Colleagues of Peeter Kopvillem remember a tremendous editor, a fine musician and a generous man

Look, we know most of you haven’t heard of Peeter Kopvillem. Our Senior Executive Editor, who died on Tuesday, would have been fine with that. His job was to make the magazine better, and for nearly 30 years he did just that. Which means he improved the work, careers and lives of generations of Maclean’s staffers, illustrious or otherwise. This week we asked journalists for their memories of Peeter. Here they are, as told by current and former colleagues: Peeter’s work, his family, his obituary for a bear, his deadpan praise, his fierce anger at oppression, and somewhere under all this mess, that letter from Bill Clinton. — Paul Wells

Michael Enright: Peeter worked for me in the dying days of a long gone magazine called Quest, back in the 1980s. At first I thought he was Dutch. He soon and patiently explained why being Estonian was somewhat different than being Dutch. His glasses gave him a serious mien which belied a flourishing and wicked sense of humour. He was good with writers. He seemed to be always working.

Bob Lewis: When I was managing editor I had the good fortune to be involved in recruiting Peeter to Maclean’s and then, as editor, to lure him back from Munich after his stint with Radio Free Europe. He was, perhaps, the best overall editor and person with whom I have ever worked. He treated you and your copy with respect. I never felt comfortable unless something I wrote got the Kopvillem treatment. He made legions of us look good. 

Richard Warnica: He had a remarkable ability to make you feel like you were in on the joke. I wrote a piece once for the University Guide about bombing out of writing school. Peeter liked it and when I came by his office he told me his own story about the guide. Peeter famously left Maclean’s near the end of the Cold War to work for Radio Free Europe. It was a wild thing, a direct injection into history as it was happening, but in his telling it was a comic misadventure, a detour that saw him slink back to Canada after several years to grovel for his job back. As punishment for having strayed, he told me, they made him work on the University Guide.

The Maclean’s team at Rideau Hall (from left): Senior Writer John Geddes, Managing Editor Geoffrey Stevens, Senior Editor Peeter Kopvillem, Senior Writers Jane O’Hara and Brenda Branswell, Researcher-Reporter Shanda Deziel, Editor-in-Chief Robert Lewis, Senior Writer John Nicol. (Peter Bregg)

 

Anthony Wilson-Smith: Peeter essentially saw life as a black comedy the bastards would usually win in the end, but he’d fight for the right outcome anyway. When he would come into my office arguing for or against a story, he was always deceptively casual. He would sink into a chair, sigh, polish his spectacles, make a self-deprecating remark, finally cut to the chase. In my view, he won more often than not.

Mark Stevenson: It’s sometimes easy to forget how much he shaped the magazine’s identity, especially as executive editor. He was driven by a concern for human rights, a staunch defender of press freedom. Oppression made his blood boil. And in an era when shrinking budgets have crimped foreign coverage, he pushed constantly for on-the-ground reporting from crisis zones, and from everywhere, really. He knew in his bones that there was no replacement—never will be—for putting a smart, determined reporter into the middle of a story.

Stephanie Nolen: I arrived at Maclean’s in 1998, hired as an investigative reporter, trying very hard to look like a person who knew what I was doing. I suspect it wasn’t particularly convincing. Peeter was responsible for refining much of my copy—slouching waaay down in his chair, peering just over the top of his glasses, and then asking if I was sure, really, that that was what I wanted to say. Perhaps I’d like to take another run at it.

Luiza Ch. Savage: Peeter was my first editor when I came to Maclean’s. He was a force of nature that turned my stiff newspaper writing into something that could be published in a magazine. His incisive edits also helped me translate American politics into Canadian: “I don’t know what you’re talking about here,” “You’ve lost me,” “Can this be true?” or, just in the case of Republican primary coverage, “Seriously??” Once in a while I was able to produce the rare story that elicited his highest and most lavish praise: “Well, that wasn’t as dull as I expected.”

Paul Wells: Once I went to Australia because Maclean’s was sponsoring a talk by the novelist David Malouf. Kopvillem phoned me after I’d filed. “That was really good,” he said, deadpan. “I had no hope for that piece at all, but you managed to make it kind of readable.”

Jonathon Gatehouse: There was no higher compliment than when he’d saunter by your desk on a Tuesday night and say, ‘That was a good f–king story.”

Patricia Treble: In 2008, I did a fluffy retail story on the return of drying racks. PK cracked just about every laundry-drying joke he could think of while I was researching it. Then, after issue-managing the story (reading it after the section editor had finished the line edit), he sent me a one-sentence email. “That story wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

Colin Campbell: He once emailed asking what our next cover was going to be: “Kids who eat oatmeal? Ten questions Canadians can’t spell?” Another time: “That story about Merkel was pretty good, but who’s going to read it?”

