From Reporter to Historian: Remembering Douglas How (1919–2001)

A feature of Yorkshire 2000 was a conference on the theme of migration and its impact on this region. One of the most active participants in the discussions, was retired journalist Douglas How of St. Andrews N.B. Once more, he became the surefooted investigative reporter, probing for answers to questions that many in the audience wished they had asked.

My contact with him during the conference was regrettably limited to a few fleeting conversations. Keenly interested in local history, we discussed this column and he agreed at some future date to meet and reminiscence about old Dorchester. His parting comment was: The next time you are in St. Andrews, just give me a call. Sadly, this interview will not take place, as Douglas How died, July 17, 2001. Instead, what follows is a review of the life of one of Canadas outstanding journalists.

Although born in Winnipeg on Feb. 5, 1919, Doug grew up in Dorchester N.B. Graduating from the local high school, he began his career in 1937 as a reporter with the Moncton Daily Times. A next door neighbour, local historian Helen Petchey, now of Saint John, vividly remembered those years. Doug was interested in everything and everybody he always seemed to be everywhere and anywhere in Dorchester.

Having honed his writing skills on the beat with a daily newspaper, How was snapped up in 1940 by the Halifax bureau of Canadian Press. Not long afterward, he joined the Canadian Army and was commissioned a lieutenant with the Cape Breton Highlanders. Later he was seconded as a war correspondent; covering the Italian campaign in which his regiment served with valor and distinction.

Following the war, Doug returned to his position with Canadian Press, and for the next five years was a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa. Spotted by fellow Maritimer Hon. Robert Winters, then Minister of Public Works, he became his executive assistant from 1955 to 1957. Here How’s writing skills found expression through press releases, drafts of legislation, and I suspect, many a ministerial speech. After a change in government in 1957, Doug How returned to journalism as a reporter for Time Magazine with stints in Ottawa, Toronto and New York. In 1959 he was named managing editor of the Canadian edition of Readers Digest, a post he held for the next decade.

Suddenly in 1969, at age 50, and with a virtual lifetime of experience behind him, Doug How resigned, to enroll as an undergraduate at Mount Allison University. Such a dramatic change, although more common today, was the exception in the 1960s. What transpired is best told in his own words; taken from an essay which he entitled A Dream Come True.

It was strange at first, being a middle aged college student. Id find myself wondering about all sorts of things. Like the rock concert in the first week of my first term in 1969 — fleeting, fingering psychedelic light, total sound, a vandalism of sound, like some commodity trying to blast its way into the markets of the soul All I asked was to be treated as something other than a campus aberration, and this I was granted by both students and professors, for which Ill ever be grateful Im glad that I got my higher education and saw all this in middle age. To have a generation of journalism behind me, was like having a jug to pour knowledge into and draw experience out. I sometimes had the feeling that providing university education for young people at 17 to 21 is, in many cases, like pouring wine onto a plate

His BA with honors in History was followed by an MA (also in History) at Dalhousie University. How’s longtime friend, editor Frank Lowe once commented: I was not at all surprised to see [How] turn to the study of Canadian History Always a brilliant writer, he had a passion for that much maligned and neglected subject. Dr. Graham Adams, head of the History Department during How’s Mount Allison days recalled: At first, some students felt a little intimidated by having someone of Dougs calibre in their midst but this feeling soon passed, thanks to his relaxed manner. Dr. Adams also drew my attention to a fine essay written during Dougs senior year. Entitled History Is Not A Thing Of The Past it provided a hint of what was to come.

From 1976 onward, a flood of books and articles appeared; almost all of which were grounded in Canadian history. During this period his major publications included: The 8th Hussars (a regimental history); Canadas Mystery Man of High Finance (Isaac Walton Killam); Night Of The Caribou (the wartime sinking of the Newfoundland Nova Scotia ferry) and One Village One War 1914 -1945 (a memoir of Dorchester at war). He also co-authored with Ralph Costello a biography of industrialist K. C. Irving. Earlier he edited The Canadians At War,a three volume set published by Readers Digest Canada.

One exception to these books was a novel Blow Up The Trumpet In The New Moon published in 1993. Although How made the usual disclaimer that this is a work of fiction; its clear that the novel was partially autobiographical. It was set in a town with the unlikely name of St. Gomorrah somewhere in the Maritimes; and located near the towns of Sodom and Antioch. A few miles away was a city called Babylon. The time was the dusty depression summer of 1935.

Freed from the reporter/historians search for truth How gave full rein to his rollicking and sometimes wicked sense of humor. In the novel, he related how a horse named Pius the Pious got to where no horse should be; the antics of the St. Gomorrah Harness Racing Society in plotting (for a profit) the liberation of Pius and the earnest endeavors of the Women In Arms Society to protect the tone of the town. Central to the story was an evangelical revival and possible Second Coming. The revival was led by Rev. Trembling Smith, late of Kentucky but enroute to Saskatchewan.

Throughout the novel, How paraded a cast of characters that included: Aunt Stephanie Smith Chipley who was rich, very rich; Miss Lydia Spencer, local correspondent for the Babylon Daily Times and the irreverent Kate Ryan, nicknamed with good reason, Coppermine Kate. Then there was Magistrate Winthrop Montaque; Albert Almighty; Cerebral Cecil and Alto Montgomery the singing barber. Not to be forgotten were: Professor Pope from Mount Narcissis University, who hoped that the religious revival would provide a topic for his long postponed doctoral thesis, and Black Woolie MacFarlane who experienced tribulations of an electrical nature at the annual Anglican Church picnic.

The novel also contains some of How’s best descriptive writing. The central figure is Matthew Chipley. A sixteen, soon to be seventeen year old boy He is sitting quietly, listening. This is the way he is, and it is not so much that he is shy, as that he is curious. Interested in things, his father says. Inquisitive, his mother says. Nosey, his Great Aunt Stephanie Chipley says. Even sitting down, he looks long, gangly, skinny. Incipient. Under construction. A sapling not quite sure of the kind of tree he wants to be.

The hallmark of a good writer is the ability to sketch a character or scene in a minimum of words. At all times, Douglas How was a master of clear, insightful prose. This novel is important for another reason. It deserves to be better known. On reading it, one is reminded of Stephen Leacocks Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town. Both Leacock and How had the ability to capture the eccentricities found in all small towns.

A memorial service to remember the life and work of Douglas How was held in All Saints Anglican Church, St. Andrews on July 28th. Appropriately, Canon John Matheson based his homily on Psalm 81:3; source of the title: Blow Up The Trumpet In The New Moon. In this Psalm, Israel rejoiced in its deliverance from exile. Central to the novel was the hope of recovery from the dark days of the depression. Thus it became a testimonial to Doug How’s optimism, love of live and sense of fun. Somehow, I think that all the people of St. Gomorrah were nodding their approval.

One last story from Doug How’s Mount Allison days. It concerns a first encounter with a visiting professor who shall remain nameless. The professor began the class with a question: Since Canadas lack of identity is an accepted national problem, what do you think about it? Silence followed. It was rephrased and repeated. Again, total silence. At this point, Doug How intervened. I told the professor that he was flogging a live but indifferent horse and we can thank our proximity to the USA for the fact that Canadian Identity keeps coming up. He concluded: I told the professor that I saw Canadian soldiers in action during World War Two. Canadian identity glowed and glinted in their eyes God rest their memories. The question was never to be raised again in this class.