Costas Halavrezos

Costas Halavrezos

Costas Halavrezos of Dartmouth has one of the most mispronounced—butchered might be more accurate—names among Maritime personalities. But if many East Coasters have trouble getting their tongues around his decidedly Greek moniker, they have no problem identifying his “buttery” voice, as one caller described it when Costas announced in 2010 that he was retiring as the host of CBC’s Maritime Noon after 23 years.

Despite all that time on the air, the listeners who didn’t know Costas personally wouldn’t really know that much about the man. And, as Costas explains in his story, that was intentional.

“I was on every day,” he says. “Why would I blather about myself? The person you’re talking to—it might be the only time they’re ever on the radio because of the circumstances of the story. It’ll certainly be memorable for them. Very often people are nervous—even if it’s something they know about. The host’s job is just to make them comfortable, conduct the interview, get the information out. That’s it.”

However, when we sat down to talk to Costas, the tables were turned and he graciously opened up about his own life story. And it’s fascinating.

Costas’s father grew up among peasants in the Greek mountain village of Agios Stefanos, left school as a boy to travel with his sister to Egypt for work, and eventually joined the Greek merchant marine during the Second World War. “He had quite a few adventures and close calls,” says Costas. That included surviving being torpedoed and having the ship he was on sink in 12 minutes, a story that Costas relates in some detail.

His mother was “Miramichi Irish” and grew up on a small subsistence farm in Semiwagan Ridge, N.B. She moved to Saint John as a young woman and met Costas’s father while she was working as a waitress in The Paradise restaurant.

Costas recalls essentially growing up in his father’s eatery in downtown Saint John. He says Nick’s Coffee Counter was a “real classless society” that catered to everyone from politicians to prostitutes. Only occasionally, if someone was drunk and said something inappropriate, would Nick Halavrezos grab him by the scruff of the neck and the back of the belt and give him the bum’s rush out onto the sidewalk.

Costas regales us with tales of growing up “Irish Catholic” in Saint John, attending St. F.X. University, travelling throughout Greece and England for a year, working as a young man, drifting into radio work and more. He doesn’t pull any punches when explaining why he left the CBC in 2010 or when assessing the state of the public broadcaster today. But he insists his life wasn’t defined by his radio work.

He and his wife—respected reporter Jennifer Henderson—live a relatively quiet life on a leafy Dartmouth street. He’s grown grapes, sold spices and wrote a book titled Seasoned: Recipes and Essays from The Spiceman. He plays bass in a band called the BBQ Kings, does voice-over work and just started a podcast called Book Me! in which he interviews Atlantic Canadian authors and illustrators.

But it all started at Nick’s Coffee Counter …

(Were you born in Saint John?) Saint John, New Brunswick. Boxing Day 1947. My father was Greek. He was from Crete, the island of Crete. My mother was Miramichi Irish.

(Can you tell me a little about your father and how he landed in Saint John?) He was in the Greek merchant marine during the Second World War. He had quite a few adventures and close calls. They were mostly doing the North Atlantic run. But they went elsewhere in the world too. He stopped in Halifax, Sydney and Saint John various times in the first few years of the war. They’d meet the small Greek communities and then get back on the boat again. I think they were probably in dry dock in Saint John for a little while, so they got to know people there better. But he knew people in Halifax too.

He was on the Mount Taurus, a ship in a convoy that left from the Bedford Basin in November of 1942. I think they picked up a few more boats in Sydney. And then, somewhere past Greenland, they were torpedoed. He was one of the survivors. And the survivor boat, even though they were more than halfway across the Atlantic, came back to Halifax. This was the end of ’42. There were huge Allied losses at sea.

(And when they escaped, was it only a few from the ship?) There are a lot of details, unfortunately, I didn’t get from Dad. A site that I found indicated 40 survived from the Mount Taurus and only two died. His best friend, Theodore, escaped. He was the telegrapher, a guy I eventually met in 1971 when I went to Greece for the first time. Lovely man. Big, big gregarious guy. Huge elephant ears. Anyway, Dad was supposed to have been in the engine room that day. But he and this other guy switched shifts. And of course, they got the torpedo, bang, right in the engine room. The ship went down in 12 minutes. He jumped out of his bunk or wherever he was and ran up to tell his friend Theodore, said ‘Get off, get off!’ Theodore was sending a Mayday signal! They were in a convoy. Everybody could see that ships were getting torpedoed by the U-boats, you know. What are you going to do? So he and Theodore and some other guys escaped.

As I say, he’d already had other adventures. On one of the earliest trips out, they went to Dakar in Senegal in Northwest Africa. The French government fell and since Senegal was a French colony, it was taken over by the Nazi-compliant Vichy government of the day. So any Allied ships in Dakar were held under harbour arrest by the Nazis or their French collaborators.

So you can imagine North African temperatures—being trapped on a ship there. They could go ashore now and then. But just ridiculous temperatures—over 100 Fahrenheit and things like that. But people were getting sick. There were people with malaria and there were parasites. It was pretty grim, I guess. But they actually escaped by boat one night, out past whatever kind of barriers they had at the mouth of the harbour, and got out into the open ocean. It was kind of a rowboat, I think, and then they went with the currents. They were actually picked up by a British ship and taken to South Africa and then they were transported to London, where their shipping line had an office. So he was up to London in time for parts of the Blitz! You know, just ridiculous. That was near the beginning of the War. I think it was late 1940.

Costas’s father Nick Halavrezos in Queen Square, Saint John.

(Did he tell you any particulars about how many people were on that rowboat?) No. If he ever did, I can’t remember.

(Did he expand at all on the effect of being torpedoed?) No. Happy to be alive of course. But looking back, he eventually developed dementia. And he had what they call several ‘insults’ to his brain over his life. He may have been concussed when the boat was torpedoed. Later, in the 1950s, he was in a car accident—a head-on collision. He was a passenger, in the middle seat in front. The guy next to the door was killed. And my father was in a coma for, I think, three days. So definitely concussed there. And a lifelong, heavy smoker. All the things that predispose you to developing dementia.

(What were they transporting in the Mount Taurus?) Supplies. I really don’t know. Obviously, England wasn’t getting anything from Europe.

(When the survivor boat came back here, that was it for him for the duration of the war?) Yeah. The survivor boat landed here (in Halifax), probably through Pier 21 or something. But he decided to stay in Canada. That was it. His nine lives were running out. (Costas laughs). He considered staying here but then went over to Saint John and he got offered a job there with a couple of Greek guys, the Nicholas brothers, who ran a place in the centre of Saint John. Just called Nicholas Brothers. Then he worked and saved. He met my mother. She was working in a restaurant next door called The Paradise—a waitress in Paradise! So they started going out. I don’t know exactly how soon they started going out, but they were married December 28th ’46.

(Nicholas Brothers, was that a restaurant?) They had a lunch counter. But it was also a variety store. Cigarettes and sundries. All and sundry. You know, soda fountain, sandwiches, magazines, newspapers. It was a great place. I remember it from when I was a kid. It was still operating. Right at the centre of town on King Square.

(Would he have had much English?) Not a whole lot. He had smatterings of several languages which you pick up. He told me his friend Theodore—whenever they landed in a port—was the charmer. He always kept a little notebook and he’d take it out at their table in a restaurant when they’d spot a couple of women. Theodore would go over and say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t speak much English. What is the word for this?’ And he’d point to something, maybe in his book or on the menu. He’d charm them and then eventually they’d get together. Dad was Theodore’s wingman, I guess.

(Your mother was from the Miramichi?) Yeah. Her parents had a little farm in a place called Semiwagan Ridge in the area called Barnaby River, which is one of the tributaries of the Miramichi. But she had come to Saint John in her early 20s.

(Was it odd that they would get together, him being not long removed from Greece?) I’ve no idea. I get the feeling that there was a pretty lively social scene in Saint John during the War. I was recently listening to a documentary I scripted 30-some years ago. It was about the art scene in Saint John in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s. I got to interview a lot of people who were involved. Not just painters. There was a writer and teachers and someone running the theatre guild and a guy running a gallery and so on. But they talked about the ’40s and the War years. Saint John was a port, so there’d be regular dances attended by soldiers and sailors. People were getting together at house parties and all that kind of stuff. A steady stream of people on leave and people from other countries. You’d meet people in restaurants or in King Square and invite them to the parties or the dances.

Costas’s mother Hilda Mary (Bohan) Halavrezos, who was from Semiwagan Ridge, N.B.

(Where was your father from?) A little mountain village. I’ve been to it several times. Up from the southeast coast of Crete. Agios Stefanos. It translates as St. Stephen. It’s funny—one of those weird coincidences—I was born on St. Stephen’s Day.

(Did you know much about his childhood?) Well, they were peasants. It was subsistence living. They were living in the mountains. You know, they grew their own grapes and vegetables and foraged and had some sheep. There’s a fantastic beach at the foot of the mountain. I don’t know how long it would take to go down by donkey because I’ve driven up to the village by car, and it’s a long, winding drive. Wonderful stuff down there on the coast these days—greenhouses and tavernas. There might have been more work down there back then. But it was just subsistence living up in the village when my father was a child, really. Pretty tough.

There was a period when he was young … there was a friend of the family who had a shop in Alexandria, Egypt. There were seven kids in my father’s family, and he and his younger sister, Athena—the next in line—basically were shipped off to Alexandria to work with this guy. There were too many mouths to feed. They were in their early teens I think.

(That means no school?) He had gone for a while, whatever schooling there was in the village. You can only imagine. He was born in 1909. But he and his sister Athena learned Arabic in Alexandria. I stayed with her a few times. Wonderful woman. In Athens, they had a little dry goods shop in the foothills of the Acropolis—she and her husband, Politimos. But there were a couple of cafés she pointed out in Athens where a lot of Arabic-speaking people gathered. And she would cruise by. She was always interested in eavesdropping on them, especially if they had anything to say about her. (Laughter).

(So when you were over in ’71, your grandparents wouldn’t still be alive?) No, they had died in the late ’60s. I have a picture of them out there on the stairs. My grandmother looks like my father in a black dress. Their faces are exactly the same.

(How did your aunt relate to you when you went over?) Oh great. She and Dad were very close. I was her brother’s son. I was golden. He had been over the year before—1970—the only time he ever returned to Greece. He visited all his brothers and sisters.

They had been out of touch for years because of the War. He had done his compulsory military service shortly before the War up on the border with Albania, and then he got into the merchant marine. And Athena ended up working as something like a nurse’s assistant in—well, at the time it was under British mandate—Palestine. And they never made contact for years because he didn’t know where she was, and she didn’t know where he was. She told me she thought he was dead. Which would be a fair assumption in those days, considering the odds. They didn’t reconnect until 1946. Somehow, by mail, the connection was made. He may have sent something back to his parents in Crete, and word must have got back to her in Athens. By that time, the postal service must have been restored, because Crete had a very hard time during the War. She was telling me, ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. My Nikos was alive.’ She just loved Dad and the feeling was mutual.

(Of course, they would have been close, travelled together.) Yeah, yeah. And she was a really feisty woman, a real firebrand and a fireplug of a woman. Short, stocky. She’d bang you on the shoulder, you know, as a greeting. She was very, very kind to us. Jennifer and I, about a year after we got married, finally got around to having a proper honeymoon, because we’d only taken a few days off in 1984 and then gone back to work. We went to Greece in ’85. Athena was living in Athens at that time and her husband Politimos was still alive.

Costas’s parents Nick and Hilda Mary (Bohan) Halavrezos.

(You would have had other relatives there, but she was the main contact?) Yeah. They had two daughters. One of their daughters, Litsa, has remained … she’s sort of my closest relative, the one I know best. I last saw her in 2012.

I briefly touched down in Athens in 1971. Litsa and her sister Maro and their friends ran me around town and down to Corinth on the bus for a few days. But then I took the ferry to Crete and stayed with my cousin Katina and her husband Bobbis and children and her mother Irini—my father’s sister—on the south coast in a town called Ierapetra. It was my base. That’s where I learned whatever Greek I have, because I had time on my hands, Greek-English grammar books and lots of opportunities to practice. I would help out at the dry goods store that Bobbis operated right on the town square. Met people my age from Canada and all over the world, who were hitchhiking around. The locals were still buzzing about the hippies hanging out in the caves and beaches in Matala along the coast to the west of Ierapetra. Joni Mitchell had been among them, about a year before.

Katina’s brother, Michael, had come over to Canada in the 1960s. Dad sponsored him and he lived with us for a while. The hope had been that he would work with my father and eventually take over the lunch counter business. He didn’t want me to continue in the trade—it’s exhausting—and I wasn’t inclined to, either.

Michael stayed. He didn’t take over my father’s business, unfortunately. But he worked in Saint John and is still living. So I stayed with his family. That was great. I learned a lot of Greek. I’d go hiking up the mountains nearby or go hitchhiking around Crete for a week and return.

(How long were you there?) I was there until about Christmas, nearly three months. And as I say, I travelled around and got to know my way around Crete a bit. Then I went back to Athens just before Christmas that year, so I got to know the city quite well. I took classical guitar lessons, twice a week, and was coming along pretty well. And then forgot everything by not practising.

I think it might have been St. Patrick’s Day when I left Athens and went to England by train. I had a friend from Saint John, Tony Lamport, who was studying sociology in Southampton, and I ended up spending about six months in England.

(When you were with your relatives, that’s when you learned most of the Greek you have?) Yeah, yeah. (You didn’t learn any from your father?) Well, no. A few words but that was it. There was no conversation. My mother didn’t speak any, so …

(What was the feeling you had your first time there in Greece?) Oh, I felt very comfortable with it, you know. I loved the way of life, the social aspect of it—going to a café, and having big family meals every night, and living outdoors a lot because the climate was so good.

Nick and Hilda Mary Halavrezos were married on Dec. 28, 1946.

(And your father’s name again?) Nick. (What was his full name?) Nikolaos Kostas, probably with a K, it was spelt with, because there’s no letter C in Greek.

(And your mother’s name?) Hilda Mary Bohan. She grew up as Hilda, but she hated the name, and eventually went by Mary. (And she came from more or less a subsistence farm?) Yeah. My grandfather worked in the woods in the winter as well. Between farming and working in the forestry industry, that’s what he did. William Bohan. Lovely, gentle man.

(Did you know your maternal grandparents?) Yeah. We never had a car, so we used to go up by bus and visit when I was a kid. Once I was shown how you got eggs from chickens. I marched in the next morning and—not knowing—lifted off these hens to get the eggs. Created quite a stir. The family wondered what was going on in the henhouse. It was me lifting these poor hens off, flipping them out of the way. Lucky I didn’t get my eyes pecked out. (Laughter).

(Your father being Greek, was there any question of acceptance there?) Not that I know of. My maternal grandfather would come down to visit us in Saint John from time to time and he and Dad got on very well. (No culture clash?) No, no, no. You know, Dad was a hard worker and treated my mother well, so that was all right as far as my grandfather Bohan was concerned.

We finally got a TV. Probably the last family in the apartment house. We were not early adopters of things. I mentioned my Dad was in that car crash. While he was in hospital—he had quite a long convalescence, he was in for about a month—he had a TV in the room. He got hooked on TV. (What year would that have been?) I think it would have been ’58 maybe. Thereabouts. Anyway, I remember it was new to us and my Grandpa Bohan was down for a visit from the Miramichi. I remember him sitting there watching the test pattern before the shows came on, smoking his pipe, watching the old Indian-head test pattern. (Laughter). And he was a lovely man, too, my grandfather. Very gentle. Big strong guy.

(Would he have used horses in the woods?) Yup. There’s a David Adams Richards novel—I think it’s his best—The Friends of Meager Fortune, that’s it. It really pivots on the last year they were doing horse-driven log drives. The trucks were coming in the next year. Some people were already using trucks, but it was sort of this last drive. And it’s this big allegorical thing, really paralleling the crucifixion of Christ.