 

Katie Engelhart: One day, I wanted to write about the legacy of the Lisbon Treaty in the European Union. Late in the afternoon, I see Peeter striding down the hallway—and I hop out to make my pitch. After a minute, he turns around, and stops, and puts up his hand. “I’m so bored my eyes are glazing over.” It sounds cruel, but it wasn’t, of course. He was just teaching me how editors respond to ideas that are as boring as mine was. He taught you to have a thick skin. He thickened my skin and it has stayed that way. And that has been supremely useful.

John Geddes: On one occasion, he told me he expected a Maclean’s colleague to win an award—not that Peeter would make a fuss about it. When it didn’t come to pass, his black disappointment was, I thought, a much deeper tribute to his friend’s work.

Mark Stevenson: Peeter wouldn’t leave until the last story was finished, and he’d read every word in the magazine. That meant late nights. I had the office beside him, and we could chat over the transom. (A corporate thing—we weren’t quite important enough to merit walls that went all the way to the ceiling.) Every now and then, late in the evening when most of the office had left, I’d hear this long sigh from next door. It meant he’d come across a ridiculous mistake, or a sentence that disappointed, or a hole in a story that he couldn’t quite believe had been allowed to get all the way onto the pages. And whether that meant some deft last-minute editing work, or tracking down a writer overseas to ask the question, I knew, and he knew, that he wouldn’t leave until he fixed it.

On other nights, usually when he was waiting for one more story to come back from production, I’d hear strange, tinny plucking sounds come over the transom—the sound an electric guitar makes when it’s not plugged into an amp. He’d put in his ear buds, and work away at some riff, while he was waiting for that last story. Now and then I’d look in to see him hunched over, lost in concentration, working to get it exactly how he wanted it. I’ve often thought the same things that made him a great musician made him a a great editor.

Dianna Symonds: He had a passion for odd animal stories and once wrote an obit for a bear.

Patricia Treble: The ultimate quirky PK story was an Italian bear named JJ3. He’d wandered into Switzerland and been shot in 2008. I saw a story on some European site and sent it to Peeter, who was instantly obsessed. I tracked down Italian studies on the bear’s family. It turns out his brother, Bruno, was the first wild bear in Germany in 170 years. I dug up the official Swiss report on his shooting and dumped articles into Google Translate. Then, finally, Peeter asked me down to his office. “I think this would make a good obit,” he said.

At the time, he was in charge of The End, the obituary page we have at the end of the magazine. Then he asked me if I’d mind if he wrote it. As if I’d say no? He had it done in an hour, yet spent the next 60 minutes trying to cram a “with Patricia Treble” credit into the end, until I told him to stop being foolish. It was his creation. It was the first animal obit we’d done, and, boy, did we hear from Canadians upset that we’d chosen an animal over their loved ones. Peeter loved the controversy.

Dianna Symonds: Recently, he sent me a note in which he laid out why he chose journalism. “I rarely said so to others because such sentiments seemed so pretentious, but I stumbled into journalism and stayed there because I was suddenly in a position TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Here was a chance to steer a publication toward a more activist stance on human rights. I never abused my standing at the magazine, but neither did I shy away from stories dealing with the bloody tragedy of human rights in Eastern Europe and Russia. I think in the final analysis that direction was brought to bear on problems closer to home.”

Ken MacQueen: I remember when I was recruited for the Vancouver job by then-editor Bob Lewis. [Bob] invited me to Toronto for a chat before the deal was finalized. He called Peeter in on a day off to join us. He was doing drywalling at home, I recall. He just scraped the drywall mud off and came in.

Katie Engelhart: Peeter used to call me “kid.”

Shanda Deziel: From 1998 to 2000, Peeter never missed an episode of the teen soap opera Dawson’s Creek. Friday nights the magazine closed late—rarely earlier than midnight. At 8 p.m. I would head into his office—he was the national editor and I was that section’s 25-year-old fact checker—and ask him to turn on the show. He grumbled, but obliged. He mocked the insipid theme song but soon enough, he’d stop what he was doing and watch. Peeter couldn’t stand Dawson, he was Team Pacey all the way.

My true introduction to journalism was watching Peeter and Jane O’Hara bring to light rampant sexual assault in the Canadian military in 1998. Jane, Maclean’s investigative reporter at the time, had a tip that turned into a nine-month investigation, resulting in four cover stories and multiple awards. The impact of these stories was felt across the country and led to embarrassment and action on the part of the military. Peeter was the silent force behind those articles, working closely with Jane so that each woman’s story was treated delicately, respectfully and in no way sensationally—but with maximum effect.

