Farewell to the speechless man who made it all happen

Journalist Bob Saunders helped shape the lives of numberless people, but very few knew it

I was not a happy person on that February morning in 1952 when I assumed my new job on what was known as “the rim of the desk” in editorial department of the Winnipeg Free Press. I was one of six sub-editors, seated on the outer circumference  of a huge semi-circular table. We were pencil-editing copy and writing the headlines for the stories in that day’s paper. In the centre of the semicircle, facing all six of us sat the “slot man,” our boss, who must fire me if I couldn’t do the job. I was frightened and had good reason to be.

My wife and our two boys — one going on two, the other two months — were staying with her family near Toronto because I couldn’t support them. Twenty-three years old, I was Toronto-born and raised (not a plus in Winnipeg, as I soon discovered) and had spent five years in the news business (copy boy on the Washington Post, cub reporter on the Ottawa Journal, sub-editor on two Northern Ontario dailies). In the course of this I had got married, invested what little savings I had trying to start a weekly newspaper in a Northern Ontario town. It had failed and I was now impoverished. I needed a job and the Free Press was trying me out in one.

The Free Press was paying me sixty dollars a week—forty-five of which went to my wife. I lived  in one rented room with a hot plate to make meals. So we could survive. But how could I put my family back together again? Moving  our furniture half way across a continent plus railway fares would cost around five hundred dollars. It would take me at least six months to save that. So even if I could do the job, I still had a huge problem. Yes, I was fearful, in fact desperate.

I looked at the other five people on the rim — three men and two women. They were courteous enough, even friendly, but for one. The man sitting beside me, about my age, seemed at first a rather severe person — tall, grave, who looked straight into your eyes when he spoke, But speaking evidenced his striking disability. He had a serious stammer. You could easily understand what he said because he spoke so slowly and painfully as he struggled to enunciate. But the stammer was only one of his two chief distinctions.  The other, I soon discovered, was his quick perception of absurdity. His comments on the passing scenes, though labored, could be hilariously funny. He may be a little slow getting it out, but what he said was well worth waiting for.

His name was Bob Saunders. Like me, he was a Toronto boy, so we would endure this handicap jointly. Because of his stammer, he had never served as a reporter. But he was one fine copy editor, I was told, and early on I found something else about him. Everyone in the place was obviously fond of him. He was cherished, even loved in the sense of philia, the kind of love that binds a regiment together, or a ship’s company, and rarely (though I have known it to happen), the editorial staff of a newspaper.

I had by now handled my first story, but before returning it to the slot man, I decided to take a chance on this Saunders. Would he look at it for me? He went over it quickly, particularly the heading. “It’s f-f-fine,” he said. “They’ll l-l-like it.” A great burden fell from me, and I looked at Saunders. He was grinning. He had apparently suspected my desperation and knew he had to a degree relieved it.

I went for a beer with him after work, and talked to him pretty well every day thereafter, gradually unfolding to him my tale of woe. Would the company loan me the money to move my family to Winnipeg, I wondered. He told me to ask the managing editor Ted Dafoe, and  that Dafoe would send me to one Malone. “He’s the office oag-oag-ogre, the m-m-money man,” said Saunders, adding that he suspected, however, that this parsimonious reputation was a mask to keep destitute people like me away from him. In fact, some had found the Ogre very kind.

Things went exactly as Saunders said they would, and I was now seated in front of the Ogre himself. Richard S. Malone was curt, decisive, categorical, and firm. But not cruel nor belittling, and in no sense a bully. Just tough. He had a military background, having risen to the rank of brigadier during the war. “I’d like to help you,” he said, “but it’s an iron-clad policy with us. We don’t loan money to new employees.”

“Then what can I do? I like it here. I like the paper, I like the people, and I like the job. “But if I can’t get the loan, I’ll have to quit. I can hardly abandon my family.””

“An iron-clad policy,” said Malone, coughing.

“Without the loan, I can’t stay,” I said.

The Ogre leaned forward over his desk, peering directly and fiercely at me. “Are you saying,” he sounded each word carefully, “that if we don’t loan you the money, then you’re going to quit?”

“What else can I do?”

“Please answer the question.”