(But being set in New Brunswick, it gives you this sense of what it was like?) Oh yeah. And the thing about bringing a full load of logs down steep hillsides with a horse-drawn team in the winter… what could go wrong? (It’s not for the faint of heart.) No, no. So my grandfather was of a generation … he would have been involved in all of that.

There was a period during the ’30s when some of them went down to the States to stay with relatives. My mother was in Waltham, Massachusetts, went to school there for a couple of years, and she was staying with an aunt and an uncle. I think another brother went down and I think my grandfather got some kind of work there too. I’m not really sure how many of the family went down.

(That wouldn’t be uncommon for people to be going down to the Boston area.) Oh, not at all. You know, when I was growing up, I thought Boston was made up of aunts and uncles. Everyone I knew had aunts and uncles in Boston. From Saint John, especially, being a very Irish city, there was that connection, too.

(Right, and you’re relatively close.) Oh yeah. Well, the CP train used to run from Saint John down to Boston. You went up to McAdam, New Brunswick, crossed into Maine, and then it either cut south through Portland to Boston or northwest to Montreal. That’s how we travelled. And Halifax used to have a Boston boat. I think there used to be a Boston boat from Saint John, too.

Costas’s maternal grandparents William and Josephine (McDonald) Bohan.

(What year did your father start the lunch counter?) I think it was after I was born. I remember the original Nick’s Coffee Counter. It was around probably ’49, ’50. He had that for a while.

I remember being there and I remember the neighbourhood. The butcher shop, the pharmacy. It was across the railway tracks that terminated at the grand Union Station, just a few blocks away. And then the land he was on was expropriated. He found another place to rent—not far—on City Road, just across the Wall Street bridge over the railway tracks. Next to a fire station and across from where there’s a big Irving station now. He kept the same name, Nick’s Coffee Counter. He had that running until the mid ’80s.

I really grew up in the lunch counter on 31 City Road. Fourteen stools, I seem to remember, and no booths. But along one wall, opposite the stools and counter, there were magazines, newspapers, weeklies, tabloids, comic books. There was a rack of pocketbooks, and then there was a small counter with penny candy and chocolate bars on the other side. And a pop cooler. The free candy and pop wrecked my teeth. Bananas—we always had bananas for whatever reason—and a set of scales to weigh them. But I spent a lot of time there.

(And if you were there, were you working even as a young person?) I was, as my father would say, ‘eating the profits.’ No, I was helping out. Which became important when I got into the spice business after I retired from CBC. But I’d take back the empty bottles and keep the cooler stocked and change the magazines. New, updated magazines would come twice a week, so I’d take down the old ones and put up the new ones … after I gave them a good scan.

And it was a wonderful education, because I had completely unsupervised reading. Any moment I had, I was over there and checking out the stuff that interested me. It killed me of course, when I was a teenager, that we didn’t have a car, because it was the heyday of all those car magazines and customizing cars and Motor Trend and all that kind of stuff. I kept up to date with all the cars. Dad just relied on taxis.

It was the ’50s then and it was funny because only about a couple of miles away there was the big strip—Rothesay Avenue—where all the car dealerships were. It was hot and heavy in the ’50s because the economy was growing and they were affordable and I guess gas was cheap. There was a new model every year that looked very different from last year. So the guys would come in on their break—the salesmen—and have coffee or lunch or whatever. And you could see there was a real competition to see who could sell Nick his first car, because everybody else had cars. They knew when he went home—he’d leave after the noon rush. He would start at six in the morning when the longshoremen would come in. There’d be about three breakfast rushes, you know, depending on shift changes at different jobs. And then there would be a lull and then there’d be a lunch break rush. But about 1:30, he’d leave and go home and have a nap for a couple of hours and then come back. So he usually took a taxi home. But the (car salesmen) would come for coffee and they’d say, ‘Nick, give you a ride home? You want a ride?’ He’d say, ‘Sure.’ ‘We got the Buicks in, really nice.’ All that kind of stuff. Or they’d show up at nine o’clock at night and, ‘Give you and the family a ride home?’ I remember getting those rides. But he never bit.

Nick and Hilda Mary Halavrezos with their first child Costas William Nicholas in early 1948.

You know, he was working seven days a week when I was quite young. And then he cut it back. He would close Saturday afternoon and night. He’d take me to the harness races at Exhibition Park on Saturday afternoon. But he was still coming in Sunday until one o’clock. So yeah, he was working seven days a week.

(And would he have somebody else cooking.) No, he was the cook. There’d be one waitress and she might make up sandwiches, get the coffee, make the fountain Cokes, scoop the ice cream. They had one of those Campbell Soup machines. I don’t know if you’ve seen one, but it was a sort of insulated metal cup and you’d pour in the can of soup and push it into a jack. It would heat up really fast. Basically, a kettle for one bowl of soup.

But he did a daily special—I remember in the early, mid ’50s, it was 75 cents. One day the special would be roast beef with the vegetables cooked in the juice, and then there would be roast turkey, and then there would be pork chops usually done in a sort of tomato-onion sauce. Friday was always fish. It was either harbour salmon—because you were still allowed to catch Atlantic salmon in the harbour back then—or halibut. And it was all 75 cents. So for people who didn’t have much of a lunch break, they’d just come in and (say), ‘Dinner.’ They knew what it was. I used to make the signs.

(You didn’t have to worry about choice.) No, you didn’t have to think. There were other things. If they wanted a western sandwich or club sandwich, a steamed hot dog or a hamburger, he had all that stuff. But the dinner was the daily special. It was great and he had a huge following. It was very, very, very busy there.

(But if he was having roast beef or turkey or something like that, that’s something he would put on in the morning?) Yes, he’d slow cook it in the oil-fired oven. So it was just melt-in-your-mouth by 11 o’clock. (And he’d still be making the breakfasts?) That’s right, yeah. A lot of customers. It was a busy, busy place.

(And he would have done the cleanup?) Yup, yup, yup. He cleaned the floors every night. When we closed at nine o’clock, he got out the mop. And in the winter, he’d mop several times during the day, too.

(He was there six in the morning?) Until one or 1:30, then go home and have a nap for a couple of hours. (He’d be there until nine?) Yup. And we would, too. My mother would be there helping in the evening. It was quieter. But Saint John was still very densely populated at that time, so there were a lot of people in the neighbourhood who came for the milk and bread and cigarettes and coffee or a piece of pie. Kids to get their comic books, you name it.

(Your mother, she didn’t work outside the home other than that?) Right. She helped out at the restaurant. And there was just my sister and I. Just the two of us. Georgia’s three and a half years younger than me.

(Like you say, it was usually always busy. Was he comfortable financially?) You know, he was very frugal. We didn’t have a car. We took the bus or taxi or walked. I certainly didn’t feel we wanted for anything. He used to say the coffee paid for my college education.


Nick Halavrezos and his son Costas in King Square, Saint John in the summer of 1948.

We lived in an apartment until sometime in the early ’60s. One of his customers was also his lawyer for what little legal work he had to get done. Great guy. S. Roy Kelly. Right out of the 1930s—his office was quite something. Lovely man. Anyway, he was always saying to him, ‘Nick, you should look for a house.’ So he called him one day and told him there was an interesting place coming up at a tax sale for the city. It had been a turn-of-the-century drug store on the street level on the corner of Richmond and Prince Edward Street in the East End, just down the hill from the Cathedral, and then there were two big apartments above, the two floors above. It was a brick building. He went down during his nap break and he overheard someone make some slur remark like, ‘What’s that damned Greek doing here?’ And that was it. He got stubborn and decided he would bid on this thing—against these people—and got it.

I don’t think they had all the checks you have these days on your ability to pay. They probably had some. Anyway, he didn’t have the money saved to buy the place. He rented his lunch counter space from a Mr. Rodgers and his unmarried sister who lived in a very gloomy, but well-furnished apartment upstairs. But Mr. Rodgers had quite a bit of real estate in town and he really liked my father, you know, appreciated that he’d done well with the business and took care of it and was a fine, upstanding fellow. So he gave him the mortgage. He lent him the money—a private mortgage. So that was it, and all of a sudden my father has a property for the first time. God knows, what age would he have been then? He’d be around 50.

(Any little anecdotes stand out about the lunch counter?) Well, it was a great foundation for working in public broadcasting because you have absolutely no choice about who comes through your door. It’s a real classless society when you’re in that business, which is great. It was a large part of your social life, just the people you meet coming in the store and the regulars. You have to be very comfortable with the arithmetic of business, buying and selling things, keeping track of inventory. Talking about different classes, just down the street where City Road became Station Street, that’s where the whorehouses were. So occasionally, either the clients or the operatives would be up at the lunch counter.

(And your father would treat them all the same?) Yeah, yeah. Unless someone was drunk. I remember him giving the bum’s rush to guys—literally, what they call the bum’s rush—a couple of times. Someone would be at the counter—on a stool and drunk and say something inappropriate—and Dad would not say anything to him. Wouldn’t warn him. He’d come up behind him, grab him by the back of the belt and by the back of his jacket collar and give him the bum’s rush and throw him out on the sidewalk. (Laughter). But it was only a few times that I saw him do that. (It was all done in one fell swoop.) Oh, yeah. The guy didn’t know what hit him.

The sand and banks suggest this photo was taken at Mispec Beach near Saint John.

(And when did broadcasting become an interest for you? Was that early on?) No, it was later. (You went to St. F.X.?) Yeah. I was going to take English. I went to register in the lineup. First of all, they looked at my name—Costas William Nicholas Halavrezos—and they assumed I went by Nick. And the person registering me said, ‘So your name is Nick, right?’. I said, ‘OK.’ (Laughter). I was very deferential in those days. And then I had applied for English. They said, ‘Well, you’ve got good science marks. I think you should go in honours physics.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So I ended up in honours physics for three years.

(And that was?) Sixty-five. (It was basically decided …)…on the spot for me. I was 17 when I went and turned 18 later that year. By the third year, in 1968, I was down in Antigonish doing my summer of research in the department, nominally helping a physics professor. A really brilliant guy. Dr. David Pink. Got his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford. But I just realized physics was not for me. I had no passion for physics. I greatly admired people who did. By the end of the summer, I told him, ‘Look, I really want to go on into English.’ He understood. He was a very well-rounded, well-read guy. He was doing all kinds of international collaborations in England and Germany, but he understood. He didn’t try to talk me out of it. Someone else who was more forceful and less empathetic might have talked me into staying, but I know I wouldn’t have been happy.

So my fourth year, I took all arts courses—four English and a history and a philosophy. But I still had so many science courses that I got a B.Sc. Then I went back for a fifth year and just took, again, four English courses, a history and a philosophy. I graduated in ’69 but I went and finished in ’70. At that time, I thought I would be heading for an MA in English. But I got out and worked.

(So that wouldn’t have given you an arts degree?) Right. It was probably a few courses shy of an arts degree. I had almost enough credits, but, hey. So I worked for a year, mostly substitute teaching around Saint John. Then I worked in a drug crisis centre and youth hostel the summer of ’71 in Saint John. And then that fall—I’d saved up enough money—that’s when I went overseas. I seem to recall the one-year round-trip ticket to Greece was less than $300.

(And you would have been gone a full year?) The fall of ’71 to ’72. It was roughly six months in Greece, six months in England. After visiting my friend Tony Lamport who was studying in Southampton and meeting some of his friends, I went up to London. Met up with my pal John Gillis from Saint John and we went hitchhiking to the south. A German woman in a van picked us up, gave us several coffee and brandies at her place, and told us about a friend who was leaving his job as a barman at a country pub. So I ended up working there—the Silver Plough in Pitton—outside of Salisbury for a few months. Then I went up to London for the summer. Met up with my friend Mike McAfee who was taking a summer course in London and we went hitchhiking around Ireland, too. That sort of stuff.

(Working in the pub, was that kind of like being back … were you comfortable in that?) Yeah, it was comfortable. And it was different from the lunch counter, obviously. I was selling alcohol. But getting to know that part of British rural society was fascinating. And the country pubs have different hours from city pubs. There were two rooms at right angles to one another, separated by a wall—one for visitors and one for the locals. There was a restaurant attached to it, too. Yeah, it was a lovely, lovely place. I’ve been back there a couple of times. On my day off, I used to walk into Salisbury along the path through these ancient, planned beech forests. Catch the free organ recital in Salisbury Cathedral. It was interesting. Some visiting friends of a friend from Canada—Sandy Moore and Jim MacSwain—and I played some guitar tunes and sang at a village fair. I remember doing John Barleycorn and some Neil Young. Probably some Crosby, Stills & Nash. And years later, we all ended up in Halifax.

I liked staying in one place for a while, as I did in Crete and Athens. You really get to know so much more about a place and its people from just getting into the rhythms of daily and weekly life and finding out what goes on. In Athens, one of my chores—when I was staying at Athena’s—was to take the empty bottles down to the guy around the corner who had all the big wine barrels and fill them for the two big meals of the day. Again, my aunt and her husband still had two daughters at home, and his brother lived upstairs. So there were six of us for the midday meal, after which Athena and her husband took a power nap before returning to their store, and then a late supper. That’s also when I realized that what Dad had been replicating with his afternoon nap in Saint John was the siesta that everyone takes in Greece.

Nick Halavrezos’s birthplace Agios Stefanos, Crete in 1971.

Early in the morning, Athena would leave for their shop in the centre of Athens. But first, she used to drop the daily dinner off at the baker’s. The potatoes and carrots would be cut, the onions, and tomatoes, and garlic, and whatever the main ingredient would be … it might be chicken. There would be a lineup of women at the baker’s. The day’s baking would be done and the oven’s high temperature would begin to taper off. So basically, the prepared meals the women brought in big pans would be slow cooked. It would be just right by about one o’clock. And Athena would leave the shop early to pick up the hot meal from the bakery and bring it home. Because they didn’t have a stove in the house—just had a couple of little propane burners, I remember, in their little kitchen. (That would be ideal. You wouldn’t have the heat of the stove.) Exactly. And there’s a lot of the year when you really don’t want the heat of a stove in your home in Athens. (Would they charge something for that?) Yeah, I think there was a nominal fee charged by the baker.

(Would they have wine?) Yep, wine with the noon meal, wine with the evening meal. Evening meal tended to be late, you know. (And the siesta, that would be during the heat of the day I guess?) Yes, exactly.

(Why did you choose—or did somebody choose it for you—St. F.X.?) That’s a good question. Because there’s a story there. I was accepted at St. F.X. and Dal. There was quite a pipeline from the school I went to in Saint John—St. Malachy’s—and St. F.X.

(Was that a religious thing?) Yeah, it was a Catholic boys’ school. I was brought up Catholic. Irish Catholic, specifically. It was a brand of Catholicism. You know, there are Italian Catholics, there are Spanish Catholics, there are French Catholics. So, it was Irish Catholic in Saint John. It was a major port of entry for ships bringing immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s. Anyway, we didn’t do Broadway productions in the spring, we used to do these St. Patrick’s Day plays. There’s quite a store of material written. I think they were written in the States—in Boston and New York—for the Irish populations there, these original musicals with big casts. You wonder where a lot of the stereotypes come from? I remember one song called Shamrocks, Shillelaghs and Shenanigans—‘Put them all together and you’ve got an Irishman.’ I remember being in one production where there were gypsies on the outside of town. A local Irish girl and a gypsy guy get together and everybody’s opposed to it, of course, but eventually love reigns supreme. And they get married and all the people have a big, big party. Kind of like Romeo and Juliet without the bummer of an ending.

Grade 1 and 2 boys on the steps of St. Malachy’s Memorial High School in Saint John. The boys were posed there but their school was down the street. The future longtime voice of Maritime Noon is in the back, third from the left.