Peeter Kopvillem and Jane O’Hara in the famous “Rape in the Military” issue in May, 1998. (Peter Bregg)

Luiza Ch. Savage: I joined Maclean’s in 2005 while expecting my first child. Peeter was generous in his empathy, advice, and loved to share stories from his own parenting experience. It meant so much to me in those years to have his support while figuring out how to do my job while raising another human.

Michael Snider: The toughest thing I wrote about was a personal story about fatherhood. He helped me shape what I’d wanted to say, which wasn’t easy, and through many conversations about family he shared one about his dad. He said his father had an issue with his legs as he got older and they’d jitterbug ever so often. They’d call it “chasing rabbits.” He told that story and we ended up laughing, in tears, in his tiny office.

Jonathon Gatehouse: I couldn’t even begin to tally the number of hours I spent sitting in his office over the past 15 years, shooting the breeze. We’d debate the ins and outs of stories—often ones I wasn’t even covering. We’d talk about music or films, or the bike commute to work. He’d share funny stories about his time working for Radio Free Europe—the way the Germans would make a cafeteria lunch out of beers and smokes, or the letter of commendation he got from Bill Clinton for helping to save the world.

Katie Engelhart: Peeter had a signed certificate from Bill Clinton in his office. It thanked him for his journalistic service. But he hid it under piles of crap because he was modest like that.

Andrew Coyne: Some of my fondest memories of my time at Maclean’s were hanging out in Peeter’s office, usually on deadline day, when we both had more important things we should have been doing—he, certainly—grouching happily about the state of the world. He had that deep Eastern European sense of irony, no doubt born of hard experience, and it showed in the way he used to smile, slouched in his chair, at the things that irritated him: a smile, not of irritation, but of genuine amusement. How funny, it seemed to say, how painfully funny, that things do not work out quite how we might have preferred.

Patricia Hluchy: In the late 1990s, I wrote a story for Maclean’s about Canadian food and the whole wild/fresh/farm-to-table trend. My intro described foraging for wild mushrooms with my dad in Thunder Bay and in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. Peeter told me he came from a similar European tradition of foraging for wild food and said my intro stoked old memories and brought a tear to his eye. He described spending time in the country outside Montreal with extended family and other members of the Estonian community when he was a kid, and how rich that experience had been. We all knew our brilliant, sometimes crusty colleague was a softie at heart. But teary-eyed in the office: that was a sweet surprise.

Michael Barclay: I spent my first two years as a Maclean’s copy editor mostly fearing how many tiny errors (some infinitessimal, some considerably larger) the meticulous Peeter would find in my work. He always found something. We didn’t share a lot of small talk. But a month before my son was born, he uncharacteristically summoned me into his office and asked me how it was going. Most conversations with other office mates during this time involved the usual platitudes about how it would change my life and my expanding capacity for love and yadda yadda yadda. Figuring I had nothing to lose with this stoic Estonian editor, I confessed, “You know, honestly, I’m totally terrified.” He paused, chuckled, and then the man who made me a better editor than I’d ever been before simply said four words I’ve never forgotten: “That never goes away.” And that, counterintuitively, made everything okay.

Michael Petrou: I started writing for him when I was a student at Oxford, and for the better part of a glorious year, every month or two I’d get an email asking: “Where do you want to go next?” Stories would be written and published with few words passing between us. I once returned to the Kandahar Airfield after a few days in combat outposts to find an email from Peeter asking, “When are you going to Afghanistan?” It was my fault for not telling him I was already there (I had just come off of a month’s paternity leave), but Peeter wasn’t concerned when he found out. He had that much trust in his writers.

Peeter Kopvillem performs with the Maclean’s band. (Jessica Allen)

Adnan R. Khan: Peeter was, without exaggeration, the most important influence on my professional life. It was Peeter who, after I had written about one of Pakistan’s most dangerous militant groups, suggested I leave the country. “I think you should make yourself scarce for a little while,” he wrote to me and proceeded to help make arrangements.  Safety for and sensitivity to what journalists in the field face was his first priority; the high quality of the work he helped produce flowed from that elemental source.

Michael Petrou: In the Maclean’s Ottawa bureau, we used to joke from time to time that Peeter, Estonian to his core, was overly suspicious of Russia, that whenever I was stuck for a story idea I could propose something about Vladimir Putin’s dark plans. This was years ago. Everything Russia has done recently, in Ukraine, elsewhere in Europe and in Syria has proved Peeter right. But I don’t think Peeter was animated specifically by Russia so much as by injustice in general. One of the few times I heard him openly express emotions while editing a story was when I wrote one describing the abuses suffered by an Iranian democratic dissident imprisoned by the regime there. He cared intensely even about people he had never met.