“Yes,” I said, as loudly and as assertively as I felt safe.

Malone breathed what seemed a sigh of relief, sat back in his chair and pronounced: “Well in that case, we’ll loan you the money.”

Ogre or not, I felt like kissing. him. Fortunately, I restrained that notion, shook hands with him. and said: “Thank you very much, sir, I deeply appreciate it.”  I took my leave, but I had to use the stairwell, not the elevator. I didn’t want anyone to see the tears streaming down my face. I spent a dollar on a payphone call to my wife, Virginia. “Gin! Gin! Gin!,” I cried. “They’re giving us the loan. We can put the family back together again.” Now, both of us were in tears.

When I related all this to Saunders, he did not appear surprised. That was their reputation, he said. They were forever referring to “iron-clad” policies, especially when they are about to break one of  them.

The whole place was “Dickensian,” said Saunders, like the fictional Telfer’s Bank in “A Tale of  Two Cities.” As with Telfer’s, the Free Press was highly profitable, but behaved more like an institution than a business. Also like Telfer’s, it had its habitués, people with “news” they wanted printed who seemed to wander in and out at will — like the strange little Englishman with his monthly  press release on his plan to restore the Anglo Saxon dominance in the West’s non-aboriginal population through the English-only colony he was proposing somewhere on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. Then too there were the redundant employees — like the staff telegraph operator, long supplanted by the teletype machine, but kept on anyway because he had only three years left to retire, or the building’s elevator operator, similarly retained because he had only two. And besides, push-button elevators were probably only a passing fad anyway.

Such was the Free Press of the 1950s, which would preside for nearly eighty years as a rock-like presence on downtown Carlton Street, and prior to that for forty years at various addresses in the rapidly growing downtown area. When it began publishing, the province of Manitoba was two years old. The city of  Winnipeg with a population of 1,464 would not be incorporated for another two years. This gave the Free Press something of a proprietary attitude towards the province. The Free Press saw itself as more or less owning Manitoba. That it should pretty much govern it was the paper’s rarely challenged assumption for the first half of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the lethal prose of its historic editor John W. Dafoe saw it widely regarded nationally as the pre-eminent voice of the whole Canadian West.

Of this mélange of solid expertise and oddball humanity Saunders plainly rejoiced to be a part. He himself came to me as one of its curiosities. Something about him I found fascinating, a kind of tranquility in the face of impending trouble, an inner reliance on something I could not perceive.  Occasionally, for instance, they put him on as “make-up editor,” an editor who worked with the printers, responsible for getting the made-up pages to the presses on time. It was an exacting job, not envied by anybody. Saunders handled it with his accustomed aplomb. I asked why the work was so stressful.  They have been putting out this paper for more than seventy years, replied Saunders, “and every day, it’s as though they were doing it for the f-f-f-first time.”

Throughout March, as I awaited my family’s arrival and sought a place for us to live, I found daily occasion to talk at length with Saunders. In deference to his speech handicap, I felt it might be easier if I led the  conversation. Only gradually, however, did I realize that I was deluding myself. I wasn’t leading anything. Unobtrusively, the stammer notwithstanding, Saunders edged our talks onto the subject he obviously wanted to talk to discuss with me. That subject was God. I soon realized that Saunders was deeply Christian, and that this was the quality that had hitherto escaped me.

He was, as he once amusedly confessed, “something of a hot Gospeler.” He expected faith to work changes, that is, in the lives of those who embrace it. To be convincing it must be experienced. But for many,  that experience will initially be far more intellectual than emotional. A hard head must precede a warm heart. “The thing is really true!” exclaims the joyous convert. Acceptance of dogma, that is, must lead to conviction, which in turn can lead to the thrilling adventure of a committed Christian life. However, Saunders’ missionary endeavor was always one-on-one. Before a crowd, or even a small group of people, he was usually speechless.

With my wife’s arrival, we had our apartment to meet in, and we soon became something of a trio. I remember how the two of them shared an unusual ability, notably poetry. This was disclosed with a discussion on the great reversals of “the war,” one of them the German defeat in the Mediterranean-North African theatre.

“Like El Alamein,” I offered, referring to the great battle.

