Robertson prepares to end record-breaking run as national news anchor

It’s a perfect summer day in August, and Lloyd Robertson seems almost relieved to be back at work. The 77-year-old has entered the final stretch, and Sept. 1 — when he is set to wrap his final newscast at the helm of “CTV National News,” thus ending the longest-ever reign of a North American national anchor — is looming.

CTV news anchor Lloyd Robertson rehearses his news cast before going live on air at CTV headquarters in Scarborough

CTV news anchor Lloyd Robertson rehearses his news cast before going live on air at CTV headquarters in Scarborough

TORONTO — It’s a perfect summer day in August, and Lloyd Robertson seems almost relieved to be back at work.

The 77-year-old has entered the final stretch, and Sept. 1 — when he is set to wrap his final newscast at the helm of “CTV National News,” thus ending the longest-ever reign of a North American national anchor — is looming. There will be plenty of time to idly dangle a fishing rod in cottage country, or to gallop ’round on the horses he loves so much.

But for now, Robertson is exactly where he wants to be, amid the buzz and swarm of CTV’s hive of a newshub as he and his colleagues begin to stitch together the evening’s nightly program.

“We should put ’airport’ in that copy,” he bellows to a writer standing at attention across the room. “Otherwise, they don’t know what we’re talking about.”

In this case, “they” refers to Robertson’s devoted viewers — the same people he’s always worried about.

That is, the people who have made a nightly ritual of drifting off only after letting the anchor’s booming baritone fill them in on the day’s events. The same folks who have been approaching Robertson at seemingly every opportunity over the past year, since he announced that he would be relinquishing the anchor chair to Lisa LaFlamme, prodding the white-haired newsman with questions like a roving band of budding journalists.

“It’s all they’re talking about,” Robertson said in a recent interview, taking a brief break from the night’s work. “’When is the day?’ ’When are you stepping down?’ ’Retirement.’

“Only, I try to steer them away from the word ’retirement,’ because I’m still going to be doing things. … I intend to be around for a while.

“I knew that what I could not do was step off this treadmill that I’ve been on for the last 41 years between CBC and CTV … 11 o’clock at night, and working top speed a lot of the time. I knew I just couldn’t stop.”

So, Robertson won’t be stopping. Not entirely. He’ll contribute to CTV’s flagship news magazine series “W5” and has a series of vignettes on determined young people to lead into next year’s Olympics.

But it’s clear that stepping away from the anchor’s chair will still feel like the end of something significant to Robertson.

After all, he has anchored the evening news in this country through the terms of eight Canadian prime ministers and eight U.S. presidents. He’s covered three Olympic Games held within our borders. He’s reported on the moon landing, on Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, on the fall of the Berlin wall, on the death of Princess Diana and on the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

That sort of prominent longevity is impossibly rare in the TV business nowadays, said CTV’s chief political correspondent Craig Oliver.

“When he and I started in television, there were just two channels,” said Oliver, a friend of Robertson’s since they were colleagues at CBC in the ’60s. “Now, you’ve got 700 channels, so it’s much more difficult to develop a national profile — I think it’s probably impossible for anyone to develop a national news profile like Lloyd has done.

“He’s the last of a breed of really high-profile, influential anchors.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Robertson laboured for years over the decision of when to step away. He finally decided he was ready while ambling along a Florida beach with his wife, Nancy, a year ago. He wanted to go out on top, wanted to avoid the “inevitable slide.”

But that doesn’t make it any easier now.

“I think I’m going to have to be sure I keep it together that night,” he said, noting that he recently studied the final newscasts of American anchors Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw for ideas on how to close his last show. “I think it’ll be wrenching for me and I think some people have indicated in their messages that they will find it wrenching.”

“I’m looking forward to the next stage of my life, but it is going to be a tough moment, there’s no question about that. I frankly do not know whether I’ll be able to hold it together or not. But I think I will.”

Robertson immediately catches himself here, and takes pains to explain that he wouldn’t want to try to draw too much attention. He isn’t the most important part of the show, he points out — his focus will be on the news.

And it always has been.