Anyway, I was offered a modest scholarship to St. F.X.—I think $400 per year. But I was accepted at Dal, too, and I guess I was kind of an outlier, because I was more curious about that. A Iot of friends were going to St. F.X. I’d never been to Antigonish. I’d been to Halifax maybe once with the school band. I decided to go (to Dalhousie). My father wasn’t happy.

So I was uptown in Saint John one day. I was walking through King’s Square and I ran into Father Dolan, a priest I knew. And he says, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Great, great, Father.’ ‘So, you’re going to St. F.X. in the fall?’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, no. I’ve decided to go to Dal.’ ‘Oh, really, really? Listen let’s go over to the Riviera restaurant’—which was just across the street, next door to where Nicholas Brothers used to be. I remember we had a grilled cheese sandwich and he talked with me. Again, I was very deferential and it was the time it was—1965—and he said, ‘Look, I know the registrar there. I’ll ask him to hold your letter in abeyance for a week while you think this over.’ So I caved and wrote Dal and said I wasn’t coming and wrote St. F.X. So I ended up at St. F.X., taking honours physics under an assumed name. (Laughter).

(Any regrets?) Oh, no point in having regrets. You can imagine, but what’s the use? What happened if you’d taken another choice? I really don’t know. Things worked out OK, I’d say. Aside from that three-year speed bump of taking honours physics.

(We were talking about your time after university and you said you’d done some substitute teaching.) Yeah. When I came back from Greece, I did a bit of that. And then I started doing contract work for the National Film Board, which was interesting. They called it audience relations. I had different projects, short-term projects, two or three months, to take out new films to target audiences. It might be some animation films or documentaries. It was mostly—not entirely—Atlantic productions, but national productions, too. And there would be some themed contracts I’d do.

The NFB contracts were great because they enabled me to travel all over the Atlantic Provinces and get to see places I’d only known as names on the map or in the news. And that came in very handy later on when I was working with Maritime Noon. I’d actually been to all these places.

I made a lot of contacts in that period because I’d have to make arrangements beforehand for these screenings. And then I would take the films around—16-millimetre films and a projector—and show them to a group, talk, and answer questions and discuss what we’d seen. One contract involved a couple of films about the Cree in Quebec who were being affected by the big James Bay hydro dam project. One was about their lifestyle, living on the land. The second was more about the negotiations with governments and possible environmental and social effects on their way of life. So I took that and screened it at every reserve in the Maritimes. That was really eye-opening and stood me in good stead for years afterwards. Because when else is a white guy going to get around to every last reserve in the Maritimes?

And then there was a community newspaper started up on a grant called The Echo—in Saint John in the mid-70s. I was writing several columns for that. But somewhere in there I had been interviewed by someone who was freelancing for CBC. It was a friend of mine, Irène Guerrette. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ There wasn’t a CBC station in Saint John at the time so she was doing interviews and sending them up to Fredericton. They did a show for Saint John from Fredericton. Sore point, of course, because Saint John was the biggest city in the province and we didn’t have our own station. Fredericton and Moncton did. She said, ‘Maybe they’re looking for freelance stuff.’ So, long story short, I got myself a tape recorder and started doing interviews and reviews and all that. I’d do it on cassette and put it on the bus and the bus would take it up to Fredericton and they would dub it from cassette to reel-to-reel. I know this sounds like ancient stuff. So I started doing that, too. Again, all freelance work.

(But was that something you would’ve had a comfort level with right from the start?) I was interested in trying it. Now the other thing, I became a single parent in 1974. I had a young son at the time, named Nick, after my father. So freelancing worked OK. My parents were very supportive. I could take him to their place if I was going to be out of town for two days or something. My girlfriend at the time, Lu, was also wonderful with him. That was great to have that help. The freelance thing worked OK. I was just trying to get by.

A photo of Saint John kids in an abandoned car that Costas took in the 1970s.

(That would have been your main gig at that point?) A little bit of everything. I’d get National Film Board contracts, doing stuff for radio, writing for The Echo. I worked at a daycare for a year. It was always pretty tight, financially. But CBC finally opened a station in Saint John in 1978. I had been freelancing for a few years, and I wasn’t just doing stuff for Saint John. I had started doing things for regional—and occasionally national—shows. Anyway, they knew me, they knew my work, so I was interviewed. I was hired as a producer for the new station to do the noon show. That was my first full-time job at age 30. I’d been working continuously, but never had a full-time job. It was a new experience, having a regular paycheque.

(Producer, what did that involve?) Well, finding stories, getting them to air. Writing. Editing tape. Directing the show. We had two co-hosts originally, George Jordan and Leslie MacKinnon. George lives here now and Leslie is semi-retired. She’s retired from CBC. She was a national reporter for a long time. Anyway, they were on the noon show. It was a half-hour show called Radio Noon One. The two-hour block between 12 and two was broken up into Radio Noon One, which was 12 to 12:30. And that was all local. Six local stations in the Maritimes had that. Radio Noon Two was from 12:30 till one and it was out of Halifax—like one regional show—and it was hard-core resources, you know, the hog prices, the lobster landings at various ports, all resource industry stuff.

They had two co-hosts in Halifax. And then from one until two was Radio Noon Three. That was an arts program out of Halifax—regional. Jim Bennet was hosting it. Jim’s still alive. Lovely man.

Anyway, I was doing the Saint John Radio Noon One—12 to 12:30—and we jammed a lot in there. We did three original stories a day. And then at one point, they started an afternoon show out of Saint John, a four to six show, so I began producing that.

(Not both?) No. It coincided with the time they decided they would regionalize the whole Radio Noon thing out of Halifax, from 12 to two. So I was then producing the new afternoon show—an urban four to six show—which was fine. Stan Carew was co-hosting with Jacqui Good. But then when Stan went to Halifax, there was a position open, so they hired a fellow who was a good technician in the station until they could interview for a permanent co-host. The first round of interviews didn’t yield an obvious replacement for Stan, who had been very good on-air. Meanwhile, the co-hosting thing was not working out very well. Technically, a genuinely co-hosted show is very tricky. The timing and pacing are of the essence. There has to be good rapport between the hosts and everyone has to be sharp about giving and getting the cues. It wasn’t quite working out. So we hobbled along for a few more months. I decided I’d apply (as host). And surprisingly, I got the job. That’s how I got into hosting. And since I had been producing, I already had an idea and vision of how things were supposed to flow and sound, and how I could execute it. I was co-hosting with Jacqui Good, who was also a good friend. Then she left with her partner for jobs in Winnipeg and I co-hosted with a great guy named Jeff Collins from Newfoundland. The show did really well in Saint John.

And then in 1985—Jennifer and I married in ’84—I was recruited to work in Quebec City. I got the job to host a new afternoon show they were starting up for all the English-speaking communities that weren’t on Montreal Island, from the Ontario border to the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands. So we were in Quebec City from ’85 to ’87, and our son Al was born there in ’87. But professionally, I wasn’t really happy with the situation there. There were some great people, and we keep in touch. I love Quebec City and Quebec culture. But I just felt the CBC station in Quebec City was like the broadcast arm of the English rights group Alliance Quebec. You know, it wasn’t objective enough. It was just a little bit too promotional and I was really uncomfortable with that.

I told you I was hired for the startup of this new afternoon show. I was working as a newsreader on the morning show with Jennifer Fry while they hired a producer and researcher for the new show. But a week or two after I arrived, Jeannette Kelly, who was doing a network show called Radio Active about the music of the French-speaking world, announced she was going on maternity leave. And they asked me if I’d do it. It was a two-hour network show, once a week. Luckily, they hooked me up with a really good, very knowledgeable guy named Jean Beauchesne who was the researcher. But he also was the programmer for the Festival d’Été—the wonderful 10-day summer festival in Quebec City—and he knew a ton about music. He also taught philosophy at one of the junior colleges. Anyway, interesting cat. It was a good pairing. We became great friends. A busy time, you know, doing the five three-hour (afternoon) shows a week plus this two-hour network show that had to be researched, scripted and pre-recorded.

(And you had a general interest in music?) Yeah, always. (You play bass?) Yeah, yeah. Pretty basic, though. (Did you take music lessons as a young person?) Yeah, took piano lessons even though we didn’t have a piano. I used to go after school to practise at the convent of the Sisters of Charity. Then from the convent, I’d go down to the lunch counter and do my homework, have supper and handle the candy counter until nine o’clock. (Costas laughs).

(Was that a deferential thing? Were you told you were going to lessons?) No, I was interested. You know, a lot of friends were taking piano lessons. I always enjoyed learning music. And then I was in school choirs in junior high right through high school. In the high school band I took up saxophone.

Costas and his sister Georgia with what’s-his-name at the Manchester Robertson Allison department store in Saint John in the 1950s.

And I didn’t mention the jukebox at Nick’s Coffee Counter. There was a completely mixed bag of stuff on there. Everything from pop music to the birth of rock and roll, old-time country music—Kitty Wells—and even some classical pieces. (How often would they get played?) The classical? Mmm, now and then, now and then.

The guy came in—Joe Stephens, nice guy—and changed the 45s every couple of weeks, and I was always interested in the B sides. I knew what the hits were. But some of the flip sides, they intrigued me. (And you or your father would have no influence on what records they had?) No, I would ask Joe, and I’d make some requests. He’d get things from time to time if he could—a new Elvis or something, new Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis.

(And did you play in any rock bands as a young person?) No. That came much later. I was in the school band made up of students from three high schools. We had a concert band. It was fun. We did some annual band trips. We went over to Maine in early June, up to northern Maine towns. They had marching bands in uniforms. We were the only band that played sitting down.

(So you were in Quebec City and you weren’t too comfortable with the atmosphere?) Well, its relation to the anglophone lobby group Alliance Quebec specifically. The guy working on the morning show was clearly grooming himself for the position of president using his on-air presence to buff up his brand. And to nobody’s—not to my surprise for sure—he ran for it and became president of Alliance Quebec. Absolutely, their issues should be covered. But the way they were covered—uncritically—irked me.

So I made a call to Halifax to see if anything was opening up. Turned out there were several openings in ’87 because people were retiring. So I was hired here and went to work on the noon show with Elizabeth Haines. It was a two-hour regional show. The first hour was mainly resource industries, and the second hour was just becoming the full-time phone-in.

(Why was it Halifax you were interested in?) Well, it was a regional centre. There was lots going on at CBC Halifax, lots of radio programming. My wife Jennifer is from Nova Scotia. She’s originally from Brookfield—near Truro—and her parents, Turk and Vera, were here in Dartmouth. I had met her when she was working in Saint John for ATV. Unlike me, she went to journalism school. She wrote for The Barometer right out of high school. She went to King’s and then took the one-year journalism program at Carleton. After Carleton, she went to Calgary. She worked for a TV station out there, which was not the direction she was heading in at all. But it was a job. And then she got hired in Saint John, which is where I met her. As I say, her family was here. They hadn’t seen much of her for several years. She has a big extended family. Her aunts and uncles and cousins, they’re all pretty much in Nova Scotia. You know, we had lived in Saint John for a few years, and then we were in Quebec, and it was good to get back home in the Maritimes.

(And was it called Maritime Noon then?) No, it was still called Radio Noon. But I remember we had a little contest to name it. Anyway, someone—a blind woman from Yarmouth, I believe—came up with Maritime Noon. It seemed to make sense. Said it all.

(It wasn’t a new format?) No. As I say, I think they’d been kind of experimenting with the second hour phone-in or expanding it. And they already had some people who became regulars and who are still on—people like Marjorie Willison and Bob Bancroft.

(Did you get any feedback on how you were doing as host?) The ratings were doing well. Hate to sound like Donald Trump, but the ratings were improving. (Laughter). I don’t know how much of it was due to me, though. We had a good team. That was the main thing. We had correspondents in each of the three provinces who contributed and were doing original stories. We used to have two people in P.E.I., but Mac Campbell—the late Mac Campbell—was the fisheries expert for the region and he really covered the three Maritime provinces on all fisheries issues. Very, very knowledgeable. And John Jeffries at the time was doing the agricultural side of things in P.E.I. Then we had a guy in Fredericton, David Malcolm, who would do all the resource industries—it didn’t have to be resources, he could do other issues—in New Brunswick. And we had someone up in Sydney, different people over the years.

And then they decided that they didn’t want to do a co-hosted show anymore. They wanted me to anchor the show and Elizabeth to be a mainland Nova Scotia correspondent. And then they got her to become the Sydney correspondent. So she moved up there. The way it evolved was that we had one correspondent in each province.

(Sounds like there was quite a bit of emphasis on resources at that time.) Oh, there was. You know, the urban issues get covered to death in the morning and afternoon shows. They really don’t get out in the field much. We just didn’t want to do redundant stuff.

You use your human resources to work on longer-term things, so they don’t necessarily have to have something up every day. We chased interviews that I would do in Halifax, of course, but the correspondents were getting great original pieces from the field. Short radio documentaries or what we call ‘talk-tapes,’ where they would be in their studio, talk with me and introduce clips of interviews they’d done with people involved on various sides of a story.

And the regional format is a great platform. Let’s say our New Brunswick correspondent did something on an innovative health program in that province. Well, the other two from Nova Scotia and P.E.I. would chip in because they’re in different jurisdictions. They’d compare and contrast and write up something for their colleague so the regional audience would get an overview. And that generated audience feedback. Because there’s a lot more in common in the three provinces than what separates us, I think. It was good.

A photo of an older woman in Saint John that Costas took in the 1970s.

A regional show makes a lot of sense because the populations are what they are in the Maritimes. When you pool them in a regional show, you have a big enough potential audience to draw for the phone-in. Private radio stations started having local phone-ins because they’re cheap to do. But you’ve only got a portion of the radio audience in one town, and the rest of the people might be listening to music on other stations. The competition in a local market doesn’t really leave many people for your phone-in. So the privates would get the same people calling every day. And there are some people who feel their opinion is important about everything. (Costas laughs). These would be men. Certain men. That’s what kills local phone-in shows. And they’re open line very often. They’re not focused. Ours were always focused on a topic. So that forced you to think about it before you called.

(Talking about your format, there was always an expert, someone on?) There was always a guest. It was never just me with an open line. Always a guest. (With their theme or their expertise?) Yeah, yeah. And, you know, someone might have a new book out. It was usually non-fiction, because non-fiction would be about a theme or topic which people might be familiar with. As opposed to fiction—which I love—but people would not have read the book. It’s new, so they couldn’t call in with their comments about the story or characters, could they? The exception was Timothy Findley. Whenever he had a new novel, he loved doing phone-ins. He had a following because he had quite a number of books out by that time, so he always stopped in. He was originally trained as an actor and he loved the high-wire act of fielding questions. (And he would do that when?) Whenever he was in Halifax. He’d come and do our phone-in show. And (the show) eventually got a very good reputation with publishers because it was a structured phone-in. We never had to state any rules or anything. Over time, people got the idea that this is not a show where you call in with half-baked ideas and rant. Sorry, yeah, you might once but …

(Would you gently train people or not so gently?) You know, they listened. Radio has listeners. They listen to the tone of a show. They pick up on it. I was fortunate to have a long string of good producers who built on what we had. Good content is the key. A range of content. Radio for grown-ups.

(Was that a conscious thing on your part?) Well, I think the whole show’s premise was that this was a place to discuss things. I’m not a shock jock. (Costas laughs). Never could be. Not interested. I was always interested in the long game, building an audience and being known as someone who was fair with guests, but still able to ask reasonable questions on behalf of the audience. There would be interviews, say, in the first hour. I’d be doing interviews along with the reports of the correspondents. And over time, people figure you out. They have their idea of who you are and they become part of it … very much part of the show’s culture.

People seemed to like what we were doing. And it wasn’t just me. It’s a team. We had a producer, an associate producer and our correspondents, and it worked really well. Of course, there was turnover over the years. I was there 23 years on Maritime Noon. But even through different producers, there was a real continuity there in approach. I mean, we’d try different things, make slight changes to the show, tweaks. But it was good.

