BEFORE RAFE MAIR was a fire-breathing radio talk-show host, a household name from Victoria to Vanderhoof, he was a mere politician, a Social Credit cabinet minister from Kamloops.
As a 19-year-old newspaper reporter just starting out with the Kamloops News, I would interview him from time to time, though he could never remember my name.
Once, while on the phone to Mair, I put my feet up on my desk and tilted back in my chair to the point of tipping over. This proved too tempting to the News’s legendary editor, Mel Rothenburger, who kept in his desk a particularly lethal elastic-band gun with which he would occasionally gain the attention of his reporters.
Rothenburger leaned out of his office and shot me right under the eye. I shrieked manfully and crashed down like a Douglas fir, landing on my back.
Above my head, the phone’s handset spun on the end of its cord (remember those?) just close enough for me to hear Rafe’s tinny voice asking: “Are you OK, Gerry? Er, Bob? Er, young fella?”
We learned Monday that Mair has died at age 85. Often people have slipped from the public consciousness by that age, but Mair’s voice was never really silenced. He kept hammering away online about the evils of fish farms and in letters to the editor about the evils of electoral reform.
I’ll leave the obit-writing to others who knew him better (or, more likely, knew him not at all), but I will say this: in professions — first the law, then politics, then broadcasting — where people carefully craft their words, Mair didn’t pussyfoot.
He flashed. He fulminated. On radio, it wasn’t always obvious how much was infotainment, Mair resorting to the florid language of the old flamboyant courtroom lawyer, and how much was heartfelt.
Rothenburger, reached Monday, figures it was mostly real. “He was absolutely fearless in the way he went after politicians, which was interesting because he had been one himself,” said Rothenburger (who sandwiched his own journalism career around six years as Kamloops’ mayor).
Those who leaned to the left dismissed Mair as a conservative curmudgeon, one whose populist pro-B.C. arguments could wander into xenophobia, but that was a cookie-cutter image into which he didn’t fit that neatly: Mair wrote for the Georgia Straight and The Tyee, neither of which are Breitbart.
Anyone else who fought for the environment as rabidly as he did would have been labelled an ecohippie.
If some branded him a loose cannon, it was one that shot straight, its aim determined by belief, not partisan loyalty.
Here’s how Mair himself, in a 2016 piece in which he ripped Site C, pipelines and the ruination of farmland, described his stint as B.C. environment minister: “In a 12-month period, I stopped the killing of wolves in the north in the face of bitter opposition from the ranching community who were almost all Socreds; saved the Skagit River from being flooded by Seattle Light and Power, to the horror of Socred MLAs in the area who slavered at the thought of the development that would come from the dam being raised; and placed a moratorium on exploration for and mining of uranium — to bitter condemnation from the mining community.”
To Rothenburger, it was Mair’s gutsiness and candour as environment minister that still resonated Monday.
Others recall different sides. Times Colonist editor Dave Obee remembers Mair as the only lawyer in the office-building elevator who would treat teenage Dave — who had a joe job in the same building — as a human being in 1971.
Others remember Rafe as the dad who was shattered by the car-crash death of his 17-year-old daughter, Shawn, in 1976.
Me, my brief experiences of Mair were of rolling thunder. Here’s one more story:
Kamloops had two newspapers. The other one, owned by the Thomson chain, was staffed by a lot of people on their way to somewhere else, which is why when former premier W.A.C. Bennett died in 1979, they didn’t realize it was an insult to refer to him as “Wacky” — his derogatory nickname — in their front-page headline.
I was covering a high-school graduation (Woodward and Bernstein were so jealous) the night the story ran.
Mair, forgetting which publication I was from, marched up and ripped a strip off me in front of about 800 people.
“Wrong paper,” I stammered, eloquently.
“Oh,” Mair said, then wheeled and walked away, blunt, fierce in his opinions and unapologetic.
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