Knowlton Nash had faith in people’s best instincts.
The veteran CBC broadcaster, best known as long-time anchor of The National, died Saturday after battling Parkinson’s disease for years. He was 86.
For Peter Mansbridge, who said Nash was “everything from a big brother to a colleague to an uncle to a really good friend to a mentor,” one particular memory really defined the man’s character.
Nash kept a cigarette case on his desk at the old CBC building in the 1980s — a gift from John F. Kennedy, which the victorious U.S. presidential candidate gave to every reporter who covered his 1960 campaign.
“It was all glass and had some gold lettering on the front of it, and the gold lettering was John Kennedy’s signature and a shape of the plane,” Mansbridge told the Star late Saturday night.
“So there he had this incredible memento on his desk. We were all in awe of it. I certainly was,” Mansbridge said. “But he never locked his office door. I kept saying to him, ‘Knowlton, things can disappear from a big office building like this.’ ”
But the cigarette case remained right where it was, unguarded, all those years.
“He had this simple belief in the good of people,” Mansbridge said.
As word of Nash’s death spread Saturday night, tributes from Canada’s media community started pouring in.
“Had the privilege of working many times with Knowlton Nash. The integrity, intelligence and kindness we aspire to. Thinking of you,” anchor and reporter Ian Hanomansing tweeted.
There were also tributes from political figures whom Nash interviewed and covered during his long career.
“Arlene and I mourn the passing of Knowlton Nash, who was a friend and mentor over many years,” former Ontario premier Bob Rae tweeted.
Nash had a 37-year career with Canada’s public broadcaster, including a decade behind the anchor desk of The National, CBC’s flagship news program before the creation of Prime Time News.
It was there that the broadcaster, whose warm eyes appeared magnified behind his oversized glasses, earned the unofficial title “Uncle Knowlty.” It was a reflection of his steady, easygoing style and earnest, scholarly delivery.
“I learned ‘cool’ from him in that kind of setting,” CTV’s Lloyd Robertson, who was The National’s anchor when Nash was news chief, told the Star’s Antonia Zerbisias in 2006. “He was always able to focus on what was important: protecting the integrity of the news department while trying to deal diplomatically with the political masters at the same time.”
Ironically, his dedication to the craft led Nash to walk away from perhaps the most influential spot in Canadian TV news in April 1988. It was the strongest enticement he could offer Mansbridge, then a national correspondent for CBC-TV, to stay in Canada.
Mansbridge, who had reportedly been offered a $1-million salary to co-anchor a U.S. morning show for CBS, agreed over a late-night cup of cocoa to stay after Nash volunteered to move to The National’s weekend desk.
“I literally owe my job to him and his advice to me over the years,” Mansbridge told the Star years later. “It is fair to say that while Knowlton has been away from the newsroom in tangible terms for decades, he’s still very much there in influence. No one I’ve ever met in this business has the cool, the class and the smarts to deal with (all the) issues.
“He also has a sense of history and context that no one else has. It’s a shame he never was the chair or the president.”
Nash was philosophical about the disabling disease that afflicted him in his final years, eschewing any self-pity.
“Everybody has challenges and problems to face, and there are a lot more difficult ones than the ones I am facing,” he told the Star in 2006. “I can argue that I can get a couple of extra strokes in my golf game — that’s one important thing.
Nash’s departure from The National marked the end of one of the most important decades in the history of the CBC’s television news division.
Nash had been a key player in transforming an ailing news show into a major ratings success. From 1969 when he retired his correspondent’s trench coat to 1978 when he took over anchoring The National, Nash was director of news and current affairs for the English network of the CBC.
It was under his steady guidance that The National moved to a then-unheard-of 10 p.m. time and was paired with his risky creation, The Journal.
The National/Journal hour became an unassailable jewel in the network’s crown until anchor Barbara Frum’s death in 1992 brought the Journal to a halt and CBC executives took another gamble with the creation of a 9 p.m. news show, Prime Time News.
Born Nov. 18, 1927, Nash knew from an early age he wanted to be a newsman. Before he turned 10, he had put out several editions of his own weekly newspaper: six laboriously typed pages, which he sold for less than a nickel. He understood the business well enough to sell ad space in exchange for bubble gum and chocolate to local merchants.
In 1951, he began a handful of years in Washington in public relations. Later, during a lengthy stint as a freelancer for the CBC, Maclean’s magazine and anyone else who would pay him, Nash covered everything from police courts to presidents. He followed John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and got the last lengthy interview given by Robert Kennedy before he was assassinated in 1968.
He wrote books about his career: History on the Run in 1984 and Prime Time at Ten in 1987. He is also the author of Kennedy and Diefenbaker (1990) and Visions of Canada (1991).
- With files from The Canadian Press