And then when they axed our correspondents and told us we were going to have two staff—a producer and I in Halifax, and a shared technician—for a one-hour show for the region, that was that. (Costas laughs). That’s not living up to the CBC mandate. You can’t reflect the region to itself with two people sitting at desks in Halifax. It cannot be done—sorry—you have to have people out there dedicated to going out and getting stories in all three provinces.

(How long would that have been before you retired?) Oh, I retired the next year. I agreed to stay on until this one-hour format came in. My producer Deborah Woolway and I were there. And it was just terrible because we both had this institutional memory of the show—what it was, what it did, what it had accomplished. It was a successful program and we had built an audience. And then to do this. I felt it was dishonest to be picking up a paycheque because we weren’t fulfilling the CBC’s mandate.

(And you weren’t going out on a high note career-wise.) Yeah. On a personal level, it was not gratifying at all. We seemed to alternate. You know, you’d be so depressed about it, what was going on and what you were being reminded of what you couldn’t do. So you’d try to cheer up the person who was feeling low. It was pretty dismal. It was really awful.

(What year did you retire?) I retired in 2010. And my producer, Deborah—who’s eight or nine years younger than me and a great journalist—retired within a few months, too. She really didn’t like it.

(So that was during the Harper years.) Well, it didn’t have to do with Harper so much. In fact, there had been cutbacks ever since I was hired at the CBC. (Costas laughs). I was hired in ’78. I was just remembering a particular incident when the director of New Brunswick—of radio and TV—called a closed-circuit meeting with the three stations in early December. And he said, ‘Don’t go overboard buying presents this Christmas. Don’t buy a car. Certainly don’t buy a house.’ That’s how he opened. That was in the early ’80s and it continued. There were big cuts during the Chrétien years and not just at the CBC. There were cuts to all kinds of public things. So that’s all I knew. My whole career, there were cuts to the CBC.

Making music in Hampton, N.B. in 1973.

But this was of a different order. There was the guy who was head of the CBC at the time, this megalomaniac called Richard Stursberg. Really offensive person. You know, it was all about TV and ratings and he basically hounded the director of radio out of her job. Radio didn’t bring in ad revenue, so he considered it a liability. He was apparently very abusive towards her at meetings. She left and then he took over radio budgets.

So, they basically just siphoned the gas out of the tank of radio. And they put all their eggs in the basket of TV ratings. That’s when you started getting all the reality shows. And this was the period when this guy hired Jian Ghomeshi, who was a fellow megalomaniac, and going after the big American market. The morning show hooked up with PRI (Public Radio International) in the States and the content shifted. And it’s still that way. Tom Power (host of the CBC national morning show Q) is a good guy and a good interviewer, especially with musicians. But I don’t know whether I’m in Kansas or where the hell I am when I listen to that show, with all the concentration on pop culture.

The shift that occurred then, it was a real cultural shift within CBC. It was not a good one. It doesn’t follow the mandate. It’s not delivering to Canadians. (Do you ever get a sense that changes like that could be reversed or would be reversed?) I’ll believe it when I hear it. I think The Current is doing excellent work. Cross Country Checkup is pretty good.

But is it radio for adults or not? Or is it all pop culture all the time? Or recycling podcasts instead of doing original work? Is it all these self-absorbed first-person things instead of getting out into communities and finding out the stories of people you’ve never met before and sharing those?

You gotta get out of the building. You have to get out of the city sometimes or dig more deeply in the city and not just have the media following each other on a couple of obvious stories. Who’s doing the original stuff? It’s like why go out to a club if the only bands are doing covers of hits? If you were never going to hear another local band that was doing original stuff, would you go to a club? I wouldn’t.

(Your approach to hosting is to keep yourself out of it as much as possible other than to move things along. Where did that come from?) I found it worked. It’s always about the content. It’s ridiculous the prominence you get if you’re on-air as a host. Basically, I was a civil servant. I happened to be on-air on radio. But I was doing a job. And the job was to talk to people about things that had happened to them or things they knew a lot about and share that with the audience and ask questions that a reasonably intelligent person listening might ask. That’s all. You’re working on their behalf. You’re working for the audience.

I was on every day. Why would I blather about myself? The person you’re talking to—it might be the only time they’re ever on the radio because of the circumstances of the story. It’ll certainly be memorable for them. Very often people are nervous—even if it’s something they know about. The host’s job is just to make them comfortable, conduct the interview, get the information out. That’s it.

I finally talked CBC, at one point, into letting me develop a course for radio hosts. Because there’s this feeling that people are born—not made—as hosts. Which is ridiculous. It’s a trade. There are a lot of things you really do need to know and need to think about if you’re going to be a host. If you’re an egomaniac who just wants to be on-air—whether it’s radio or TV—that’s another thing, that’s what drives you. But you’re supposed to be serving the whole audience.

The course was mostly for people who would be filling in as hosts for the first time, say, in the summer when the regular hosts are away. Management might get someone from the newsroom or someone who’d been a researcher or whom they thought might be acceptable on air. The people on the course seemed to be happy to stop and think about this thing they were going to do, instead of just trying to replicate whatever the host they knew had been doing.

A photo of a young couple in King Square, Saint John that Costas took in the 1970s.

Again, I would reinforce that it’s not about you. You’re going to be well-known regardless. They’ll know your name. You don’t have to tell them what your favourite hockey team is, how cute your kids are, the witty thing your friend said, whether you’re straight or gay, whether you have a cat or a dog—any of that stuff—because it makes you too particular. The listeners start to put these personal revelations together. It’s like a mosaic. For instance, they figure, ‘Oh yeah, so your favourite hockey team is this.’ That means the people out there who have 19 other favourite teams really don’t like yours, so they don’t think you’re going to give them a fair shake. Or, more seriously, if you’re going on about your kids and how wonderful it is having them—a big event and all that kind of stuff—what about the couples struggling to try to have a child at home? Do they need to hear about that? And will they think that they will get a fair shake or that you will empathize with them when you’re interviewing them about this thing that’s very critical in their lives?

It’s true what McLuhan said about radio—it’s the ‘hot’ medium in the sense that listeners are very engaged. They’ve only got your voice to go on. They don’t know what you look like. If you start painting the picture for them, they won’t necessarily get a good likeness, but they will form an impression of who you are.

But if you’re not giving a lot about yourself—if your talk is all about the subject matter—that’s where they tend to focus. Then they’re judging you on, say, are you fair, are you asking good questions. Basically, the matters of the trade. I think that’s what matters for a radio host, especially if you want to be at it for a good long time and create a show that people want to be on or know that it’ll be a good experience when they listen. Or if it’s an accountability interview, you won’t be out there leading the crowd with pitchforks about a particular issue. You know, you’ll listen to all sides of it and you’ll ask challenging questions.

(You have a distinct speaking voice.) Well, it’s distinct because I was on the air. You’re conscious of it on air—modulating your voice, and so on. You can’t be shouting into the microphone. (Costas laughs). You can play with voice it to a certain extent. It depends on the circumstances.

(But would you have access to old tape? Would you be able to hear yourself back in the ’70s?) Oh yeah, there are some old cassettes down there in the basement rotting away. (Would you sound different? Would that have changed?) Not a whole lot. I’m older so the register’s a little lower. That’s about it. You know, when Peter Gzowski started, was that a radio voice? No. But because he was on the radio, that became a radio voice. People define it based on who they hear. For a long time, women were not prominent as hosts because they weren’t deemed to have radio voices. Well, now we have plenty of female hosts and commentators, so it’s all normalized. It’s great. Listeners will decide which voices or personalities they like. That’s always subjective.

(Can you tell me how you got into the spices?) I’ve been going up to Montreal for more than 50 years—ever since Expo ’67. My eldest guy, Nick, is a very good cook. And I noticed he had this brand of spices in distinctive cans. Épices de Cru in French. Spicetrekkers in English. He took me up to the Jean-Talon Market where he bought them. I originally bought a few spices and blends I was familiar with, like Madras Curry and Herbes de Provence. I really liked them. And then on other trips, I started getting blends I’d never heard of before. And they had a good website with recipes. Now these are whole spices. You have to grind them yourself. It was so different from the ground spices, which, God knows, have been knocking around through middlemen for three or four years before they show up in some generic packaging. It was a world of difference in flavour. And they had spices in kits and I would get them as gifts for friends.

Costas’s children, from left, Maria, Nick and Al.

So I was familiar with their products. About the second day I was retired—since I had no plan—I wrote them a letter and I said, ‘I really love your products. I got to know them when I was up visiting the kids. Have you ever considered selling them out East?’ So they wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for writing a letter. We don’t get many letters anymore. But the answer to your question is, no, we’ve never considered selling spices out East. But next time you’re visiting your children, let’s get together and talk.’

So we did. It’s a couple, Philippe and Ethné de Vienne. Really interesting couple. He’s a Montrealer. I think his parents were from France, but he grew up in Montreal. She’s from Trinidad. They met at college and got married and they had a catering business. He was trained as a chef and then they got into a catering business. And she was a model in her 20s after college. She was actually getting modelling gigs and he would go along with her sometimes to these exotic locations and he’d go to the market and check things out. Always interested in the foods. And he worked in Mexico for a while too—Oaxaca—and they started making their own blends and then making blends for other people in the food industry that they knew.

Then they decided they’d go into the spice business and they got a retail outlet, this place in the Jean-Talon Market. And it took off. At the time I went up to meet with them in the fall of 2010, I was really thinking of just representing them. And then I thought, ‘A lot of people don’t use whole spices and grinding them. Maybe they need a little hand-holding.’ And I thought, ‘You know, I have this background selling stuff to people across a counter and maintaining inventories and making bank deposits and all that. So yeah, I could give that a try.’ And I wanted to do something completely different. I didn’t want to go looking for other kinds of radio work. It was funny, my identity was never based on being on radio at all.

I decided while I was up there, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ So I got the initial order and shipped it down. And within a couple of weeks—by December—I was selling spices at the Brewery Market. And I had a lot of help from my friend and neighbour Ruth, who has a background in library sciences among other things. She’s retired, so she had time and she really pitched in a lot more than I expected. I thought she was just helping to get me started, which was great. But she came with me to the market every Saturday and sold spices for the whole first year. And as I found out, she’s a great saleswoman.

(You don’t do the spices anymore?) No, I wound that up selling at the market at the end of 2016. I kind of wanted my weekends back. I hoped by that time a market for the spices had been established here—in Halifax at least. I told people where they could go to get them.

(So, no problem filling your time now?) I don’t have enough time. (Costas laughs). I audition for voice-over work now. There’s a site that’s a broker between people who want audio work done and people who’ll do it. So I started doing that in 2017. You sign up and get set up technically with a microphone and a recording interface with your laptop. You know, I’ll do ‘middle-aged senior citizen.’ And it could be anything—documentaries, an ad, an internal presentation, an awards ceremony, just about anything. (And it could be anywhere?) Anywhere in the world. The company is based in London, Ontario but they’re international. My friend Doug Barron—he plays drums in our band, the BBQ Kings—has been at this for a long time, so he’s built up a clientele. I’m a newbie. And I’ve just started doing a podcast for Nimbus Publishing called Book Me!—interviews with Atlantic Canadian authors and illustrators and anyone involved in publishing.

Costas celebrating his 70th birthday at The Resolutes Club in 2017 along with BBQ Kings lead guitarist Rob Hutten and Al and Maria Halavrezos.

(Did you want to discuss the kids a little bit?) Nick is the eldest, born in ’74. And Al was born in 1987 when we were in Quebec City, just a few months before we moved here. And Maria was born in 1991.

Nick is a server in Montreal. He’s been up there since 1993. He’d worked in the restaurant trade here a bit after high school school. But he’s a professional waiter and a very good cook. They’re as thick as thieves, the three of them. It’s hilarious. They love taking the piss out of us. The more they can tease, the better it is.

(And Maria, what’s she doing in Toronto?) She’s a copywriter with an ad agency. That’s all she was really interested in. She’s very involved in music. She’s in a women’s choir called Cantala and they went to New York in April of 2018. There’s a guy called Eric Whitacre. He’s a big choral composer, you know, the Sting figure. Gorgeous blonde hair, just a little bit of stubble, a very engaging guy. Very down-to-earth, too, as it turns out. But he’s quite a dramatic-looking character. He’s built up quite a repertoire of choral music. Anyway, her choir was selected. Choirs auditioned from all over North America. He assembled 250 voice choirs for the first and second half of his program at the Lincoln Center. Jennifer and I and Nick went down to be supportive. It was quite something. My first trip to New York and it was a fantastic, fantastic program. Very, very entertaining.

(With you and Jennifer in journalism, none of them dabbled in that at all?) No. And they received no encouragement. (Costas laughs).

They all love music. They’re all good writers. They all love to dance and goof around together. Al got an undergraduate degree in percussion at McGill. He graduated in 2009. He got his nursing degree in 2018—so now he’s a nurse. But he’s played in a reserves band in Montreal—Les Fusiliers de Montréal—for quite a while. That’s where he met his partner, Myriam. She plays euphonium. He’s moved up in the ranks and he’s now a sergeant in the reserves and still playing.

He was doing a lot of refereeing of basketball games, too. Al’s always had a knack for making money from the things he likes to do. He loved basketball, but instead of deluding himself thinking he was going to the NBA, he started refereeing back in high school and he got up to a fairly high level with the junior college games in Montreal.

Costas’s family at home in Dartmouth in 2017. From left, Nick, Maria, Al, grandson Louis, Al’s partner Myriam and Jennifer.

Myriam’s a teacher. She teaches at a school for profoundly handicapped children and it’s in the public system. It’s not a private school. Very interesting, a different approach. But she’s a music teacher, not a music therapist. She deals with each individual kid and finds what in music interests them. It might be beating on something or it might be singing or whatever, and she sort of crafts something for that kid to do and works with them. There have been a lot of breakthroughs. It’s a very different model. Here, we have full-on integration in the regular school system and a lot of teachers and even parents had issues with that. They have integration in a lot of the public schools, too, in Montreal. But this is a stand-alone school in the public system. It’s really interesting stuff.

And they got involved in sports, Al and Maria. We’re here in Dartmouth, within a block of Lake Banook. So Al got into kayaking and Maria got into canoeing. And they both did very well. But that’s damn hard work. Down there at six in the morning, paddling. And training year-round. They played other sports too. Al played basketball and Maria played soccer. But they both got into paddling and, good God, the training. The weight training, the fitness, the running, and then the competitions.

Al and his partner, they won a national event one time. Set a Canadian record. His partner—who was a better paddler than he was—was the golden boy. Literally, he looked like this young Robert Redford and he had it all. He was doing very well academically in science. Of course, at that level, you’re training in the winter. You go down to train in Florida. His father went to wake him up to catch the plane. He was dead. Some congenital heart thing. And it really just shattered that whole cohort. (What was his name?) Mike Schaus. And it was just a few months before Al graduated. When Al did his senior recital for his music degree at McGill, he dedicated it to Mike.

And then Maria was in canoeing. The other thing is, both men’s and women’s kayak are Olympic events. Men’s canoe is an Olympic event. But women’s canoe is not. (Costas laughs). So she was determined to go as far as she could and to promote women in canoe. She and another gal here in Dartmouth—Jenna Marks—qualified to compete for Canada in all these other events in the C-2—the two-person canoe. And a week after she graduated from Grade 12, they were in Rio for the Pan American Games, and they won. Then they had the world juniors on Lake Banook. They won for Canada on that. Jenna has gone into filmmaking in animation. So they competed at a really elite level.

But Maria made a decision. She knew what was involved if she wanted to continue competing … that incredible amount of training. She just wanted to get on with her life. So she does some coaching, some training of dragon boaters now, which is different.

