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SIGHT LINES: Coffee and memories of an ‘intrepid reporter’

South Surrey’s George Garrett made everyone feel like a friend
Veteran radio newsman George Garrett in 2016, promoting the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society. (File photo)

There’s a joking tribute to George Garrett making the rounds, according to former White Rock mayor (and erstwhile MLA and MP) Gordie Hogg.

“They say that God ought to watch out. George is in heaven and he’s already getting the inside scoop,” he related at a coffee meeting with myself and another former White Rock mayor, Darryl Walker, the other morning.

Like Gordie and Darryl and countless others who considered him a friend – and that was pretty much everyone who knew him – I was saddened by the news of the veteran radio reporter’s passing at a Surrey hospice at the age of 89 on March 18.

Sad, too, that we never got to go for coffee one last time.

The South Surrey resident was a B.C. legend, an award-winning journalist who notched up some 43 years with radio station CKNW, and was all over most of the major news stories in the province from the mid-1950s until the time he retired in 1999.

He developed an unmatched network of people in the know, and would receive tips that others simply didn’t, and couldn’t, get. He was trusted because – impeccable gentleman that he was – his sources knew he would never betray their confidence. It’s likely the identities of most of them were secrets that went with him to the grave.

As Darryl noted: “he was the epitome of professionalism in the news business.”

Soft spoken, but highly competitive and hard-nosed when he needed to be – and gifted with a rare news sense – George seemed infallible in getting the story, getting it right, and getting it on the air, often before competitors were even aware there was a story.

But unlike others who gained fame from simply peddling sensation, there was always the feeling that George’s good judgement would come into play when deciding how, or even if, a story was told. And, as his autobiography, George Garrett - Intrepid Reporter, reveals, he was honest about times he felt he’d fallen short of the mark.

He wasn’t shy about placing himself on the firing line, either. In 1992 he was badly beaten because he’d walked into the epicentre of the Los Angeles riots. In contrast, he was well able to endure the chiding and jibes of B.C. politicians over the years – Darryl related George’s story about being shown the door by Premier Bill Bennett after he’d hired a limousine and dressed in his best suit to con his way into a reporters-verboten joint meeting of the Alberta and B.C. cabinets.

George was capable of going undercover to expose a crooked tow-truck operation; and going virtually without cover to do a story on a Surrey nudist camp.

His book is a must-read – a fascinating, one-of-a-kind insight into politics, crime and the changing social scene in B.C. in the last half of the 20th century.

But it’s likely there are a few stories that never got told, because George – a man who always cared about decency, fairness and the good of the community – felt it was better that way.

“With all the many kinds of people he covered, he never had any sense of animosity, or bitterness,” Gordie said.

“He was honest, straightforward, positive and caring. To me, he embodied all of the Canadian values.”

When George retired from the news business, his sense of wanting to make the world a better place did not diminish.

In 2016, after the Canadian Cancer Society cancelled its driving program, he stepped up as a co-founder – and highly-effective fundraiser for – the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society, which picked up the valuable task of recruiting and supervising drivers and dispatchers to help get cancer patients to and from appointments.

He also became a keen member of the White Rock Rotary Club, serving as its publicist over the last few years and also a member of the panel that judged the Rotary-Peace Arch News essay contest, which encouraged senior high school students to write pieces based on current news stories.

Much of his time was also spent caring for his late wife Joan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010.

Knowing my interest in the ‘bad’ old days of Vancouver crime and nightlife, George welcomed the chance to chat over coffee, and generously share his memories of some of the notable characters he’d met over the years, including Penthouse Nightclub owner Joe Philliponi.

I encountered him first at an event to promote the Rotary club’s fundraising for new playgrounds and equipment at White Rock Elementary and Peace Arch Elementary – which Darryl, who had attended the same event as mayor, said was also the first occasion for him to meet the legendary newsman.

Darryl had later got to know him even better as a member of White Rock Rotary, he said.

“Whatever people needed from George, he gladly gave,” he said. “He was a true Rotarian – ‘service before self’.”

Gordie said he had first met George years ago, when he was interviewed as director of the Willingdon Youth Detention Centre.

But he’d come to know him better in later years as a tireless fundraiser for community causes, such as the Cancer Drivers Society.

“He called me up once and said ‘we’re having a car wash and I need you there’. And I went, because it was George, and if he asked, you’d do it.”

“If you wanted something done, George would get it done – or he knew exactly who to call to get it done,” Darryl added.

Both Darryl and Gordie were among frequent visitors to George in his last few months.

Often, they said, he’d be asleep when they’d arrive, then he’d wake and for 15 minutes or so would be just as sharp and lively as he always was, keen to talk over the old days, before he tired and need to rest again.

I hoped to join them at the next opportunity – but sadly there was to be no next opportunity. If we meet again, George, the coffee is on me.

Predeceased by his wife Joan in 2021 and his son Ken, in 1987, George is survived by daughters Linda Garrett and Lorrie Watt and their families.

A memorial service will be held Wednesday, April 3, at 10 a.m. at Valley View Memorial Gardens, 14644 72 Ave.

About the Author: Alex Browne

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