Remembering cartoonist Roy Peterson

Allan Fotheringham on a gentleman in a profession that had few

Roy Peterson / Vancouver Sun

The rarest thing in the universe is two human beings who share the same brainwaves. In the crazy world of journalism, it is even more unique. That was certainly the case with Roy Peterson, who died quietly as September folded, and this scribbler, who had a remarkable linkage of political thinking over half a century.

We had an arrangement that was unparalleled in all of Canadian journalism. A full 26 years sharing a column on the back page of Maclean’s magazine, my keen prose polished by his unforgiving cartoons. No one could touch this—except our bank managers.

Roy would sit in his creative office, a renovated garage behind his house in Vancouver, waiting for a phone call from me from somewhere in the world, from God knows which continent. It could be India, Russia, China, or any of the 91 countries I encountered in the 26 years we produced the column.

Friends could not believe it when I told them Roy would only receive on his garage phone my musings, what I would be raging about on the lurking deadline, and he would somehow produce an angry cartoon that perfectly matched my anger. Incredible as it may seem, I would sometimes give him my vague instructions a day before his deadline in Toronto.

It was that linkage of the brainwaves. Extrasensory perception. Roy and I lasted for 26 years on ESP.

The genius behind all this was Peter C. Newman, who, on taking over as editor of Maclean’s, came up with the idea of uniting Roy and me on the unlikely showcase that was the back page.

And what a team we were.

An example? It was no surprise that, within a year of Dave Barrett taking power, a cabinet minister had to be sacked for being caught in flagrante delicto in a car within a 50-yard view of the premier’s office window. The cartoon illustrates the goofiness of B.C. politics. Or René Lévesque ready to rip Quebec out of Canada. Roy came up with a cartoon showing Lévesque chainsmoking with cigarette butts hanging out of his mouth while pulling a rope, presumably with Quebec at the other end.

Rather quickly, all the polls showed that Maclean’s readers would turn to the back page first—leading to my publisher on one of my books labelling it Last Page First and using one of Roy’s caricatures of me on the front cover.

The strange thing was that Roy and I were so different personally. Although he was a tall man he was quiet, gentle. I never once heard him raise his voice in anger. But he had a quiet determination to build his career and become known nationally without leaving the West Coast. I, on the other hand, was a short, wild egomaniac fours years his senior, travelling the world, building my career doing five jobs—journalism, television, publishing nine books and working the lecture circuit. I guess opposites attract.

On the 10th anniversary of the back page, Roy called me up and suggested a reunion in Chicago . . . just us two. I agreed. Off I went to the Tremont Hotel, which Roy arranged. We had a great weekend together—just the two of us, or so I thought. I later found out he had brought his wife, Margaret. But she was doing her own thing in the background. I never saw her once. When I checked out of the hotel, I was told my bill had already been taken care of.

On the 20th anniversary of the back page, I received another call from Roy. How about this time we take our wives with us and go to Las Vegas? Roy would arrange everything. Off Anne and I went to the opulent Bellagio hotel in Vegas. When we arrived, there was a basket in our room put together by Roy and Margaret, with gifts, a booklet outlining our itinerary and a bottle of Champagne. Shows, fine dining, a helicopter ride at midnight over Las Vegas, even gold earrings for our wives followed. Once again, when I checked out of the hotel, the bill had been taken care of by Roy.

Roy Peterson was a freak. A civil gentleman in a profession that held so few.