Journalism patriarch dead at age 90

Thomas Van Dusen, Sr., a journalist, speech writer, political adviser to both Conservatives and Liberals and patriarch of a clan of Canadian journalists, has died at the age of 90.

OTTAWA — Thomas Van Dusen, Sr., a journalist, speech writer, political adviser to both Conservatives and Liberals and patriarch of a clan of Canadian journalists, has died at the age of 90.

Van Dusen spent 45 years filling a variety of roles on Parliament Hill. He worked for three prime ministers, John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. He worked for several cabinet ministers, including Tories Michael Starr and Erik Neilsen, and Liberals Allan MacEachen and Mitchell Sharp.

He said his motto was: “Have typewriter, will travel.”

He reported on Parliament for the now-defunct Ottawa Journal in the 1940s and 1950s, working for Grattan O’Leary, later a senator, who Van Dusen described as one of the country’s great newspapermen.

In the 1970s, while working for Sharp, Van Dusen was a key player in the effort to get TV cameras into the House of Commons.

“I believed taxpayers had a right to be informed about parliamentary issues and judgments by the most effective technology available,” he wrote in his 1998 memoir, Inside the Tent, Forty-Five Years on Parliament Hill.

Van Dusen and his wife Shirley were married for 64 years. Most of their seven children followed the father into the news business, including Julie Van Dusen of the CBC and Peter Van Dusen of CPAC. Siblings Lisa, Mark, Tom and Tina also worked in journalism.

In the senior Van Dusen’s words from his memoir: “Michael went straight and became a lawyer. A good thing. You never know when you might need one.”

Van Dusen was born in Ottawa and raised in Gracefield, Que., north of the capital. He came from Irish and Dutch stock, but called himself a fourth-generation Quebecer.

He joined the press gallery in 1947, when it was a clubby place reserved for veteran print journalists. The 25-year-old Van Dusen rubbed shoulders with legendary journalists such as Charles Lynch, Ross Munro and Peter Stursberg, all of them just back from the Second World War and working on wartime memoirs.

“It was another few years before radio and television crashed the magic circle,” Van Dusen wrote.

He once compared the Parliament Hill media to “bats upside down in a cave.”

He wrote with great respect about many of the politicians he covered or worked for, although he had little time for former Tory leader Bob Stanfield — “He didn’t impress me” — and was nonplussed at what he saw as Joe Clark’s inept handling of his short-lived government.

Van Dusen was a great admirer of Diefenbaker. He wrote a highly favourable biography of the former prime minister. He was one of the official pall bearers at Diefenbaker’s 1970 funeral and was named one of the literary executors of the estate.

Van Dusen was on Diefenbaker’s funeral train on the trip back to his Saskatchewan burial and remembered the ride as a Viking funeral of back-biting and score-settling among old Tories.

“By the time the train got to Saskatoon, the only person everyone was speaking to was Sen. Al Graham, representing the Liberal party.”

While he tended to lean to the Tory side — he twice ran unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Tory in 1958 and 1963 — he was loyal to his Liberal bosses, as well.

He finished his 45 years on Parliament Hill working for Mulroney. In 1991, he retired to Russell, Ont., where, he wrote, he had wood to chop, grass to cut, things to do.

He summed up his career in his memoir: “I had plenty of opportunities to study politics and politicians and to come to terms with the ordinary characteristics of greed, envy, rampant ego, self-indulgence and all those curious erratica that make up human nature.”

Among all his accomplishments, he said regarded his family as his greatest.

He is survived by his wife, seven children, 14 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and brothers Jack and Charles.

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