The virtues of a Nelson boyhood

A Nelson native who covered Latin America for United Press International has died at 81.

John Virtue

John Virtue

A Nelson native who covered Latin America for United Press International has died at 81.

John Virtue cut his teeth as a parliamentary correspondent in Ottawa before asking for a transfer south. For 17 years, he managed news bureaus in Mexico City, Caracas, and Sao Paulo, where he reported on politics, earthquakes, and wars.

In 1981, he became executive editor of El Mundo, a daily Spanish-language newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico and later joined the International Media Center at Florida International University in Miami, where he trained thousands of mid-career Latin American journalists.

A secret workshop he held in Havana in 2002 resulted in Fidel Castro ordering the arrest of 75 dissidents, including 21 journalists — one of the students turned out to be a spy. Yet Virtue told the Miami Herald that enrollment in his classes only increased as a result.

Virtue published eight non-fiction books, including South of the Color Barrier, an award-winning volume about how the Mexican League helped integrate baseball.

His 2015 autobiography, My Life in Journalism, devotes most of the opening chapter to his time in Nelson, where he was born on Sept. 7, 1934 and spent the first seven years of his life.

His mother, Edna Coles, immigrated from England in 1914 to Millet, Alta. where her father bought a farm. Her future husband, Abner Crawford (Abbie) Virtue, was a “short, balding man 12 years her senior” whom her family dismissed as a city slicker and who had a troubling habit of solving problems with his fists.

Originally from Ontario, Abbie bought a farm at Macklin, Sask. with a cousin and taught school but lost his job because of a fight with a student. He later ran a taxi stand in Edmonton and worked in a California gold mine before enlisting in the army during World War I. He was twice promoted to sergeant and twice demoted for beating up soldiers under his command.

Abbie returned home from the war to learn his cousin had sold the farm without consulting him.

He and Edna married in 1928, five months after they met, and moved to Nelson, where their son said they “were soon enjoying an upper middle-class lifestyle.”

Abbie was regional manager for Beatty Bros., a washing machine manufacturer, and could afford a three-bedroom stucco house at 706 2nd St. in Fairview, plus a car, motor launch, and large boathouse — all during the Great Depression.

A daughter, Dawn, was born in 1930, followed by a son two years later who only lived a few days. John was the third and final child.

His memories of Nelson included searching the street in front of their house looking for his mother’s lost wedding ring (they never found it); playing road baseball but never getting a hit; eating Cracker Jacks at a Nelson Maple Leafs game; going door-to-door asking for used toothpaste tubes for the war effort; and being followed to school by his dog, who spent the day under John’s desk.

He also recalled two frightening incidents: his mother, who couldn’t swim, became hysterical when their motorboat quit and drifted into the wake of a passing sternwheeler, nearly swamping them.

On another occasion, a driver forced their father off the road and their car tumbled down an embankment. John and his sister were unhurt, but their mother went through the windshield, leaving scars on her face.

The good life ended in 1939, he said, never to return: “My father’s uncontrollable temper led to the downfall.”

A co-worker named Topley showed what Abbie felt was too much interest in his wife, so he took Topley into an alley behind Beatty Bros. and beat him so badly that he was hospitalized. It wasn’t the first time he’d fought a fellow employee, and his supervisor, a Mr. Bailey, reprimanded him. Bailey’s face was badly scarred from childhood acne, but Abbie spread rumors that it was the result of syphilis. He was fired.

In his book, John quotes a letter from the company president: “I could not imagine anything that could be done that would be more injurious to our interests as a company than such a statement as you made against one of its principle [sic] executives.”

Abbie then risked his savings and house to buy a butcher shop owned by a German man who was boycotted into bankruptcy after World War II began. It was across the street from Hume school, where John was in Grade 1.

“Whatever my father’s skills as butcher, the store suffered the same fate as it did under [the previous owner],” John recalled.

In the summer of 1941, John and his sister watched people “paw through the family’s possessions” prior to their impending move to Edmonton.

“The symbols of prosperity were sold: the sleek .410 shotgun, the fine fishing gear, the fancy camera, all gone before a father could teach his young son how to use them.”

Despite a difficult home life from then on, John proved to be an excellent student. He worked on his high school newspaper and in 1953 enrolled in the journalism program at what was then Carleton College in Ottawa, setting the stage for his outstanding career.

He returned to Nelson once, in 1972, on vacation from a posting in Venezuela. Only a few years earlier he’d reconciled with his estranged father, who was then living in Kelowna.

“When we went to the old family home, the owners knew immediately who we were when I said I had been born there. They were the same people who bought the house in 1941.” (They aren’t named in the book, but civic directories list them as Gordon and Winnifred Strong, who died a month apart the same year Virtue visited.)

John Virtue died on June 4 in Miami Beach from complications related to cancer. He is survived by his wife, sister, a daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters. He was predeceased by his son who died late last year.