Growing up in Stratford, Ont., Robertson didn’t have an easy childhood. His mother was tormented by mental-health problems that eventually resulted in her undergoing a prefontal lobotomy. His father, who was 60 when Robertson was born, fought cancer and died when Robertson was 21. So Robertson was often left under the care of his half-siblings, being swapped from place to place.

He found himself fascinated by broadcasting. Even in his pre-teen years, he aspired to work for the local radio station, CJCS, finally achieving his goal after graduating high-school.

He moved up the ladder quickly. He was only 20 when he went to work for CBC and 22 when he married his high-school sweetheart, Nancy. The couple bounced from Winnipeg to Ottawa to Toronto, starting a family along the way.

Soon a father of four, Robertson found his career demanding more and more of his time. In 1967, with the country in the midst of a fevered celebration of Canada’s centennial, Robertson was everywhere — except his home. He says he spent about two months with his family that year.

“There were these constant, sometimes very long periods of separation from one another, when I would be travelling here and travelling there,” he said.

“That naturally causes friction.”

But he credits his wife’s patient nature for allowing the couple to navigate such rocky terrain.

“When my father knew I was marrying Nancy all those years ago, he knew her father and he knew that it was a family of good character, and that she would be able to negotiate the shoals of a modern marriage.

“And she has. So I give her all the credit for that.”

Robertson’s career arc, meanwhile, continued to point ever-upwards. In 1970, he claimed the anchor position at CBC’s “The National.” It was, of course, a dream gig for a broadcast newshound but before long, Robertson began feeling restricted. In those days, a complicated union relationship meant that TV anchors weren’t allowed any editorial input into the words they were reading.

Robertson campaigned his bosses unsuccessfully for more creative input. His frustration eventually led to his then-shocking decision to move to CTV, a choice that chewed him up at the time.

“That was a tough, tough, tough decision to make, to move from the cocoon of the mother corporation — job for life, literally — and out into the private sector, that was tough.

“But on the other hand, it was absolutely the right thing to have done at the time.”

Of course, Robertson flourished at CTV. Beginning as a co-anchor with Harvey Kirck, Robertson rejoiced in the increased creative control he was afforded — even though he says he wasn’t a very good writer at the beginning — and ratings swiftly rose (Robertson takes pride in pointing out that “CTV National News” has become the country’s top-rated national newscast).

His colleagues don’t hesitate when asked to pinpoint Robertson’s enduring appeal.

“He comforted and informed generations of Canadians who really came to trust him and believe in him,” Oliver said.

“I think everyone knows him personally, even though they don’t realize it, because he is what you see on television…. What you see is what you get. There are no dark sides to Lloyd’s personality, there are no deep secrets hidden in dark corners, no wingy eccentricities or oddball stuff. It’s not him.

“He really is every man. I mean, he’s just a really solid guy. It absolutely is part of his appeal.”

Oliver doesn’t doubt that Robertson chose the right time to retire. But he does wonder how the fiercely dedicated journalist will take to a slower pace.

“I think his problem will be adjusting to a normal life — the life the rest of us lead,” Oliver says.

Indeed, beyond his aforementioned journalistic demands, Robertson isn’t quite sure how he’ll fill his time as a retiree, though he says he gets “very antsy” if he isn’t busy. He’s started work on a memoir, but hasn’t put any thought into new hobbies.

That’s because he’s still cherishing his final days as the anchor of CTV’s flagship news program. Robertson has always enjoyed his work, but says that since he announced his retirement, he’s applied himself with a bit of extra zeal.

Each time he steps into CTV’s head office in suburban Toronto, he tries a little harder to soak in his surroundings.

“I came in thinking: ’I guess this is really the last chapter. This is the last set in the game,”’ he says.

“I’ll miss hearing the buzz of the newsroom. I’ll miss seeing my buddies in here and talking to them. I’ll miss the elements of putting the broadcast together.”

But the farewell isn’t entirely sad for Robertson.

As much as he’ll miss his nightly appointment in the homes of more than a million Canadians, he’s got plenty to look forward to.

Just one example? For the first time in 40-plus years, Robertson’s evenings will be his own.

“I’m going to be free at nights, which will be fun for a change — if you can imagine me going to a movie on a Tuesday night!” he says, beaming.

“That will be fun, having that kind of freedom. Having more normal hours will be great. So I think all of that is something I can look forward to.”