(When you were in your teens and getting ready to go to university, working at the lunch counter, that wasn’t in the cards from your parents?) I had no idea what to do. My father wanted me to be a doctor. A lot of immigrants want their kids to be doctors. But I wasn’t interested in being a doctor. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to go on to university. So just drifted into it.

(But from their point of view, there was no way you were going to take over the business?) No. And it was funny, when I was producing the radio show, my father couldn’t really get a handle on what I was doing. Producing was kind of hard to explain. When I got on air, then it was fine. Then he got it, you know, what I was doing. Now you’re on air.

(Was there some pride there?) Yeah, I think so. Because it was recognizable. (Would he say anything or was it just kind of understood?) Oh yeah, he said, ‘I heard you on the radio the other morning.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, Dad, I’m on in the afternoon.’ ‘No, no. I heard you, I heard you.’ ‘No, I’m not on in the morning.’ He thought it was me. (Costas laughs). I said, ‘I don’t think they replayed anything from the afternoon.’ He might have been half-listening and they mentioned the name as a promo for the afternoon or something.

But, you know, when people would tell him that they heard me or something, that would register with him. That mattered. But it was just expected that we do well and apply ourselves at school. Basically, we were kind of lower middle-class economic status and I never dared to dream about being a doctor or a lawyer or anything. I always assumed that was sort of in families—families of doctors or dentists or lawyers. It never crossed my mind that I could do that. (Would that have changed when you started university?) Not really. I was in university then, taking physics, then English. You’re in the middle of all that. A lot of it is the social whirl and your classes and studies. But again, anything else—like a profession—seemed so remote.

The Halavrezos family at McLaren’s Beach on the west side of Saint John around 1952. They used to take a taxi out there on some Sunday afternoons.

(You kind of drifted into things and eventually landed a position which makes you known regionally. Does that say that sometimes we’re too focused on what kids should do straight out of school?) Yes. I’m not one of these ‘follow your dreams’ people at all. I’m just so tired of hearing that. Go out and do something you’re interested in. But do it. You really do have to apply yourself. It’s not just because you want to be something. You have to work at it.

Dirk van Loon

Dirk van Loon

Dirk van Loon of East Port L’Hebert didn’t know what the heck he was getting into when in the mid-1970s he came up with the idea for “a classified ad exchange for old farm and country kitchen stuff.” Even from the start, when the first edition of Rural Delivery was published and sent out into the world in June 1976, it was much more than a classified ad exchange. At just eight pages, including the front and back covers, “Numero Uno” included an introduction by way of an editorial, an article on buying piglets, garden notes, thumbnail reviews of how-to books that didn’t pull any punches, several of Dirk’s distinctive illustrations and more. All for 35 cents.

Almost 43 years later, Rural Delivery is glossier and bulkier, but it’s a publication that has remained true to its roots and continues to be enjoyed 10 times a year by thousands of readers across rural Atlantic Canada and beyond. Legions of freelancers and regular columnists such as Frank Macdonald, Anne Gray and Fred Isenor have ensured its pages have been filled with practical, entertaining and thought-provoking content. DvL Publishing of Liverpool N.S. eventually launched other magazines, such as Atlantic Forestry Review, Atlantic Horse & Pony and Beef & Sheep.

A couple of years ago, at the age of 78, Dirk announced that he’d sold the business to longtime employee Chassity Allison. However, he remains on the Rural Delivery masthead as “publisher emeritus,” and continues to contribute his Pot Luck editorial and delightful drawings to the magazine.

Dirk did a lot of living before he started Rural Delivery at the age of 38. He recounts the early days in his family’s Vermont orchard before it was “hammered” by a hailstorm, memories of his famous grandfather, a rocky college career, an eye-opening stint in the Peace Corps in Colombia that ended badly, getting into the newspaper business in Missouri and Colorado, and writing a children’s book that he jokes “sold 10 copies.” And that was all before he drifted to Nova Scotia’s South Shore in 1969.

He later wrote The Family Cow, which he refers to as “the cow book,” and Small-Scale Pig Raising, which he calls “the pig book.” Nowadays, among other things, he’s active helping out at the nearby Harrison Lewis Coastal Discovery Centre, which he helped establish in 2007.

If you want to learn more about Dirk, you could do worse than read his Pot Luck editorials. Or sit down and talk to him. He’s someone not afraid to call “bullshit” when he sees it, all the time with a twinkle in his eye.

(Is it Vermont you’re from originally?) Both Connecticut and Vermont. I like to say that my parents were sort of part of the 1930s back-to-the-land movement. Back at a time when Scott and Helen Nearing went to Vermont. The Nearings, they wrote a book—several books—but one book that really captured the imagination of lots of people in the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s. That was Living the Good Life. He was a professor, I think of economics. I’m not sure that Helen was his student or what. She was quite a bit younger. There were a hell of a lot of people at that time (1930s) interested in returning to looking after yourself with gardening and all.

Anyway, it was all this back-to-the-land stuff and I think my parents were part of it. They had gotten quite a large apple orchard in southern Vermont and they raised apples for 15 years. And then World War II came along. My father went off to take part in that. My mother ran the orchard. It was an old orchard and I was told that it probably needed rejuvenation. But anyway, there was a hailstorm just at a very critical time of year which hammered the orchard and put it back in debt. So she sold it.

(What year would that have been?) Something around ’45. (Your father, would he still have been away?) He was still away. You’d hear so many times, ‘Oh, I think your mother did the right thing. Well, Janet did the right thing.’ He said it so often about selling the place that I think he was trying to convince himself.

Dirk as a toddler.

(What were their names?) Hank and Janet. Anyway, my father really was interested in the whole thing about looking after himself. His father couldn’t do a damn thing for himself, but he was a writer and he was all over the world—all over hell and gone—writing. My father and his brother were sort of put off here and there. His father was married three times. (Dirk laughs). So Dad had a kind of a crazy, tumultuous childhood. And he was put away to boarding school for high school, and he met one of the teachers there who taught manual arts of different sorts. They had a blacksmith’s shop and stuff like that. He took to my father and my father took to him. That’s how Dad got introduced to Vermont. He could do everything for himself—leatherwork, carpentry, design work, pomology … fruit culture. He just picked up all that stuff and loved it. But it all came to nought when the hailstorm struck.

(He went to boarding school in Vermont?) He went to Deerfield in Massachusetts, a boarding school very different from what it is today. It was there that he picked up all kinds of abilities to work with his hands. Came vacation time, this teacher would take him off to Vermont because there was no going back home because there was nobody home. So he would go to Vermont with this teacher.

And I was saying, it was this back-to-the-land thing in the ’30s. I think it happens about every generation. It goes through a period of kind of looking back and trying to figure out where you’re coming from and where you’re going.

Dad grew up in Connecticut mostly, but lots of places. My mother was from New York. (What was her last name?) Hall. (Janet?) Yes, and Hank or Henry. Henry van Loon.

(And his father—your grandfather—was a well-known writer?) Yeah. (What did he write?) He made a big splash for himself with a book called The Story of Mankind, which he wrote and illustrated. It made a big hit and became a best-seller. And you know, if you get your name out there and have one really popular title, then it just went on. He published that in about 1920 and he died in the early ’40s. He had essentially a 20-year hellish (good) career—published well over 30 books.

(Do you remember him?) Just a little bit. I was born in ’38. (Can you say what kind of personality he was?) Oh, he was bigger than life. He was a big, big presence in my family. I think it was awful hard for my Dad and his brother to grow up under that man. It’s got to be tough. We hear those stories of how tough it can be. I think my father always hoped that he might make a hit with some of his writing, but he never did. He should have stuck to farming. No, stuck to all the things he was so good at that my grandfather couldn’t do for a damn. My grandfather, he came over from the Netherlands in the turn of the last century and went to college here. Went to Cornell. He was the only reason I got into Cornell—because my marks weren’t that super.

Dirk’s grandfather, Hendrik Willem van Loon, was a famous writer in his day.

(Would he have been fairly wealthy?) Yeah, I think. Comfortable, anyway. The story I got was he made lots of money and he spent lots of money. He made a good living but he never put much aside or accumulated anything. And then he died at age 62. But he lived well, he lived hard, he lived fast. Big man—6-3 or something, 300 pounds at one point. And very outgoing, really good at promotion, self-promotion. My father was very, very different. Dad couldn’t promote himself if he had to. He went the other extreme.

(And you say he was married three times. Was he divorced? Or his wives died?) Christ no, he didn’t kill them, no! (Dirk laughs). No, he was divorced. Divorced the mother of his two children. She went out to Reno, Nevada to get a divorce because it was back when it wasn’t so easy. Then he married another woman, and when that marriage was on the rocks, my father took her out to Reno because he knew the territory. So then he would marry a third time to a woman—an actress—and that marriage lasted not very long at all. Very, very short thing. And then he ended up living the remainder of his life with his second wife. They got back together. (It was your father that took her to Nevada?) Yeah. Escorted her. That’s another family story.

(When your father was in the War, where was he?) England. He didn’t see action, you would say. My grandfather did. He was on a boat that got torpedoed out from under him. He was a war correspondent for Associated Press. This is before he had his success writing histories and geographies. (And do you know where that was, where he was torpedoed?) Off the English Channel. I can’t remember where.

(Dirk shows a biography about his grandfather by Cornelis van Minnen titled Van Loon: Popular Historian, Journalist, and FDR Confidant). My mother probably got to know Eleanor Roosevelt better than my grandfather got to know FDR because Mom got on really well with Eleanor Roosevelt. You know, they stayed at the White House a few times.

Hendrik was one who really wanted the U.S. to get involved in the War. His hometown, Rotterdam, had been flattened by the Nazis. And so he was one of those who was really anxious to see the U.S. assist the Allies. And he’d broadcast by shortwave into the Netherlands as Oom Henk (Uncle Hank) encouraging messages to the folks back home. So anyway, he had a great run.

Pages from a Christmas book that Hendrik van Loon wrote and illustrated. Dirk and his brothers were the models for the three boys in this picture. Dirk’s the one wearing the “hoodie.”

I know my father really had hoped to move to Vermont, live in Vermont. But then the War came, the hailstorm came, Grandfather died. And I think Grandfather was probably a great help financially when it came to buying an orchard in Vermont and getting started and all these things. So that period of the early ’40s was dramatic for them. They had three kids, Opa dies, the orchard gets hammered, he came back from the War. But he had a degree in architecture and so he just put aside all the ideas about farming and raising apples, and went to work for various corporations in New York.

(When the family had the orchard in Vermont, were you living in Vermont?) Well, in my memory, by the time I came along, it was back and forth. We would be in Vermont part of the year and back living somewhere in Connecticut. By the time the War broke out, I think the idea of living full-time in Vermont had taken a back seat.

(Do you remember the orchard?) Oh yeah, oh yeah. I have not a hell of a lot of memories. But I certainly remember—probably happened the one time but it made such a mark—riding in an apple box in the grading shed, where they were grading apples, and they would have these long conveyor belts on all the little wheels, you know. There’d be boxes of apples going down, and they’d plop me in a box, keep me out of trouble. Memories like that. I remember places in the orchard, but that’s the only situation I really strongly remember.

I do remember—I think of him every year—one of the men who worked in the orchard. His name was Hud Carpenter. He came to the house where we lived, the farmhouse. It was right next to the orchard, and we had a big garden. My mother had a garden and Hud came out to help plant, set poles for beans. And I was just so amazed at how high Hud could take that crowbar and he could strike that hole in the same place—that heavy old bar—and drive it, make a hole. And every time I pick up a crowbar, I think, ‘There’s Hud Carpenter.’

It’s a funny thing—I’ve gone on about this probably in Pot Luck—but when I go gardening especially, there are other people with me who taught me this, that and the other thing. Two or three or four people. There was one neighbour, George Heinrich, who used to use an old wooden hay rake for the final grading of his garden. No raised beds for him. It was all going to be just beautiful flat. And that wooden hay rake—wide teeth and light—oh, you could just work that soil so nicely. (With the wooden teeth?) With the wooden teeth. And it’s nice and big and long and wide and light so you can reach way out. But it just tickled the ground. So that fellow’s always there gardening with me.

Dirk as a young boy at the controls of the family orchard’s Cletrac.

(And there was four in your family?) Yeah. There were three boys born within five years. There was my oldest brother Piet, and then the second one was Jan, and then Dirk. You see my grandfather’s influence. And then after the War, my sister was born, seven years after me. And she was given the name of Jane.

(Do you know what year Piet was born?) I was born November 3rd ’38, he was born November 3rd five years earlier. Same day. My other brother Jan was born three years prior, and he was born November 1. We laughed and called in planned parenthood.

(You wouldn’t have seen your father for the whole War?) No. And then he practised architecture some, but he also did economic studies. He worked for a company doing economic studies and would go out and do the consulting work. So he worked in Hawaii, he worked in Minnesota, he worked here, there. So he was away quite a bit. He was away during the War, then he was away on these other projects. But when he was home, he was always fixing something. There was no playing. I never remember him throwing a ball. That, no. When he was home, there was always something to build, something to fix, something to make, something to whatever. Always projects.

(Would you be involved in that?) I was somewhat, but I was probably the least. We had an old hay barn in Vermont. Hay barn blew down. Big wind storm. Well, Dad decided they’re gonna save the timbers, save the boards. Stack it properly and use the leftovers. I wanted to help—my brothers were helping—and I wanted to get involved. But Dad put me sitting on a beam, straightening nails. Jeez! Oh man, I think that coloured my thinking forever. That’s all I was good for, straightening nails. Can you imagine that? Oh Lord. Which I probably did for a day and then that was it.

My next older brother was not a finish carpenter but certainly a carpenter builder—could build anything—and a mechanic. My oldest brother was somewhat of those things. I probably had the least going for me in those respects. And I blame it all on that straightening nails episode!

(Did you have certain interests?) I always liked animals and the woods and the country more than the towns or cities. I had a pet robin once, I had a pet barn swallow, I had pet squirrels, I had a pet skunk. These were always important. I didn’t like cities. There was another thing that was coloured. My mother was from Manhattan. And we lived only in Connecticut. We were only an hour outside of Manhattan. It’s funny how I live an hour from Bridgewater, I’ll think nothing of popping up to Bridgewater. Back then, it was a big deal to go to the city. It was also a big deal to go to New York City because when we went my mother just wanted to shine us up. Oh my God, you had to clean everything. You were cleaned and brushed and you’d feel so damn awkward and out of place. So I never cared much for it. And also there’s the smells of things, the stink of things. There’s something metallic in the air, to my mind, in the big cities. Didn’t care for it.

Dirk’s mother introduced him to the natural world.

So we lived out in various towns outside of the city. We moved a lot, oh God, we moved a lot, right up until ’46 or ’47. Dad came home from the War and he designed and had a house built. And there we settled down for a number of years. But prior to that, we moved. One of my brothers made a list of the places we lived. Crazy, crazy business.

(Why was that do you think?) I think in part because some of those might have been the War years. It was an unsettled time. We lived in four different houses in Vermont, and I remember four in Connecticut. There were a couple of others that my brothers knew about. There wasn’t much money, so oftentimes we were staying where someone would give my parents a place inexpensively to live. Just as I think about it, I can think of two places in Connecticut that were probably provided just about rent-free if not rent-free. Same thing in one of the places we lived in in Vermont, but it was one of my favourite places. We called it the Little Red House—and it was a little red house—and it was right on a brook where my brother Jan and I played. And I remember we moved from there in November, not more than a mile, two miles. But we moved by horse team and sleigh, a freight sleigh maybe. We’d had a snowstorm and there wasn’t much moving in the way of cars, trucks, whatever. So a fella came with a team, Siley Streeter, who worked for my parents in the orchard. I remember piling onto that and going. I just have the vaguest memory of that.