“Or in another age, like Lepanto,” said Saunders, referring the decisive defeat of the Muslim fleet by the Christians in 1571 which broke the Muslim hold on the Mediterranean. Suddenly my wife’s eyes lit up and she broke into verse

White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,

Saunders, as I recall, clapped his hands in glee, and without the faintest stammer picked up from her:

It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,

Somehow they helped each other through most, if not all, the remaining 157 drumbeat lines in G.K. Chesterton’s monumental  “Lepanto,” after which I, the only audience, applauded enthusiastically. Their poetic interest far exceeded Chesterton, of course, extending to many of the classics. These two people, I realized, must store in their memories hundreds, if not thousands, of lines of verse. I knew my wife had this curious capacity. I couldn’t imagine that anybody else did. Now she had found a fit companion.

I  naturally worried about this. Was some kind of a tryst being established here? I need not have. We were to know Saunders for the next nearly seventy years. Over time, he himself came to know scores of people, both men and women, young and old, much as he knew us. But I can’t remember his even once having a  romantic interest in anybody. Nevertheless, rather than be left out altogether, I began to memorize poems, a wonderful practice with two rules. Never learn poems you aren’t deeply fond of. Never recite poems to show off. Your motive must always be to share with others a profound joy in the words, the lines, and the ideas expressed.

Increasingly, however, our conversations centered on one subject. That subject was God. But Saunders did not himself, as far as I could apprehend, lead the conversation in that direction. He seemed to know it would get there on its own.

Which it did. and this was hardly surprising. “There are few atheists in foxholes,” said an old aphorism from the war. Neither are there many atheists among jobless heads of families, unable to support their wife and children. During this crisis in my life, I had gone back to praying. I did not come from a church-going home. My father was an atheist and a journalist, my mother a nominal Anglican. But for two years I went to a boys’ school, Lakefield near Peterborough, Ontario where I became fascinated with the chapel services and had myself baptized and confirmed as an Anglican. In adulthood my religious phase waned. But with the catastrophic failure of my weekly newspaper venture, my habit of prayer returned with a vengeance.

Saunders, with his one-on-one ministry and guessing what was happening within me, began pushing C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers on me. My wife and I devoured everything that they wrote for freshmen Christians, which we in fact were, and Saunders became a sounding board for the deluge of thought that flooded through our heads. Out of this, over a period of several months came an inescapable conclusion: The Thing, the Whole Thing, meaning the Gospels, the creeds, and the church were actually true. God was Real. Christ was Real. You could pray to them and they would hear. This became the crucial fact upon which everything else — marriage, children, job, life and death — must be built. And the institution through which these convictions must be expressed was the Christian Church.

From that beginning amazing things happened to us. We began,

like Saunders, a one-on-one ministry, based in the choir of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in North End Winnipeg. The choirmaster had appealed for more men in the choir where women were outnumbering men about five to one. We soon found it easier to bring men into the choir than to bring them into the church. Adopting the one-on-one process in the Free Press office, I accomplished two things: I quickly won the reputation of a religious nutcase, and I also got about a half-dozen journalists into the choir. These formed a group that found a dozen more men, for a total of about seventeen, five of whom later became Anglican priests.

Meanwhile, there emerged from this another totally unexpected development which I did not find out about at the time. Victor Sifton, owner, publisher and semi-mystical monarch of the Winnipeg Free Press, was told that a religious nutcase was at large in his editorial department. Being something of a religious nutcase himself, Sifton became immediately interested and, I was further told, was given progress reports on my efforts.

The group which we called a “cell,” imitating not the Soviets but the early church, soon began taking on a life of its own. Even then we could see that the effect of the new idea of “progressive education” worked well for girls but was poison for normal boys. So we formed the cathedral boys’ choir into a club, designed a spiritual, educational and outdoor program for it, ran it as a weekend residential school for boys. We went on to acquire ownership an old church hospital for natives north of Winnipeg and there established St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ School. In the years that followed we established two more boys’ schools, one near Edmonton, the other near Toronto. Meanwhile, our cell renamed itself the Company of the Cross, set up under the Manitoba Societies Act.

