Haltons: Father and Son at CBC News

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Haltons: Father and Son at CBC News

Postby jon » Sat Feb 28, 2015 1:13 pm

‘Canada’s Voice at War’ cut his teeth at U of A’s Gateway
Matthew Halton lived a giant life of journalistic adventure
By Brent Wittmeier
Edmonton Journal
February 27, 2015

EDMONTON - Matthew Halton’s career began with a meteoric ascent, a nine-month transformation from cub reporter to European correspondent.

It really took off after that. In the tumultuous 1930s, the Alberta-born scribbler mingled with glitterati, literati and royalty. In a secret meeting beside the English Channel in 1933, a tightly guarded Albert Einstein warned him about the looming threat of National Socialism in Germany. He spoke with an exiled Haile Selassie and Leon Trotsky. Lawrence of Arabia brushed him off, Gandhi warned him that violence was degrading and Babe Ruth scolded him that cricket wasn’t a game at all.

During the Second World War, Halton would be CBC’s senior war correspondent, “Canada’s Voice at War” as Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. He was its witness at the Nuremberg Trials afterwards.

Halton’s journalistic career has become little more than a footnote in history books, unlike celebrated American contemporary Edward R. Murrow.

“I found that pretty troubling, and a typical example of our tendency in Canada to forget our history,” Halton’s son, David, says over the phone from Ottawa.

David Halton is hoping Dispatches from the Front, a new biography he’s written, will revive interest in his father’s astonishing career. The junior Halton began the project after his own celebrated CBC career, which ended in 2005 after stints in Paris, Moscow and the Middle East.

Matthew Halton was born in 1904 to British homesteaders south of Pincher Creek. Despite their poverty, he was immersed in Shakespeare, Thackery and Kipling. Halton began filing stories for local and regional papers. He later came to Edmonton to study at the University of Alberta, funding his education with stints teaching in remote single-room schoolhouses.

Under the watch of Henry Marshall Tory, the U of A recruited academic stars from across the globe. Edward Kemper Broadus, the Harvard-trained English department head, would invite Halton and other top students for tea, scones and passionate discussions of literature.

Halton occasionally served as a campus stringer for the Edmonton Journal, but he really cut his teeth at The Gateway. He stirred up a campus-wide controversy, for example, with scathing pronouncements against organized religion.

The connections Halton made at the U of A’s Athabasca Hall, including future ambassadors and Supreme Court Justices, served him his entire lifetime. At a party downtown, he met fellow student Jean Campbell, who’d become his wife.

A scholarship allowed Halton to attend the London School of Economics. He returned to Toronto in late 1931, taking a job at the Toronto Star. He established himself as a feature writer, but was really noticed when he satirized an international economic summit in Ottawa. He sketched the proceedings as Alice in Wonderland, with Canadian Prime Minister R. B. Bennett as the Mock Turtle.

In the late 1930s, Halton began filing for the CBC. When conflict erupted in Europe, he wrote vividly and poetically.

Halton witnessed the battle at Ortona, deemed “Canada’s Stalingrad,” and the liberation of Paris. He remained a respected broadcaster in postwar years, covering the coronation of Elizabeth II.

The high life took him everywhere, but left him unhealthy as well. There were already concerns Halton was suffering dementia when he died of an apparent stroke in 1956, following stomach surgery to remove ulcers. He was 52.

On Tuesday, Halton’s voice will sound once again at the U of A, where his son David will play radio clips and read portions from his book at the Faculty Club at 7:30 p.m. at a free event. U of A was one of the last places Matthew Halton visited, months before his death, when the university granted him an honorary doctorate.

It’s been five years since his son David began writing and researching what he calls a “journalistic rags to riches story.” It took 18 months in the national archives reading four million words Halton penned for print and broadcast. There were personal letters and diaries, and valuable transcripts from 70 interviews with an aborted attempt at a biography by an Alberta playwright.

If David ever tells his own story, it won’t involve so much research. “I had a very exciting career but it was nothing to match my dad’s career,” he says.

He visited stops along his father’s path, London and European battlefields, but also Pincher Creek and Edmonton. Born in 1940 shortly before the blitz, he only caught glimpses of his father’s life in journalism. Not knowing his own future, he never asked.

“At 16, you tend to be a little more interested in girls and football and stuff than journalism,” he says. “The house would always be full of visiting Canadian journalists, veterans or local politicians …. I think some of that wore off on me.”

Matthew Halton was a flawed but brilliant figure, David says, who sounding warnings about Nazism in 1933, then watched his predictions come true. He also drank far too much and had numerous affairs. Like other war correspondents, he’s been accused of cheerleading for his country. His son agrees, but insists his father’s voice rang true.

“He didn’t sanitize the world,” Halton says. “In the battle of Ortona, in Italy, he used the phrase ‘it was a courtyard of hell.’ Listeners back home would know that their troops were involved in some terrible battles.”
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