They just didn’t have much money. We weren’t poor but there wasn’t much money around. And, actually, my father oftentimes dipped into royalties from my grandfather’s books. When Dad died, we were looking through some of the correspondence and there were a lot of letters that would go to the publishing house and ask if it wasn’t possible to scare up a little of that royalty money that was accumulating. Dad had good jobs but he had three kids and I think Mom expected … it was kind of an odd situation. Odd situation because I think sometimes they were better off than other times. So it’s hard to tell.

Dirk, in the “hoodie,” and his brother Jan playing in the brook behind the Little Red House in Dorset, Vermont. Jan is crushing wild cucumber pods with a slab of marble.

(You say your mother knew Eleanor Roosevelt?) Yes. (Were they from similar circles?) No, just when my grandfather got to know FDR. That’s when they had the apple orchard. And my mother, I remember her sending a box of apples—like coals to Newcastle—to Princess Juliana (of the Netherlands) in Ottawa. But Mom was an interesting person and just hit it off with Eleanor.

(Now, you went to Cornell right out of high school?) Yeah, unfortunately. Wasted everybody’s time. (Is that right?) Oh Christ, yes.

(What was the plan?) The big idea was that I’d liked biology when I was in high school—I really loved biology—so the notion was that maybe medicine was my future. My great-grandfather (Henry Pickering Bowditch) was a physician and had a good run. He became the dean of the medical school at Harvard, and so I think my mother always thought that that may be nice if one of her boys would become a doctor.

Well, I went off to Cornell and took my first zoology course and it was a disaster. I didn’t like Cornell. Cornell was the wrong place. I should have gone to a teaching college. It was big. It was about the size of Dalhousie now. I’ve talked to students here at Dalhousie and I think the same situation happens. In fact, it’s worse now. You’ll have these professors who really only teach because they have to take a little bit of a teaching role. They really want to do their research. And I really hit it wrong, too, because there were two professors that alternated on the Zoology 101. One was a very interesting fellow and the other was a grey, dull individual who wanted to study starfish and echinoderms of different sorts, and wrote the textbook. Oh man, he was a drag. I did OK in zoology, but it was really a disappointment.

The whole experience was not so great. Stayed off-campus initially. Because my grandfather taught there. He went there to Cornell, then he went to Harvard. And after he got a PhD in Germany, then he came back and he got a job teaching at Cornell. So my father was there at Cornell in his early teens. And he had a best friend. And when it came time that I got into Cornell, it would be really good if I could stay at this professor’s home and look after the professor’s wife, actually, because the professor was in a nursing home by then—the friend of my father’s, the kid he’d grown up with. So I lived off-campus in a little room in the professor’s house, looked after his wife and daughter. Shovelling snow and driving her here and there, and just be there to look after her.

Dirk made a barrel of hard cider and distilled off some applejack with the help of some other students.

(You would have been working toward a science degree?) Yeah, a general science degree. I just wasn’t going anywhere. I could not handle mathematics. Whenever I came up against math—anything that had to do with math—it was a disaster. Oh God, it was awful. So physics was a beast.

Funny though, I finally did get through physics my second year because (of) a real hotshot professor—a nuclear physicist—who ordinarily never saw the undergraduates. He was the kind of guy who would be teaching graduate seminars. He had been at Los Alamos (birthplace of the atomic bomb), part of that group. And he looked around and he said, ‘There’s too many of these arts and science students who are flunking physics. Something’s wrong here.’ So he started a course. He wrote the whole damn course—Physics for Non-Scientists—and I happened to be there on the ground floor when he started that. And I was prime target because I think I’d flunked physics twice. Boy, that was a hell of a course. That was amazing. That man was brilliant and interesting. He’d teach us about levers by having us make mobiles. And he just taught you in various ways that was just exciting and interesting and fascinating.

(Do you remember his name?) Oh yeah. Philip Morrison. He went to MIT after he left Cornell. He had had polio as child and he had a bad curvature of the spine. The closest I think I ever came to what I would call a Renaissance man. His intellect was just enormous. His range of interest and curiosity was wonderful.

Philip Morrison teaching at Cornell in 1963.

(That’s while you were still in the general science and arts?) I was still there, yeah. I hadn’t left for the Ag College at that point. I took a battery of tests to try to figure out where the hell I belonged in the whole educational system. And I came out a farmer.

(How old would you have been when you took that test and it said you should be a farmer?) Roughly 20. And I called my parents. They were anxious to hear what the outcome was when I got the results back. Because this was quite a battery. It wasn’t a one-day thing. Essentially, it just sort of coupled all of your interests with various professions. Anyway, I called home and they had two phones at home. My mother answered, then my father got on the other phone. And I told them. Oh my goodness, it was so disappointing to my mother. And my father had to back her up. And I remember his comment: ‘Oh jeez, you don’t want to be pulling tits the rest of your life!’ (Laughter). Oh my God. It was just prejudice on their part. They had no idea of all the ramifications or all the ways you could be a farmer. Or all of where farming was going or could go. Anyway, my mother still had it in mind, I guess, she was going to have a physician for a son and it would be fun to tell all her friends.

So I did switch to the Ag College and enrolled in wildlife management. And at that time, it was still a requirement that if you didn’t come from a farm, you had to have so much experience working on farms. And that was pretty wonderful. I took a semester off immediately. I didn’t go back to college right away. Worked on a dairy farm in New York state, and then the next summer I worked on a dairy farm in Vermont. It didn’t matter if you were going into wildlife management, Cornell Ag required that background, which I think was a very good idea and was wonderful.

(How would you get jobs on these farms? Would that be through the university?) Yeah, the New York state one was. They were both through the university, but I guess I looked around for a farm in Vermont, and there was one not too far from the town that we lived in. I was able to get on there.

(Would they be still milking by hand?) No. The farm in New York state had a pipeline milker. And the farm in Vermont had cans. You milk with machines. You had to do a lot of hauling milk. They were dairies with 50, 60 milking cows. Fairly good-sized farms at that time.

(Was that your first experience working around cattle?) Well, working, yeah. We had this farm that adjoined the orchard that my dad bought and wanted to farm. That’s when the War frigged him up. But kept the farm and we used to go up there. All the pastures were rented out to dairy farms, and (they) made all the hay there. I remember the first year they brought John Deere tractors on to make hay, replacing horses. Horses were still there for raking hay and picking up loose hay because that was before balers. I didn’t see any balers at that early time.

Dirk, left, and his brothers Jan and Piet bonding with heifers on land his father rented to a neighbouring dairy farmer in Dorset, Vermont.

(They made it all loose, forked it by hand?) Well, you’d make up windrows with a dump rake or a side-delivery rake. And then you come along with a hay-loader—lift the hay—and then you stand on the back of a wagon and fork the hay around, make a load. But on the farms where I worked, they were all small square bales.

(Anything stand out about your time on those farms?) There were certain times. Oh yeah, had lots of good times on those farms. And hard work. I like hard work. I could not stand the idea of working out in a gym, lifting weights or any of that. No.

I had an opportunity when I was in high school to work in a medical research lab. They were doing cancer research. And because of a family connection, I was able to get on there at age 16, 17 maybe. Anyway, I worked there for maybe a month of the summer and I didn’t connect with it. I hated the idea that I was indoors, not getting any kind of physical exercise. I quit there and went to work for a lumberyard. (Laughter). What an opportunity. It was a hell of an opportunity working in that lab, I’m sure. I must have disappointed Mother a whole lot.

But on the farms … I’ve talked sometimes in my Pot Luck about the time we used to have to spread the manure every day. Back then, that was the practice if you could possibly get out there on the fields. So that was one of my jobs was to take the old International (tractor) and spread manure. The old International, you had to start it with a crank. And when it was cold, it just didn’t want to start. Oh God, you’d crank and crank and crank to get the goddamn thing going. It was not fun. So one night, it was going to go down really cold. I says, ‘Oh Jesus, I’ll never get it started in the morning.’ But there was an exhaust fan from the dairy barn that blew warm air. I said, ‘Smart me, I’ll park the tractor under there’. And when I came out in the morning, it looked like a glacier, cause it was all that moist air. It was warm and moist, and it hit that tractor and it was encased in ice. (Laughter).

And another time I remember … a bad experience. I was coming back from spreading manure one morning. And maybe I was driving a little too fast or something, but I excited the pigs. There was a pigsty, three pigs in there or so. As I came along and came right by the pigsty, the pigs went nuts. Well, every once in a while pigs go nuts. (Dirk squeals like a pig). I looked over. And if you look a direction, you’ve got to go a direction. I pulled the tractor over just enough and nicked—I don’t know what the hell I hit—maybe it was a piece of equipment or something with the rear tire, a loaded tire. Blew it. And the farmer was not happy with me. (That’s a big deal.) Was not good.

Another time, I came out one morning and the heifers had broke free from their corral. He had registered Ayrshires with beautiful horns, just before polled (non-horned) Ayrshires. Actually, the horns were a point of pride. Anyway, so the heifers got out. Ah, bastards. I don’t know if I was fixing a fence when they got out or what the hell it was, but I had a hammer in my hand. The heifers decided to go up the road and I tried to run and head them off and I couldn’t get there in time. And I just took the hammer and I flung it—to throw it in front of the heifers and maybe turn them. I didn’t know. And damned if it didn’t hit the driveway, flipped up and caught the lead heifer in the mouth. Well here’s this prize heifer bleeding. Oh no. Fortunately, it didn’t bleed for long and nobody had noticed it. But oh my God, that scared hell out of me.

(So you would have went to the agricultural college how many years?) I was there two and a half years. (What did that give you?) It was a BSc. But I never went to work in it. (In the wildlife management?) Yeah. I worked the summers. I worked for the Wildlife Service at Patuxent Refuge down outside of Washington, D.C. I worked there one summer but I didn’t find that much fun. I found a whole lot of people who were not happy with their work. They were just doing the job. They couldn’t wait until lunch hour—they could drop whatever they were doing, pick up their butterfly net and go do what they wanted to do.

Banding blackbirds at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge near Washington, D.C.

Some few people really had a job that they loved. It was the star performers, you know. But a lot of people weren’t happy with it. And the project that I was working on had been going for about six or seven years, studying blackbirds—grackles and starlings and cow birds and the whole bunch—trying to learn as much as they could about the life history of these birds so that they could control them. Because they were devastating crops in some places, flocks of blackbirds were.

The interesting thing to me was that most of the people working on the project didn’t give a damn about the blackbird project. It was just a job. The other thing was that Congress—or somebody—decided to cut the funding at a point. They were just at a point where they really might understand enough about the blackbird to do some kind of meaningful control, you might say, and they just cut funding. So that was a lesson: the government can pull the rug from under you anytime. It’s like the Harper government. I mean, look at all the projects that were just totally undercut. Look at the Avro Arrow. Look at all the things government does. Get into something and then somebody changes their mind.

(Did you take from that to avoid working for the government?) I’m sure that stuck in my mind. But the main thing that happened was just before I was to graduate, we had what was called the Berlin Crisis (in 1961). The Soviets cut the access to Berlin. So the U.S. and Britain and France put on an airlift. This was known as the Berlin Crisis in the Cold War. And I was called up for the draft and had to go for a physical. But I was still in college. So fine, I went for my physical, continued on in college fully expecting then as soon as I graduated in June I’d be into the army. But by that time the crisis was over and I was not called up. Had I not been expecting to go in the army, would I have made an effort to get a job in wildlife management somewhere? Maybe I would. But I wasn’t thrilled by wildlife management or about government work.

(What year did you graduate?) Sixty-two. I should have graduated in ’61 but I delayed there because of going to work on farms, took some extra time. So I didn’t go to war. Nobody went to war at that time. And I went to work in the Yale medical school in research. It was a research laboratory where they were essentially mapping the brain of cats. I worked there for I forget how long, and then from there went into the Peace Corps.

(Can you explain that? I guess I have a general sense of what the Peace Corps is.) Well it was started by Kennedy—in the Kennedy years—and Kennedy caught the imagination of a lot of people. There was a famous line in his inaugural speech: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ An interesting saying. If you heard it from anybody else, you might say, ‘Oh screw off,’ you know. But it was that time and there was a lot of exciting people in the administration.

Sargent Shriver—Kennedy’s brother-in-law—took control of the Peace Corps. It was an exciting idea to go around the world and help people better their life, their lot. And so I was part of the second group to go to Colombia. It was an agricultural group going to help them grow more vegetables and raise rabbits and so on. It was a two-year stint ordinarily. You go to training. I went for training in Nebraska—University of Nebraska—and then went home for a week or 10 days prior to getting on a plane in New York and shipping off to Colombia.

During Peace Corps training in Lincoln, Nebraska.

And while I was home and doing my shopping, getting ready for my stint in Colombia—and buying workboots—the news came over the radio that Kennedy had been shot. You can imagine—that was quite something. And by the time I had got on that plane and left for Colombia, Oswald had been shot. That was quite something. For us, that was our 9-11 moment. I remember seeing on television—the little television—the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Anyway, I went off to Colombia and I was there for a year. I was there as a volunteer initially, like anybody else. How many volunteers there were, I don’t know. Colombia was a big project. There came an opportunity—they had something called volunteer leaders. From the volunteer ranks, they would take a volunteer in each state who would be designated the volunteer leader, who was sort of in a support role. I put in for that and I was accepted for that.

I moved into Popayan, in Cauca, Colombia from out in the country. And not long after I got that opportunity, there was a change amongst the staff at the paid staff level. We had regional directors, and (in) our region, the fellow brought in to be the regional director was somebody that I couldn’t abide and he couldn’t abide me. It wasn’t long before there was a regional meeting. And the director of Colombia—the overall director from Bogota—came to Cali where we had a meeting with the volunteer leaders from that region.

So, probably six to eight people sitting around a table. And the director, as I recall, started off the discussion. He wanted to hear around the table on how things are going. ‘Is everything going alright?’ And my boss (said), ‘Pretty well, with exception of … well (we’ve) got to get on the case of these two volunteers from such and such a place.’ Well, I’d been working with the volunteers and I thought they were doing OK. But I felt that there were another couple that really were screwing off. And if there were any volunteers in Cauca that might need a little bit of pull-up-their-shorts, get-their-act-together, it was this other couple.

Well, stupid me said right there in front of everybody, ‘Well, in fact, I think really the main problem is not that couple, it’s this other couple.’ So this regional director that I couldn’t abide—he couldn’t abide me—he just took that as the most insulting thing that had ever happened to him. I was contradicting him right in front of the boss. And I was so naive, I didn’t even realize. What a damn fool thing. Anybody who knows me would say, ‘Yeah, that’s Dirk’. Anyway, that was it. It was just downhill from there. So I left the Peace Corps after a little bit more than a year.

Neighbours extracting sugar cane juice using a horse-powered press which when fermented made their moonshine called guarapo.

(What was your impression of Colombia when you first went there?) Great disparity. I think it probably hasn’t changed a hell of a lot. Lots and lots of poor people, and a few wealthy people that really ran the show. When I was out in the country, one place we worked with a priest who was marvellous. He was a Swiss priest—missionary—living in the mountains in Colombia. He was a delightful man and was forever working to pry land out of the hands of the wealthy and get it into the hands of the peasants. He was always involved with housebuilding and just all kinds of good works. He was great.

I also saw another government example. My partner and I were housed in what had been a breeding farm. Some government prior to when we were there had decided that what they really needed out in the country was better genes. So they had this place where there was a boar and a ram, a stud and a bull. It was a breeding farm. So if you had some animal that needed breeding, here was some better-quality stock. By the time we got there, the place was shut down. What a shame. What a hell of a good program.