I worked for the Free Press for ten magnificent years, then quit to help found the schools. In financing them, I received continuing direction and guidance from one R.S. Malone, just as dependably tough as he always had been, but all sign of the ogre was gone, if it had ever existed.

Saunders stayed with the Free Press until his retirement at age sixty-five. He played little part in the schools, nor in the train of other Christian endeavors that followed directly from them — a publishing house that produced a multi-volume history of Alberta, then  a twelve-volume illustrated history of the Christian faith, a weekly news magazine, Alberta Report, that among much else championed the rights of the province against the interminable pillage of its resource revenues by Ottawa, finally a writing and history program to teach young Christians the story of their faith and how to effectively defend it. All this and a lot more Saunders had unknowingly set in motion when he befriended a fellow Torontonian on the rim of the desk at the Free Press those many years ago. But he had his one-on-one mission, of which I was an exceedingly grateful beneficiary. So I could hardly push him to quit and join us.

Saunders died in Winnipeg on March 14 from a fall in his Wellington Crescent high-rise apartment where, as always, he lived alone. He carried on his person an alarm which brought immediate help, but the shock of the fall disrupted his heart beat, and the doctors were unable to restore it. Typically, his death, like his whole life, inconvenienced nobody — no lengthy illness, no dementia, no fanfare funeral. It had been twenty-five years since he retired from the Free Press, so that few on the current staff  knew him, while many of the past staff, who knew him well, were dead.

So only two or three dozen people attended the last rites for Robert Saunders. But it made one think — how many lives were affected, as mine was, by this remarkable man who as a child could barely speak? His influence in some form or another was present in just about anything I did. Or my wife, or through us our children, one of them, Link, being Saunders’ godson. The Saunders code — think first and let the feelings follow — was at odds with most evangelical endeavors, but it was at the basis of what our schools taught, what our history books record, and what our magazines provoked. And we were only two of Saunders’ lifetime acquaintances in his ongoing one-by-one ministry. How many people, I wondered, would have been at that funeral, if they had known what this man did with the ninety years allotted to him.

My wife died nearly five years ago. Saunders died last week, and I am the sole survivor of our poetic trio. What can I offer them, I wonder. What would they offer me? I think I know. We would all revert to John Donne’s imperishable lines.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has aslo authored three little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters, The Revolution Nobody Covered and most recently The Time is Now. You can order copies here.


8 thoughts on “Farewell to the speechless man who made it all happen

Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing the story of Bob Saunders. I endured a similar stammering difficulty, broadening other compensatory skills as I matured. Also similarly, discovering the reality of God, of Jesus Christ and of the Spirit Who brings it all together and then connects us as fellow believers on The WAY.

    I will pass on the blessing.


    Mrs. C. Ruth Berg

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Thank you for sharing the story of Bob Saunders. I endured a similar stammering difficulty, broadening other compensatory skills as I matured. Also similarly, discovering the reality of God, of Jesus Christ and of the Spirit Who brings it all together and then connects us as fellow believers on The WAY.
    I will pass on the blessing.
    Mrs. C. Ruth Berg


  3. Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
    Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
    Never met-or never parted,
    We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

    Robert Burns


  4. Virginia Byfield
    Bob Saunders

    What could I offer them?

    “What can I give Him, poor as I am?
    If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
    If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
    Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

    In the Bleak Midwinter
    Christina Rossetti


  5. Alas, I am not trained in classic poetry. But I love the poetry of J. R. R. Tolkien. Perhaps this is not totally inappropriate in light of Mr. Saunders’ passing. I met him once at Ted and Virginia’s home back in the 90s.

    The Road goes ever on and on
    Out from the door where it began,
    Now far ahead the Road has gone,
    Let other s follow it who can!
    Let them a journey new begin,
    But I at last with weary feet
    Will turn towards the lighted inn,
    My evening-rest and sleep to meet.


  6. As someone who lives the “newsman” era of reporting… I call myself one on my Facebook page… I was quite touched after reading this post. Thanks, Ted.


  7. Mr. Byfield! My strongest condolences are offered to you! I will remember Virginia Byfield and Bob Saunders. You are a tower of a man and I miss the good old days on the phones as you authored The Christians!

    God bless
    Jacob Hiller


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