Katie Engelhart: One time, in 2010, Peeter commissioned me to write a 6,000-word article about neo-Nazism. I was 21. I had three days before we went to print. Two days in, Peeter showed up at my desk with a twinkle in his eyes. “They’re going to put it on the cover. And they’re going to call it ‘The Return of Hitler.’ So work with that.”

Adnan R. Khan: In the summer of 2014, while I was in Istanbul, Peeter showed up: not in person of course, and not as an editor. It was at a party organized by an Estonian street musician. She was on a world tour, funded in part by the Estonian government. On this evening, she had invited people over to an apartment—artists, musicians, and journalists—where she gave a talk and showed a video about Estonia. During the course of the video, mixed in with sweeping scenes of Estonia’s natural beauty, was a clip from a concert.  Front and centre, guitar in hand, was Peeter Kopvillem. I was floored. I’d known Peeter was a musician and well-known in Estonia but I had not expected to catch a glimpse of him at a small gathering in Istanbul.

After the presentation, I approached the presenter and told her about my connection to Peeter. She was delighted. “Peeter Kopvillem is famous in Estonia,” she told me. “Everyone knows his name.”

Paul Wells: When I visited Estonia on assignment in 2004 the Estonian foreign office laid on a tour guide for my first night in Tallinn. As we entered the walled old city, I mentioned that my boss was Estonian. Peeter Kopvillem. The tour guide stopped walking. “You know Peeter Kopvillem?” she exclaimed in astonishment. She began reciting dates and venues of concerts where she’d seen him play.

Anthony Wilson-Smith: Shortly after returning to Ottawa from a three-year stint for the magazine in Moscow, I was asked to meet with some visiting journalists from Estonia. When the three journalists arrived, they were in a high state of excitement. “Maclean’s!” one of them said.  “Can this be the same place where the great Peeter Kopvillem is employed?” Why, yes, I said: “And would you like to talk with him?” I called our Toronto office, found him—as usual—working through lunch at his desk. I abandoned the planned discussion and went for a walk, leaving the office filled with the sounds of a multi-sided conversation via speaker-phone in Estonian.  When I returned half an hour later, they were still at it. “That,” said one of them, as he hung up, “is the highlight of my trip to Canada. Talking to the man himself!” When I teased Peeter about it later, he was typically phlegmatic,  “Aw,” he said, “they probably mistook me for some other Peeter Kopvillem.”

Charlie Gillis: I’d been working at Maclean’s maybe a month, and I was sitting in his office. I can’t remember how the subject of Estonia came up. Peeter said he had a joke. This joke, he said, is one that Finns tell about Estonians, but Estonians also tell it about Finns, “so it probably applies to both of us.” Goes like this:

“Dead of winter, and an Estonian man is travelling by horse and cart. In the back of the cart are his two teenage sons. All you hear is the horse’s hooves on the frozen road.

“Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.

“Suddenly, some kind of animal runs across the road. No one says anything.

“Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.

“Then, after about a half-hour, one of the boys says, very slowly, ‘Huh. A fox.’ No reaction, and another half-hour goes by.

“Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.

“Then the second son says, slowly and flatly. ‘Looks more like a dog.’ Again, no reaction.

“Clip-clop, clop-clop, clip-clop.

“This time an entire hour goes by—clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop—at which point, the old man turns in his seat, and says:

“‘Stop arguing, you hotheads!’”

John Geddes: There’s this about the way he didn’t easily show emotion: it meant something when he allowed himself a moment. I’m thinking of something he might say almost inaudibly about his daughters. I hope they know.

Paul Wells: Anyone who could play an instrument was welcome to a tour of duty in the Maclean’s band, which featured several skilled musicians, assorted sad hangers-on, and one Estonian rock star. The last time I played my trumpet in public was the 2009 Christmas party. Now, the trumpet is a cruel instrument that punishes slackers and part-timers with considerable physical pain. All night long, colleagues came up to me to congratulate me on the cool Motown horn lines. Peeter knew better. He was a musician and he was standing right next to me. He leaned over at the end of one tune, real concern in his voice: “How’s your face?” Not good, Peeter. Thanks for noticing.

John Geddes: To say he was serious about music doesn’t quite capture it. Peeter and Eva visited when I was living with my family in Cambridge, Mass. He nearly made us late for a dinner reservation when he spotted a promising music store on a corner near our apartment. This was not like accompanying a pro to expertly check out gear. It was like tagging along with a kid in a particularly alluring toy store.

