boxers that came to Toronto at the airport. Sometimes he drove them from their matches to their hotel rooms. That gave him a great opportunity to talk to them alone. He was crafty that way and it was what needed to be done to get a better story than everyone else.

I loved reading Kernie’s columns, because you always learned  something – including new words. He would challenge his readers and that included in the words he chose.

He knew human nature well and understood what made people tick. That insight helped him pen columns that were written with clarity, humour and compassion.

That compassion extended to everyone else around him. He had time for everybody. One of the last assignments we were on together was covering a basketball game at Western. An old friend was there and talked to Kernie at length after the game. Kernie missed his first deadline because he thought it more important to talk to the man than be rude and tell him he was busy.

Kernie’s son Terence, the youngest of his four children, told me that what he will treasure most about his father is that he saw the humanity in everyone.

“One of the things he says a lot (is) that the world is not a matter of black and white. That’s where the humanity is. It used to drive him bonkers when people would write, ‘A person that” instead of “A person who.’ When people say ‘A person who,’ they are removing the humanity from that person.”

One of his father’s favourite sayings was: “No problems, only solutions.” Terence says that bit of wisdom is life changing.

Kernie survived an abdominal aortic aneurysm a couple of years ago that almost took his life and it led to a renewed spiritualism.

While in the hospital, struggling to survive he had strange dreams, including one in which he was in a competition with another dying man and they were battling to see who could live the longest. The man he was up against was a South American boxer.

Terence says he still gets chills just thinking about that.

That health fight a couple of years ago took its toll. Kernie hadn’t been feeling well recently and had been at the hospital last week. He found out he had cancer.

He went into the hospital Friday and his condition deteriorated quickly. Terence says he told his father then that the family wanted him to get better, but it was also OK to let go. “It’s probably some of the hardest things you ever have to say.”

Terence says he fights against canonizing people after they die. “I wouldn’t say that he was perfect, he was just a decent, decent man.”

Rest in peace, my friend. Godspeed until we meet again.

 

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