Monday, August 08, 2005

In Memorium - Peter Jennings

ABC News' Peter Jennings was a class act, Canadian anchor counterparts say

By: JOHN MCKAY

TORONTO (CP) - Peter Jennings was a "class act" who brought a "high quality of literature to electronic journalism," one of his Canadian colleagues said Monday. Jennings, the Canadian-born ABC broadcaster who delivered the news to Americans each night in five separate decades, died Sunday. He was 67 and had suffered from lung cancer.

CTV News anchor Lloyd Robertson, who worked with Jennings in the early 1960s, said Jennings added something special to the nightly network news.

"I think Peter brought a high quality of literature to electronic journalism - (he) was really a class act and that extended itself all through into his television work," said Robertson.

"There was nobody who could put things together on the air as easily and as rapidly as he could."

With Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, Jennings was part of a trio that dominated U.S. network news for more than two decades.

Robertson said Jennings began to shine during his second stint in the ABC anchor chair, starting in 1978.

"He became, in my view, the best of the breed. He was the best of all the anchors - he brought perspective to stories, he had poetry in his language and I thought a lot of that was due to his Canadian roots."

CBC-TV anchor Peter Mansbridge said he grew up, both literally and professionally, with Jennings on television.

"And because he was always there you expect him to always be there. And then suddenly to hear this. It's a shock.

"Anchors are anchors. They're sort of anchors to your life in many ways, too."

Mansbridge said Jennings was a man of the world thanks to his extensive overseas experience for ABC.

"He was always the one who had that world view and I think that is directly tied to his Canadian roots. He looked at stories in a way that few others reporting out of his country do."

Mansbridge recalled being in high school in Ottawa when Jennings, who was working at CJOH-TV, was dating his English teacher.

Global News anchor Kevin Newman, who once worked with Jennings at ABC, said Jennings sought to share the world with viewers.

"Peter was very aware of history and he wanted to be sure he would tie the events of today into events of the recent and distant past so he could bring perspective to his stories. He was very big on that."

Robertson noted that Canadians living in the U.S. could always count on Jennings to keep them aware of events back home.

"He was a significant Canadian voice in American television. Peter was the one who brought Canadian stories on a regular basis to ABC News while the other networks may have ignored them," said Robertson.

It's now commonplace for Canadian journalists to work in U.S. television, and Robertson said Jennings helped open the door for many of them.

"He was always looking at the Canadian talent up here - in fact, we would often quake when we heard that Peter was interested in one of our people because we knew that if ABC really moved on that person, that person would be gone."

Broadcasting was the family business for Jennings. His father, Charles Jennings, was the first person to anchor a nightly national news program in Canada and later became head of the CBC's news division.

The younger Jennings had a Saturday morning radio show in Ottawa at age nine. He became a news reporter at a radio station in Brockville, Ont., before becoming a news anchor at CTV.

After catching the attention of ABC News executives while covering the Democratic national convention in 1964, Jennings was offered a reporting job and left Canada for New York.

In a 2003 interview with The Canadian Press, Jennings explained his decision to take out U.S. citizenship.

"I am Canadian," he declared proudly, sounding like a certain beer commercial. "My mother, like many of her generation, always found a reason to resent the United States and defined herself as being Canadian by being not American."

But, he said in a phone call from his ABC News New York office, like many Canadians working in the U.S. at the time of 9-11, he developed a deep sense of community with Americans.

"I felt more attached to them than I perhaps had anticipated in emotional terms," he said. "This is my home."

He said it was almost indescribable to explain the amount of gratitude and respect he had for the U.S. which had been so good to him.

Jennings added that he had thought about the citizenship issue for decades and finally got to deliver his official pledge of allegiance that May, scoring 100 on the citizenship test, an experience he conceded that was "a little nerve-racking."

He still retained his Canadian citizenship.

But it wasn't always as cordial at the border for members of the Jennings family.

He said that his father was once turned back during the Depression while on his way to work at NBC. He was told that he would not be allowed to take an American's job.

His mother, who died in 1992, was a fervent supporter of Canadian culture, a leading backer of such institutions as the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company.

In November 2002, Jennings did an interview with an American newspaper in which he also boldly expressed his Canadian pride. The subject came up after a mini-controversy erupted over his nationality when he hosted a live Independence Day telecast.

Jennings spent recent summers in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec on a farm owned by old family friends and where his sister still lived. He said he always found visits to the Ottawa area refreshing for his soul. And he bragged that he was still able to do the traditional, folksy Ottawa Valley greeting.

"G-day, g-day," he offered over the phone line.

He is survived by his wife, Kayce Freed, and his two children, Elizabeth, 25, and Christopher, 23.

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