Peeter Kopvillem performing with The Back Issues at The Opera House on Friday, November 4, 2011. (Jenna Marie Wakani)

Brian D. Johnson: I worked with Peeter at Maclean’s for about a quarter-century. But I spent more time with him outside the office: in the ever-mutating Maclean’s band (which played once a year at the Christmas party) and for about a decade in a band called Baltic Avenue. Anyone who’s been in a rock band knows that what holds it together is a dark sense of humour. And the counterpoint to Peeter’s Shakespearean range of expression on guitar was his wickedly blunt wit. Once I gently asked if he was depressed, and if he’d ever thought about treatment. He looked at me as if I were an idiot. Depression, he informed me, was his birthright as an Estonian. It’s as if I was asking Hamlet to forget about his father’s ghost.

The rest of us were just musicians; Peeter was virtuoso. It seemed he could play anything that came into his head, and so often we were thrilled to just hang onto the beat and watch him fly. Peeter always treated music as if it were limitless, and was easily frustrated by anything that had the temerity to get in his way. But when his long, cruel illness began to sap his strength and stamina, something quite remarkable happened. By necessity he began to edit his virtuosity, and play fewer notes, with each note carrying more than its weight. Much of his style was rooted in the blues, yet as he saw his inevitable horizon drawing near, his guitar soared with an otherworldly lightness and nuance. It was such a privilege to be close to that.

Peter hauled an oxygen tank to his last few gigs, an extra piece of gear that he found unbecoming for a gentleman rocker. But at the last holiday party he performed with the Maclean’s band, he stayed on his feet for the entire marathon set, and played like an angel. He never touched the oxygen tank.

John Geddes: One of our last chats ended with a discussion about his plan to recondition a battered guitar, and what paint would be best. He was enthusiastic about “sea foam green” (No. 49 on Fender’s colour chart). This was not the choice of a guy who didn’t know how to find the pure pleasure in life.

Patricia Treble: During the last few months, I’d regularly go to his house for an hour-long visit on a Wednesday, my day off. It always depended on his health, and medical schedule. We’d chat over tea about everything and anything. I’d always bring baking, enough for Peeter as well as Eva and their daughters. He was swallowing up to 100 pills a day, yet always made room for a few cookies, or slices of cake. For the Queen’s 90th birthday, Maclean’s did a video of me making Queen Elizabeth cake. Peeter thought it was fun. And dropped a hint that he’d like to sample the baking. In my fridge is a Queen Elizabeth cake, wrapped carefully in plastic wrap. I was going to give it to him on Wednesday.

Luiza Ch. Savage: Above all, Peeter confirmed for me that it’s okay not to be happy all the time. He knew that to live fully means to feel deeply—not only the ecstasy but also the melancholy of human existence.

Andrew Coyne: He was a discerning editor, a ferocious guitarist, and a wonderfully kind and generous man. Any one of those would have done, but the last is especially hard.

 

Peeter Kopvillem in a July 1989 issue of Maclean’s magazine. (Peter Sibbald)


Andrew Coyne is a former Maclean’s national editor, now a columnist at the National PostShanda Deziel is a former Maclean’s senior editor. Katie Engelhart is a former Maclean’s correspondent, now a reporter for Vice NewsMichael Enright is a former editor of Quest, now host of CBC Radio’s Sunday EditionPatricia Hluchy is a former Maclean’s managing editor. Stephanie Nolen is a former Maclean’s investigative writer, now Latin America correspondent at the Globe and MailBob Lewis is a former Maclean’s editor-in- chief. Ken MacQueen is a former Maclean’s Vancouver bureau chief. Michael Petrou is a former Maclean’s senior foreign writer, now a fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. Luiza Ch. Savage is a former Maclean’s Washington bureau chief, now editorial director of Politico events. Michael Snider is a former Maclean’s researcher-reporter, now assistant editor at the Globe and MailDianna Symonds is a former Maclean’s managing editor. Richard Warnica is a former Maclean’s writer, now a writer at the National Post. Anthony Wilson-Smith is a former Maclean’s editor-in- chief, now CEO at Historica Canada. Brian D. Johnson is the former Maclean’s film critic, now a contributing editor. Paul Wells is Maclean’s political editor. Colin Campbell is a Maclean’s managing editor. Jonathon Gatehouse and Charlie Gillis are Maclean’s national correspondents. John Geddes is Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief. Patricia Treble is Maclean’s researcher-reporter. Adnan R. Khan is a Maclean’s foreign correspondent. Michael Barclay is a Maclean’s copy editor. Mark Stevenson is Maclean’s editor-in-chief.

Published: May 12, 2016