At about this time, every year, Terry Wills would take us out to Christmas lunch: Hy’s, maybe, or the Parliamentary restaurant, or a pasta joint on Queen St. long since closed. There were three of us in the Montreal Gazette’s Ottawa bureau in those days, 1994 to 1997 or so. Terry Wills; William Johnson, the dogged political columnist who took pains to earn his nickname “Pit Bill;” and me.
Terry died on Saturday at 73. Very few members of the press gallery will remember him. When he retired, shortly after the 2000 election, he went home happily and left this place behind. I might have seen him once in the last decade.
I was 28 when I arrived in Ottawa and I didn’t know much about much. Terry had been in Ottawa, aside from a stint in Washington for the Globe and Mail, since 1968. He knew Parliament Hill the way few have known it since. I still remember him giving me a tour through the Centre Block’s back halls and passageways. The way he made it perfectly clear, after he sent me into my first scrum and I let the Heritage Minister get away without answering my question, that I was not allowed to let a minister get away again.
Terry was then already a veteran of a vanished era. He did not fuss over stories. He got them done and sent them on their way, sometimes two or three in an evening. This was the run-up to the 1995 secession referendum and its long aftermath, when the news was pretty much one damned thing after another. (I remember the look on Terry’s face when we heard the doctors had amputated Lucien Bouchard’s leg.) There was not a lot of time to polish each story to perfection. There were often four or five reporters pitching in on a story from three cities, Phil Authier and Liz Thompson in Quebec City, somebody else in Montreal, Terry and I in Ottawa. Anyone could be the lead writer. Everyone else would pitch in whatever they could gather. Half of what you filed would be discarded. It was no environment for delicate egos. Terry was, at all times, awesomely unflustered. Our coverage was consistently streets better than the competition’s, on the story our readers cared about most.
When the provincial premiers came to town, because in those days the premiers were welcome, Terry showed me where to stand to catch a pol fleeing a conference room. He told me to stop calling political scientists for comment: “All they do is tell us what to think about what we saw that they didn’t.” He took a nap every day after lunch for 20 minutes, ball cap over his eyes, feet up on his desk, and woe betide me if I interrupted, but by the time Question Period rolled around he was ready for the game. For recreation he played the harp. I never witnessed this and could hardly believe it because he was a hale fellow who, if he felt like it, could have snapped me like a twig, but apparently music really does have charms.
In scrums he asked a question to get information, not to hear the sound of his voice. I wish every reporter could spend a week following Terry Wills around scrums.
I learned a hell of a lot from him, and never enough. I have always admired the way he retired: he finished the job, went home to his family, wasted no time hanging around the Hill chasing faded glory. When I’m ready, I hope I can follow his example once more.