And then I found that our work was—in some respects—nuts. We were living in the Andes and we had been given lots and lots of instructions on how to raise rabbits. So you go over to the Andes and you had to teach them what a rabbit was. They didn’t know rabbits. It was a foreign idea to braise one, eat one. A lot of our time and training had been on how to not only raise rabbits but how to help people get used to the idea of eating rabbits. Well, we get up to the Andes and the protein source for them equivalent to the rabbit was the guinea pig. We were working with these peasants out there who had guinea pigs running around the kitchen. We could have done a better job of helping them raise more and fatter and quicker guinea pigs. We’d have been way ahead of the game. We spent our time teaching them how to raise rabbits. Well, bullshit. Their choice was guinea pigs. How bizarre. How could we be so arrogant? Amazing, amazing.

I’m still in touch with some of the people I was in the Peace Corps with. One of them, Roger Soles, went to work for the Smithsonian, and he was probably the key individual for setting up the Biosphere reserves. Lives in Virginia. Hotshot administrator, I would say. A real nice guy, and he has spent a lot of his time trying to keep the Peace Corps group together.

Dirk trying to make doughnuts at 8,000 feet.

(So would you have been a hippie?) No, I don’t think so. Certainly not then. I remember being down there in Colombia and kids would start talking about the ‘Be-at-les’—those ‘Be-at-les’—they had the long hair. And I thought that was freaky. I thought their music was freaky. We were certainly an informal bunch. We were progressive.

(So what would have been after the Peace Corps?) Well, I came home. And I went into quite a depressed state, fighting to keep my job or stay in the Peace Corps. I should have known it was a useless battle. I didn’t. I fought to stay in there.

Then I was offered an opportunity. The guy who had chosen me for the volunteer leader job had moved on to Honduras, and he invited me to come to Honduras. I don’t know if you’ve ever known depression? I knew it then. I didn’t know what it was, but I couldn’t make up my mind. I could not decide something. I could decide, but then five minutes later, no.

(You mean any decisions?) Yeah. I couldn’t, I couldn’t. I was just in a state. That fellow with whom I got along so well—he had been the director in that area—that’s who I thought I was going to be working for and with. He was just a guy I got along so well with. He was a delightful guy. He was the epitome of the Peace Corps mentality. Despite the fact he taught us how to raise rabbits. Anyway, he invited me to come to Tegucigalpa. I could have gone. I was made an offer to do that. I could go to another state (in Colombia). But I had this in mind that, no, I had been wronged, by God, that man had wronged me.

A demonstration garden in Paispamba, Colombia.

(But at that age everything is so black and white sometimes.) It was for me. Anyway, I came back and then I went to work for the Post Office for a while. And I did work for my brother for a while who had a house construction business. And then I decided that I thought I’d like to go get into the newspaper business. I had an elderly distant cousin who—I didn’t know this at the time—had been in the newspaper business himself and had a lot of connections. And I said to my mother something about that I thought I’d like to be a reporter. And I thought I’d get started as a copy boy. I didn’t know. What do I know?

(It was just maybe an off-the-cuff thing?) Yeah, kind of. I guess I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I really don’t know why. That’s the interesting thing. And at the time, I certainly didn’t know about this cousin’s background in journalism. Neither did I know my grandfather’s background in journalism. I’d known nothing about that. It was much, much later that I found out about Opa’s experience as a correspondent and such.

But anyway, this cousin had worked with a fellow who had a newspaper in Missouri. And so I went out there to Missouri on a daily paper, St. Joe—St. Joseph—Missouri. It was a morning paper. Got a job there not knowing a damn thing. But they had their own training program, which newspapers did because this was pre-journalism school. There were some journalism schools—I think Columbia’s been going for a long time—but generally people learned on the job. And it was fantastic. It was just super. I didn’t know how to type. I didn’t know nuttin’.

Dirk’s parents and Susan with their Malamute Took on a trip into the Rockies west of Denver.

One of the first things was the city editor came down to my desk—it wasn’t a huge newsroom, but it was probably a dozen desks or more—came down, standing over me. ‘Can you type?’ ‘No.’ Took Time magazine, opened it up, plopped it down next to me. ‘Type.’ I had to just sit there and look at that copy and type.

(That’s how you learned to type?) That’s how I learned to type. Then I went from there to assignments like obituaries. Totally formatted. You didn’t have to be creative at all. There was a tight format. Then from that you had a beat. I had downtown. Twice a week or so I would have to walk the streets, downtown St. Joe, Missouri—not a big town—and stop in at the Red Cross office and the military recruiting office. The navy would have an office and the air force and chamber of commerce. Whoever had an office downtown, I’d have to go do the rounds, chat people up, talk to them. ‘Any news?’ Generally they’d say, ‘No, there’s nothing going on.’ And then in the course of talking to them, they’d say, ‘Oh, well, there’s a little item,’ you know?

Fantastic training. It was just super. Then I had a chance there to write editorials and I had a chance to write features. It was great training. Just wonderful. (What was the name of the paper?) St. Joe Gazette.

(After having worked at the Gazette, did you think this is my life’s work in some form?) I liked it. And then I met a young woman there in St. Joe who was from St. Joe, but she was teaching school in Denver, and not far from Columbine. So I fell in love with that young woman. I wanted to go to Denver. And Denver had a couple of newspapers out there. There was the Rocky Mountain News, which was a Scripps-Howard paper, and the Denver Post. The Denver Post was a broadsheet afternoon paper. And the Rocky Mountain News was a tabloid. I applied to both papers and I got hired on at the Rocky Mountain News as a general assignment reporter. I never really had a beat, although I did the science and medical writing there because I did have the background in sciences. And I liked that a lot. But Scripps-Howard itself was very pro-war—pro-Vietnam—and I was having some difficulty with that.

(Around what year would this have been?) Sixty-three, ’64. And also, I was getting kind of uncomfortable with the fact that I was forever writing about what other people were doing. And I didn’t feel that I was myself. I wasn’t comfortable in the reporting role—in the scribe or the chronicler of what others were doing. I don’t know. This wonderful position and it’s a great place to be, but somehow or other at that point it was bugging me.

Dirk the writer.

I had the wherewithal because Susan had a good teaching job—and we didn’t have any children—that I could just quit there and go write. I had a book—a story—I wanted to write. So I quit. And then shortly we came East. And I applied for the Iowa Writers’ (Workshop) and came damn close to getting accepted. But the director of the school apologized. He said, ‘Dirk, I’ve used up all my favours.’ The grade point average from Cornell was not what the graduate school wanted. Not the Iowa Writers’ school, necessarily, but they had a policy. You had to have a certain level of grades. I didn’t have it. He said, ‘I’ve called in all my chips. I can’t get you in here.’

And the interesting thing was that right within—it seemed to me like within days—J. B. Lippincott (publishing house) accepted my children’s story for publication. So I was saved from despair. I would have liked that writers’ school, I think. It’s a really interesting place to hone the craft … but anyway.

And then my wife and I came East. I was going to just live on the Maine coast and write books. And couldn’t find any place on the Maine coast that we could afford that we were interested in. And we happened to see a car go by us with Nova Scotia plates. We were on our way to northwest Maine—settling up there—but saw that and said, ‘Let’s go see Nova Scotia. Let’s go check it out.’ (What year was that?) Fall ’69.

(You had a children’s book published. What was that called?) Papeek. I don’t know why Papeek. It was a fable about the first sled dog. I sold 10 copies. (Dirk laughs).

A children’s book that Dirk wrote.

(Were you thinking about a novel at the same time?) No, I had other stories in my mind. And when I came here to Nova Scotia, I worked at it. But I never pulled one off. There were two that I worked quite hard at and they just didn’t come together. Then I did all the odd jobs around. I ran a canteen one summer. I tried a property management thing, looking after people’s homes in the wintertime and stuff, drainpipes and so on. Then I worked at the local newspaper a little bit. Had a milk cow, Gladys, and pigs and chickens. And then I got it in mind in 1976 to start that classified ad exchange.

Oh, I had gone back to Vermont and at some point I went to Garden Way Publishing because we knew one of the editors there had been an editor of a magazine called Vermont Life, and his family was from Manchester, Vermont, which was just down the road from where we lived. Anyway, interesting to go and see what Garden Way Publishing’s doing and did they need any help. Well, I couldn’t get a job at Garden Way Publishing, but they needed somebody to write copy for them—advertising copy. I didn’t want to do that. So then I suggested (doing) a bunch of book reviews for them because they had a library and they really didn’t know what they had. So I did a whole bunch of thumbnail reviews of their how-to books.

And then from there, I pitched the idea of doing a book about raising a family cow. And I had a family cow here. And so I wrote The Family Cow for Garden Way.

And after that, I wrote Small-Scale Pig Raising for Garden Way. I was wrangling for a contract for the pig book, get a little bit better deal than I had with the cow book because I really got a very, very low royalty rate for that first book. It was fine, but I wanted a little better deal for the pig book. Negotiations didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I got the idea of starting this classified ad exchange. I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into.

(What was the need, why did you start it?) Well, a couple of things. One was that I knew a guy in Vermont who had a classified ad publication that was doing a very nice … fantastic job. It became, in his hands, the bible of antique car restorers called Hemmings Motor News. And Hemmings Motor News was started by a fellow in the Midwest. It started out as just a mimeographed few-page thing. And it became a magazine in the hands of this fellow who we all knew, Terry Ehrich. And Terry Ehrich (who purchased it from founder Ernest Hemmings) built it up into a hell of a publication based in Bennington, Vermont.

And I thought (of a) classified ad exchange for old farm and country kitchen stuff, old farm equipment. We had the use of the newspaper office in Shelburne for setting type. And the cheapest way to print anything was on one sheet of broadsheet folded twice and then trimmed to make a little ‘pony tab.’ So that’s what we did. And we couldn’t fill it with all the classifieds. Well, we scrabbled together about $70 and sent a flyer out looking for subscribers. It was going to be 12 times a year for four bucks. Free classifieds.

Anyway, got enough of a response to that to pay for a print run with this one sheet of newspaper folded twice and trimmed. But that was a lot of space to fill and we didn’t have enough classifieds to fill it, so we went everywhere looking for classifieds. We just took them from any place because we weren’t charging anything. So we’d see a classified in the Chronicle Herald or there was something called Uncle Henry’s exchange over in Maine—it still exists—and we took ads from there. So we filled it up. Oh, and I took one or two of my reviews—book reviews—that I’d done for Garden Way. They said I could do that. So I printed those. And then I had started the pig book at that point. They had given me a contract. So I had committed to the pig book and this magazine or whatever this thing was going to be.

“Numero Uno” was issued in June 1976.

It was horrendous. It was a crazy, crazy time. (What do you mean, just so much work?) So much work. And then I had a third thing, too, because I had no money. There was no amount of money that came as an advance on the book. And the Rural Delivery, if it got enough money to pay a print run, that was that. So then I took a job. A friend of mine worked for Co-op Atlantic in Moncton, and he hired me to illustrate a history of Co-op Atlantic that he was writing.

So between Rural Delivery, write a book about pigs, raising pigs—continued to raise pigs—and illustrations, it was crazy. I had volunteer help, a lot of volunteer help. We had no money.

Harrowsmith started at the same time. Damnedest thing, didn’t even know Harrowsmith, didn’t know about it. (Harrowsmith founder) James Lawrence went around and scared up $500,000. And we had $70 and volunteer help. Gee whiz. But it was nuts. I would work on an editorial for two weeks and go to try and scare up ads for two weeks for the first two years. That’s really what we did.

(Was it Rural Delivery from the start?) Yeah. But it was going to be just classified ads essentially. That’s all. It was going to be simple. It was going to be real easy.

(So you really couldn’t even fill the first one with the classifieds?) Oh God, no. Well, it was very much an amateur job because we didn’t know what we were doing. One woman—now Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson—who was working with me drew the Rural Delivery banner that we used for maybe a year. We had the use of the typesetting equipment at the Shelburne Coast Guard. And a friend there—Jill Smith—also volunteered to do the typesetting. You waxed your copy and you had galleys and trim and wax and spooned the copy down. Crazy business. You had one machine for doing the type and the other machine for doing the headlines. How did we address the damn things? I forget, but I guess we were using an addressograph machine, using little metal plates. But that was later.

And, I don’t know, we had to make the decision: Is it going to be three columns, four columns, how many columns is it going to be? How’s this going to be, that going to be? How’s it going to be mailed? The first one, I went to the post office. If they knew, they weren’t going to tell me about the fact that there was anything but first-class mailing. But there was and that’s the wonderful thing. There was an opportunity there which wouldn’t be there today at all because back then there was third-class mailing. Very cheap. There was unaddressed mailing. You could just put down a postal code—you wanted to send so many magazines to a postal code—and it was cheap. And what we did was, say we had 150 subscribers sent $4, that gave us enough money for a press run.

Elizabeth Underwood and Dirk anguishing over layout decisions for an early issue of the magazine.

Where were we doing it initially? I think we were printing down in Yarmouth. Anyway, so then you had the press run of 1,000 maybe and you only had 150 subscribers. So you go and send it out as a free copy—‘please subscribe’—to various places around the Maritimes and hope the hell that people will respond to it so that you’d have enough money to do another press run. It makes you tired to think of it.

(Did you right from the get-go cover the entire Maritimes?) Tried to. We worked in Liverpool. But we had to fight, in my mind, the natural idea of people that if they saw something coming from Liverpool, Nova Scotia that it was a South Shore Nova Scotia publication. We knew that we wanted to be a regional Maritime publication.

If we had stories looking like they were of equal importance and interest, one in the Valley and one in Liverpool or Queens (County) or the South Shore, we’d take the one in the Valley. And it’s not because we didn’t like Liverpool or the South Shore necessarily, but it was to avoid being labelled right away quick. You know, national publications can come out of Ontario or B.C. maybe, but try to do a national publication out of Winnipeg or down here in the Maritimes and it’s an uphill battle.

(Rural Delivery goes far afield now, well beyond the Maritimes as far as subscribers. But it’s probably right that the base is in the Maritimes. Was that always the plan? Did you ever see it as a national publication?) I played with the idea. But the fact was that it was the local people and local businesses that paid the shot. We didn’t have national advertising. So if some business here was kind enough to throw their money at us to advertise their stuff and they’re selling in the local area, and we go and work at developing circulation in the New England states or Quebec or something, did the person here no good at all. So we had to keep in mind that we had this local base of support.

I thought about it. But it’s difficult, especially I suppose once you’ve started off in an area and established yourself as a Maritime publication. Quebec’s a barrier in a way. I mean, we’re not French. You’d have pockets of Anglos who might be happy in the Eastern Townships to have an English publication. But we always seemed to have a kind of a blip in Ontario and another blip in B.C. and then a smattering elsewhere.

(Was the idea for the Maritimes just so you would have enough of a subscriber base to keep it afloat?) We were always trying to build it. And if I still owned it, I’d still be toying with the idea of how could we break into the New England market. Because culturally—in so many ways—New England and here are so similar. There’s a natural commonality. But postal rates made it difficult. Not that it couldn’t be got around. But I just never did pull it off. But as I say, I’d probably still be playing with the idea, saying, ‘How could we do this?’

The Odd Lobster canteen in Summerville, Queens County in 1971. Before launching his magazine, Dirk tried his hand at a number of jobs, including operating the canteen.

(How many people would have been involved with it initially when you started, the first edition, the first year?) Well, there was Elizabeth Underwood who was a key individual. Her name’s Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson now. She was very, very much involved in many, many ways. But then there were other friends in the area. There was Jill Smith. She lives in Shelburne County now. Chris Curry, who lives in Shelburne County. Then there was Renee Davis. She lives in Fredericton now. Then in the immediate community, there were people who helped with a number of chores, mailing and other things. And volunteers—Gail Wolfe and Erna Stuart. Both those women have died now. Gail and her mother Erna. And Cathey Cranton.

(Were these basically friends?) Yeah.

