Dave Robertson passed away Dec 18, and the loss has been much on my mind in the weeks since. So I’m doing the very thing that Dave first allowed me to do—I’m writing about it.
The three principals of AASMAN met while working at Dave’s Yukon News in the late 70’s—Margriet as cartoonist for the daily Northern Times, Trevor as consulting designer for the Weekender and other publications, myself, Al, as layout artist and darkroom technician for the Times and the Yukon News. While Margriet and Trevor moved on when the Northern Times died in 1979, Dave invited me back to the News after a 3-year sojourn elsewhere. My journalism career peaked when he made me Acting Editor during Pat Living’s maternity leave in 1986-87.
I learned a great deal from Dave, virtually all of it by the example he set—the way he was and the things he did more than the things he said. My tribute to Dave Robertson lies in these memories, and the things they taught me.
I was hired by Paul Koring, editor of the Northern Times, in August 1978. The Times was a brassy, daily paper being produced in the offices of the Yukon News. The weekly Yukon News was cobbled together from bits and pieces of the Times. The entire crew, including Koring, was bold, brash and under 25. The youngest was a high school kid from Montreal named Steve. You may know him—he’s still there.
I’d been working there for over a month when Dave came striding past the layout room, made some photocopies, then marched right back to his corner office. I turned to B’lee, my co-worker at the time, and asked, “Who is that old guy, anyway?” That wasn’t the first time I’d seen him, but, in the way of insouciant youth, it was the first time I really acknowledged his existence. “Oh,” said B’lee, “That’s my dad, Dave. He owns the place.”
Dave was famous for leaving people alone to do what they wanted (which, in most cases, was to develop their careers…). To be honest, he didn’t pay us all that much, but the freedom and responsibility that came with the low wages was priceless. Many bright lights got a leg up on their careers thanks to Dave’s attitude, folks like Paul Koring, Ken Faught, Irene Marushko, Rick Van Sickle, and Arnold Hedstrom.
In the 6 years I spent there, Dave never once told me what to do. But he showed me how to do lots of stuff, from reading the reams of pre-digital ticker tape to sharpening an x-acto blade in order to get another day out of it.
Only once did he call me to task for performing at a level below his expectations. “You want me to take on that kind of responsibility, you’ll have to make me editor,” I said. So he did.
In the years I worked at the News, I came in early on press days, around 6:00-6:30. Dave was usually there before me. Sometimes he had visitors at those early hours—some days, people would be leaving as I came in.
One such morning, I came up the stairs to find Dave struggling to move a filing cabinet out from the wall. “Give me a hand here will you?” he asked. It was already six inches from the wall, and we pulled it out another 2 or 3. There was a thick stack paper in that space and when we stood up, Dave dropped another one behind the cabinet. “That should do for a couple more years,” he said.
“What is that stuff?” I asked him.
“Oh, that’s art” he said. “Some of it is, anyway.
”Turns out, Dave was a soft touch for starving artists. He showed me stuff dating back years, some from artists who had gone on to make a pretty good career for themselves. But most of it was crap, pencil sketches whipped off in a few minutes, and Dave was aware of it.
“It doesn’t cost much,” he said. “I’m here early and sometimes they just need breakfast.”
He walked off saying that maybe some day they’ll be worth something. I think he already got the value out of them.
I came into work early one morning of a press day with lots still to do. I was also out of cigarettes and it was driving me nuts. Back then, virtually all of us at the News smoked—the place was blue with it. The stench of stale cigarette smoke was the only thing that could hope to compete with that other constant: the acrid, vinegary aroma of fixer.
So I went back to Dave’s office and asked if I could bum a smoke. “Sure,” he said, pulling his pack of MacDonald’s out of a shirt pocket. He opened it, and there was a single cigarette left. I looked at it, I looked at him. The world skipped a beat for a moment and then I said, disappointed, “Oh I couldn’t take your last one.” He paused briefly and then said, “No, go ahead. I’m quitting anyway.” I thought he was kidding but he assured me no. Today was his Fiftieth birthday, and it was time to give it up.
Perhaps those of you who’ve never smoked won’t appreciate this, but those of you who have will recognize the great sacrifice Dave made, giving up his very last chance of nicotine-induced happiness to me. I know I was impressed, and gave up smoking myself, three months later.
(As it happens, Dave traded in his nicotine addiction for a mentho-lyptus one. He would order cough drops by the gross, and for years his office smelled, not unpleasantly, like Vick’s Vapo-rub, while he chain-sucked one after the other. However, I don’t remember ever bumming a Halls from him.)
When I left the News and started our own business with Margriet, Dave helped us along as if we were still associated. He’d send people over who needed design work, some small advertising projects and, from time to time, some freelance writing for the News. He invited me to come into the office late in the afternoons to use the equipment and do the typesetting we needed for our own layouts. When that wasn’t enough, he gave me a key to the front door so I could let myself in at all hours of the night. I’d typeset, print stuff, use the PMT camera, photocopy and record it all in a notebook on a shelf in the back. Every now and then someone sent me a modest bill. (When Steve took over the News, he retained all his dad’s good habits—from my perspective anyway. Steve even went so far as to finish off a job for me late one night when I had to catch a flight.)
For a while Dave loaned us a computer so we could do some of the work at home. Eventually, he sold us a second-hand Mac, scanner and laser printer and our business really took off. Over the next few years, Dave would call up every now and then to offer me an upgrade, and we’d usually buy it. He enjoyed researching and trying out new equipment, and we provided him a ready market for the stuff he retired.
There were occasional equipment failures, but if there was one thing Dave seemed to enjoy as much as new equipment, it was pulling apart the old stuff, getting under the hood, poking the wires and giving a dead hard drive a nudge. Dave himself was the “special guarantee” that came with every piece of equipment he sold me.
I saw a surprising thing once, something you don’t often see in an office environment. Something that, for all his love of computer equipment, demonstrated his connection to folks.
It was late afternoon and I had brought in a hard drive that needed revival. Dave happily bent over the patient, scalpel in hand, tie over his shoulder, sucking on a cough drop. Several of his “girls” were leaving for the day, calling out Bye Dave, see you tomorrow Dave. On passing his desk, one reached out, pulled his head closer and kissed him on his bald crown. “See you tomorrow Dave…you go on home now!” Dave smiled broadly but never looked up from his work.
Not many bosses command that kind of affection. Not many will be so sadly missed.