Remembering Ron Petrie
I’m glad I worked with the L-P’s wizard of wit
by Emmet Matheson
Ron Petrie liked me. I know this because he used to leave ghost poop on my desk beside the fax machine in the Leader-Post newsroom. Not actual ghost poop, of course. About once a week, I'd come back from my lunch break and find a printout of an eBay listing for the sale of ghost poop on my desk. I'd look around to confirm that no one else had ghost poop on their desk. Ron Petrie likes me, I'd brag to myself.
I started at the Leader-Post in 2001. My job was mainly to bring in the mail, archive each day's edition, and tame the wild fax machine. In 2005, after more than four years, one of the bosses told me that I should change the label on my mailbox from "Copy Person" to "Matheson-Comma-E-Period". It was the closest thing to an adult job I've ever had. I held on to it far longer than I should have because I was afraid that that was as good as I was going to get in this world. And also because they let me write CD reviews and interview Bruce McCulloch and Bob Newhart and Charley Pride.
By the time I started at the L-P, I'd been writing consistently for about four years in the student press, alt-weeklies, and the odd not-quite-glossy music mag. Among the amateurs and the hobbyists, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I was quickly humbled at my leftover desk on the edge of a real newsroom, watching real journalists do real journalism every day.
None had a bigger influence on me - as a writer and as a man - than humour columnist Ron Petrie, who died Sunday, Feb. 19, at age 52 after fighting cancer. It was as instructive (and often as entertaining) to watch him work on his columns as it was to read them.
Ron Petrie came out of the student press as well, albeit nearly 20 years before I did. Like me, he'd been editor of his student newspaper ( The Sheaf at the University of Saskatchewan) and decided to keep writing anyway. Maybe that's why he liked me. We had a lot in common, really. We both did crossword puzzles and we both thought ghost poop was hilarious.
Ron fit many of my half-formed, youthful ideas about how a writer at work should be. His shirts were un-ironed and buttoned haphazardly. He could be irritable, but I never saw him be mean to anyone. I would realize, much later, that many of these traits sprang at least as much from the chaos of raising young children than from a grim dedication to the dark arts of the scrivener.
In the morning, Ron would be anywhere in the Leader-Post building except at his desk. He roamed the halls, often squeezing a tennis ball, stopping here and there to talk to colleagues. I don't think he was searching for a column topic so much as letting his ideas gestate. By afternoon, he would disappear behind his cubicle wall on the opposite side of the newsroom from me. Even so, I could usually hear - over the electronic squelches of the fax machine, bleating phones, police scanner, and other newsroom noise - the report of mild but emphatic cursing that midwifed the birth of another column.
And what columns they were. Ron's worst quality as a writer was that he self-deprecated so convincingly that his readers believed him when he boasted of his average-ness or incompetency. He was such an effective writer that his craft was all but invisible in his columns. He more often used his tremendous talents in the service of letting others shine - especially in recent years as he expanded his repertoire to features on life in Small Town Saskatchewan.
A rare exception would be when he addressed his readers conspiratorially, like in his Jan. 19 column, "Sask. at the Crossroads", with his claim that there are "only two decent drivers left in Saskatchewan, namely me and namely you, the reader of this column."
But who can deny the poetic beauty of Snerbleflute, the name of the maddeningly prolific family of dunderheads who populate Petrie's fictional municipality, Cracked Axle?
When Ron wrote about politicians as if they were bickering children, he knew what he was talking about. Ron spent the early part of his newspaper career covering politics and, of course, as all of his readers know, Ron was father to four kids - "only three of whom are triplets".
I was in my mid-20s when I worked alongside Ron, and didn't really know anyone else with kids. The idea that I might someday be a father barely even registered. But I loved to hear Ron talk about his kids, to read what he wrote about them, to see how masterfully he commingled his two callings into a dual role to rival Philosopher-King: Writer-Dad.
I didn't keep in touch with Ron after I left Regina in 2006. I followed his column online, as well as his blog, Stubbleblogger, which was the digital version of finding ghost poop on your desk. So I didn't know he was sick. I thought of him often, though, when I became a father myself in 2008, and then a father of three - only two of whom are twins - last October. I had the perfect excuse to reach out, "Hey, Ron, I'm about to become a father of multiples. Got any advice?"
I imagine him letting out a great vowel-free, onomatopoeic sigh and exaggeratedly shrugging his shoulders, followed by a knowing smile. I wish like hell I'd reached out to him. Damn.
Ron Petrie liked me, I'm pretty sure and proud of that. I liked, admired, and looked up to him. The world's a little less friendly without him.