You know, the classified ad exchange was a non-starter. It wasn’t going to work. I mean, people put big money behind advertising for restoring Model As, Model Ts, all those old cars. It was a popular hobby pursued by people with discretionary income. Well, old farm equipment, no. You bought it because you could afford it. Right now, there’s those who restore tractors and restore one-lunger engines and stuff like that. But there’s not too many. It’s not going to support a publication and not down here in the Maritimes. So it was not a sound idea. I just thought it was going to be something I was going to do while I wrote how-to books.

The editor at Garden Way said, ‘Dirk, if you get 10 publications under your belt, you’ll be making a pretty decent income.’ The cow book continues to sell—not much now—but the pig book actually sold about 100,000 and then they dropped it. But I had a clause in my contract that if they ever decided not to publish, that rights would return to me. And now it’s being published—a little bit of an updated version—by Echo Point Books, a print-on-demand company in Vermont. And I’m doing better than I ever did the last years it was sold by Storey Books, which bought out Garden Way. They’re selling a lot of it by Amazon and such. Pretty nice. I get, I don’t, know $300, $400, $500 a year. That’s OK. Something I wrote back in ’78.

(And the cow book, how many copies would that have sold?) I forget what it is. I don’t know. I know the pig book—they made something of the fact when they passed the 100,000-mark. I don’t know, maybe we didn’t pass 100,000 with the cow. But for everybody who’s going to raise a pig for the summer, there’s probably 100 of those people to anybody who’s going to consider a cow.

The cow book, that was because I had the advantage of running into an absolutely brilliant man with a fantastic library to help me. That became a more substantial book than the pig book, I would say. It was the first one. And in a lot of ways, I don’t think anybody that I know of has written the equivalent. I’m sure in a number of respects there are better books. But for the history of cattle and some of the other stuff … I had just marvellous support.

(Who was that?) His name was Craig Wheaton-Smith. He was a fellow who happened to retire to Dorset, Vermont, where my parents eventually returned after years in Connecticut. They went back to Vermont and retired. My Dad, well I don’t know if he ever retired. But I went down to Vermont one time visiting and told them that I got this contract to write the cow book. And they said, ‘Oh, you should talk to this man.’ I went to visit him. And by this point, I thought I’d written the history of dairy breeds. I had used sources that I thought were legitimate sources to do that, which was the breed associations themselves and Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dirk’s father, who always appreciated suspension bridges, put his architectural skills to work designing this house in Dorset, Vermont, where he lived until his death in 1994.

So I went to see Craig Wheaton-Smith, sat down in his kitchen and talking to him. He was an Englishman. And I told him what I’d done and what I knew. And he was very, very nice. But he said, ‘You don’t have it. You’re not going to get the history from the breed associations because they all are promoting the notion that their breed goes back to Methuselah and it’s been a closed book for all those years.’ Well, it’s bullshit.

So he took me into his library. He had a beautiful dark library with books all around and he just walked around and he said, ‘Well, you’ll have to read this and you’ll have to read that.’ And he filled my arms with books. There was a guy named Parmalee Prentice (1863-1955, son-in-law of John D. Rockefeller) who had written a history of the dairy cattle. And there was, oh God, just numbers of books from the U.S. and the U.K. (Robert) Bakewell (1725-1795), (William) Youatt (1776-1847), early people on the breeds of cattle. And with those, then I had a handle on something. I found out so much about how that all works.

Craig Wheaton-Smith had had a champion dairy herd in England that was both production and conformation. I don’t know if there was family money or whatever, but when he wanted to create this herd that was going to be knocking the judges eyes out, he hired a couple of illustrators—or at least one illustrator—from Walt Disney, saying, ‘What makes a pretty cow? What makes a cow attractive to people?’

He was a lawyer and bovine geneticist. He was one of these guys with multiple degrees. He was part of a team hired by the French government to come in and look at all of their breeds. The French government was supporting some incredible number of breeds of cattle—beef breeds essentially we’re talking about—and they felt that there were perhaps redundancies. Was there really the need for the government to support all of these breeds, and if so, why? So they brought a team of people together. And it was good. He was part of this team that looked at the qualities of these cattle and suggested that, ‘This, this, this and this breed, yeah, you want to support them. But maybe if you’re going to pull the rug from under a breed, you might look at this one because it really doesn’t have that much different to offer.’

(But he was based in Vermont at some point?) At that point he was retired to Vermont. He was just cooling out there. That was an amazing thing. What a wonderful chance when I was writing this because I would have written this book with a stupid repetition of whatever poppycock the breed associations wanted to create. And I wouldn’t have known anything about the early work in breeding and selection of beef cattle. That just gave me such a grounding. It was fantastic. It was wonderful.

(Now Rural Delivery, it’s kind of amazing to see what it’s become. It must have been a pile of work for probably the whole time.) It was a pile of work. Sometimes I look back through the early copies and I can get tired just looking, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what a grind.’ I mean, it was an amazing grind. But I didn’t know any better. The thing that I think was good and important for me was that I was kind of floating around, going from this to that to the other, trying to find what I was going to settle on, what I was going to do with my life and all. And I sent out that flyer saying, ‘Here I am.’ And I’m saying, ‘You send me four bucks and I’m going to send you a magazine for a year.’ And then all these people—not a huge amount but 150 or whatever the number was—I’ve made a bargain. I guess I’d better stick to it. Sometimes the deadlines were just deadly, deadly, but they kept me going. I didn’t have time to think about whether, ‘Am I happy doing this? Do I want to do this? No, no, you silly bugger, you said you were going to do it.’

(And you would have been in your late 30s when you started?) True. I think I was 38. It was time. Yeah, I’d had quite a bit of life experience. Another thing, too, I was married when I came here, and my wife’s father—Susan’s father—was half-owner, partner in a packing plant, Seitz Packing, in St. Joe, Missouri. An abattoir. St. Joe was where there used to be a big packing industry. Swift and Armour, some of these big companies, were there. And then there was this other company, two in fact—Seitz and Lovers Lane Meats—cranking out hotdogs, salami and so forth. It was a fairly small company that Susan’s father and friend, who were school chums, purchased after World War II. It was a bankrupt company and they purchased it. The two of them—one being management and people-oriented, and one being an engineer—pulled this thing together and both made it happen. Built up a nice business.

Then about the time that I met Susan and we were married, these two guys were approached by a bunch of beef farmers—feedlot operators—out in Sterling, Colorado, who said they wanted to go it together and co-operatively set up their own packing plant. And so Susan’s father and his partner said, ‘Sure, we can do that. That sounds like an interesting project.’ And so they shook hands on an agreement with these farmers for 10 percent of the profits or something. They would give them all the help they could to design and build and set up this packing plant. They set up a company called Packers Advisors who would advise these guys in Sterling.

Well, anyway, after one year, they had so much money rolling in, they didn’t know what to do with it. It was an embarrassment. They went back to the ranchers and feedlot operators and they said, ‘This is crazy. It’s too much.’ So they rewrote the deal for a smaller percentage. Still, there was a pile of money coming in. And Susan’s father and partner didn’t need that money, so they put all the children and their spouses as stockholders in this company. And there was one year when there was much more money came into our hands from Packers Advisors than I made, and maybe Susan, I don’t know. And that was stultifying. That was not good for Dirk. I did break up with Susan—which was too bad—but we did break up. We had one child, our son Wim in ’71. Anyway, Susan went back to the States and there I was.

Dirk with his infant son Wim in 1971.

That’s when I ran the canteen. I did this, I did that. But I was drifting. It was after that summer with the canteen, I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ It was about then I went back to Vermont, wrote The Family Cow, made a pitch for a pig book. And while that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, decided that I’d do this magazine. It didn’t seem like a big decision at the time, but it was.

And then I decided that having made that decision and made that obligation—that contractual arrangement for so much money—I’m going to give you a magazine. In a way, it was all very good. And then I had no money. I mean, I had no big debts because we bought this place really cheap at that time and sold off a hundred acres to help pay for it. It was a very different world. So, though I was rolling my own cigarettes with cigarette butts and my penny collection was important to me, that was it. That’s what I was doing. And yes, sometimes I’d get real tired. But I remember my first capital expense. I went out and bought a fluorescent lamp to go over the layout table—$42. Boy oh boy. But it was good for me mentally and emotionally to know that I had an obligation. And keep your nose to the grindstone, you know, that type of thing. And I liked the work and I liked the people and I liked the challenge, obviously. No, I could’ve walked away.

(Was it always fairly enjoyable?) No, no. There were times … just so tired, absolutely tired, and tired beyond what sleep would do anything about. Just really worn out. But there were always things that made it really fun to do. A story would come in unsolicited from somebody—you don’t know who it is—and it’s a lovely, lovely story. And here you are in this fantastic, enviable position of giving that thing life and sending that story out to a whole bunch of readers. That was always so satisfying. Some of those writers probably really hadn’t had much in the way of markets. Well, some people had never written, didn’t see themselves as professional writers.

If somebody came to me with a story about something that excited and interested them—pow!—that’s got power. That’s good. But if it’s just being written just to make a buck—and, ‘Oh well, yeah, I guess I can get interested in this’—well it’s not fun. When I had stories from people who were writing about what they were doing and what they loved, that was great. That’s the stuff that keeps you going.

(When you look back on Rural Delivery—the flagship—do you feel a sense of pride about the thing?) I think … yeah. I feel a sense of … yeah, it was OK. I’m pleased that it kept on and we made it happen. There were certainly doubters in the early years. The publisher of the Liverpool Advance back then, he had a good flair. He was a real old-fashioned newspaperman. I met him in the IGA parking lot one day and handed him a copy of the magazine. This was the very first or second issue or something. I was pretty happy that … here we are. And he was very, very unencouraging. ‘Many are called and few are chosen,’ he said, and he handed the magazine back. Oh yeah, and there were others. I think of the advertisers, hotshot people with businesses who would just sort of treat you like you’re some kind of a joke. And they’re gone. They were full of themselves. And I was just this crazy person with an idea that you were going to sell advertising and do a magazine. And they thought I was full of shit and maybe they were right. But still and all, it was kind of fun to watch them go.

There were wonderful things, too. There were wonderful people. There was one guy who was the manager, CEO—whatever you might called it—of the Lunenburg Foundry. Big company at the time. And he was on my list to talk about advertising. Maybe he’d advertise their stoves or something. And I met with him so many times. I called him and I met with him. And he’d always say, ‘Well, no, I don’t think so.’ And I had three-by-five cards for everybody, the name and a record of everything. And I would go through my little file box. One time I was down and I’d gone through my file box. I’d tried every damn thing. Now prior to this, I had written ‘SHITHEAD’ (on the Lunenburg Foundry card). (Laughter). But I didn’t throw the card away. I put the card back in there. So then I’d been through my card file too many times. OK, so I pulled SHITHEAD out of the box and I gave him a call. And he’s all pleasantness—generally was pleasant. And he said, ‘How are things going?’ I said, ‘Well, not very well. I’ve got to get another page of advertising.’ ‘Well, sign me up!’ What a way to sell advertising. Jesus.

The biggest boost so far as advertising was from Dick Melanson in Moncton. He had the Maritime Farm Supply company there and sold farm equipment. He was on the board of the co-op that runs the Atlantic Farm Mechanization Show that was maybe in its second year when we came along. There was no way to pay for a booth but he said I could bring a pallet of Rural Deliveries in the back door of the Coliseum. From there I ran back and forth and just about slathered the place with copies. The thing is, someone with his reputation in the business, if he thought what we were doing was worthwhile, well that was like a pass. We had a chance.

But that was it, you know. That was the thing I think that was really important. It wasn’t a question of did I want to do it. If I didn’t do it, I was losing face with all these people. I said I was going to do this thing and so it was really important to make it happen. No, this might not be what you want to do, you’d really like to go back to bed or whatever. I liked writing for our readers. So many of them were really hard-working people, and terrific people. You know, I couldn’t have probably put that energy in or stuck to it if it were, say, Golfing Digest or something. I had to appreciate, and I do appreciate, what the people that we were writing for were up to.

Dirk the typist hamming it up in his home office.

(How does Pot Luck work?) I really don’t know. Does it? How do you mean? (Are you always thinking about it or would you work on it throughout the month or do you procrastinate?) I think about it. I think about ideas, about things that I would want to go on about. I wish that it were lighter. I really love Frank Macdonald’s columns and writing because he can say things that are very pointed and meaningful, but he keeps a sense of humour. I appreciate that so much. I sometimes get tired of myself being such a grouch. But there it is.

(You mean when you get into political stuff?) Political stuff and just seemingly always seeing the negative of side of things. And I do. I don’t know, as you get older maybe just the world changes around you, and things don’t work quite the way they used to. The music isn’t so satisfying. And then you’ve got political wingnuts like Trump and company. And then in our own government, people doing things that I just think are wrong-headed.

My own ability with business is abysmal. I’m not a businessman. But I really get upset, as I’ve gone on in Rural Delivery in the Pot Luck, about our devotion to short-sighted means of keeping the economic engines going. It’s through extraction, extraction, extraction. Making our living through mining and fracking and clearcutting, and just eating up raw resources and not building stuff. All of the Amish people that I visited in the trip that I took to Ohio a number of years ago—every Amish family—they’d have their string of cattle. And then they have some enterprise on the side. I just think that’s a marvellous way to go. They’re building quality stuff. The mindset seems appropriate.

When I am working on ideas for Pot Luck, I never know, when I sit down, what ideas are going to end up on the page. I just don’t know. I could start out in one direction and end up going another. Sometimes they’re simple and roll off quite easily, and other times I sweat over them. The interesting thing I think—it’s a kind of a trick and fun to accomplish—that you give people the impression that it just was the easiest thing in the world to write what you wrote. They won’t know that you struggled and sweat bullets to get there.

(What about the illustrations, were you always artistic in that way?) No. That was something that happened initially when we didn’t know anything about layout and how the hell you fill the space.

A page from Dirk’s sketchpad reveals that it takes work to get his illustrations just right.

(But the illustrations really work. How did you do them initially? What did you use?) I use rapidograph pens, and just pen and ink. I probably was messing with a rapidograph. You remember those? (No.) They were quite popular at the time. They’re still available. It’s a pen that takes India ink. It’s just a very intense ink and these fine points. And I sometimes use a crow quill nib dipped in my bottle of ink.

I did take one or two short scientific illustration courses—not full credit courses—at Cornell. Scientific illustration is a marvellous, marvellous thing. But I was never good at it. It was fun, interesting and good training as far as it went. But I could never draw anything the way it was supposed to look. And I was plagued by the fact I would try to do an illustration—make a dog like a dog and a person like a person—and they never quite made it. And I sent an early copy or two of Rural Delivery to James Lawrence at Harrowsmith magazine. He wrote back saying, ‘I love your cartoons.’ And this was the interesting thing because I hadn’t twigged that (they were) cartoons.

And I thought, ‘Wow!’ It was a great weight lifted because I no longer had to make things look just like they were. Say like the cows on this cover, the most recent issue there. Those crazy, freehand, sketchy cow-like things. Perhaps they suggest a cow at the best. But I thank you, Mr. Lawrence. That was a wonderful thing to do. It was super. And I do like illustrating. I like it when they work. Sometimes, boy, I really work on them and they just don’t come and it’s a hell of a thing. But I love it when they work.

Dirk’s “crazy, freehand, sketchy cow-like things.”

Elizabeth Underwood—or Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson—who worked with me, she says that I was thinking of The New Yorker when I did those first little scribbles. And maybe that was it. But I know that I did scribbles to fill space. And certainly I thought of The New Yorker for the way they do have their little illustrations throughout. Another thing, too, about The New Yorker was—and why I wanted to live on the Maine coast and then ended up here—E.B. White had a series in The New Yorker called Letters from Down East from his saltwater farm in Maine. I was enchanted by those essays. And I still love them. So when I found this place, I thought, ‘I’ve found my own little saltwater farm.’

Dirk and his sidekick Tank in the farmhouse on his “saltwater farm.”
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