‘He made us feel like family’: Remembering John Honderich

The week following John Honderich’s death at 75, tributes poured in from friends, colleagues and admirers. Here’s what some had to say:

Jack Lakey, contributing columnist: In February 1994 my mother was gravely ill with cancer at age 57. She literally crawled into her doctor’s office in terrible pain and was sent home with a prescription for painkillers. My dad called me in the newsroom, distraught. My distress was apparent to then city editor Dave Ellis, who asked me about it. Soon after I saw John Honderich walk into Dave’s office and leave a few minutes later.

Within minutes the phone rang at my desk. “My name is Dr. John Evans. I hear you have a problem. ” Dr. Evans was chairman of the board of Torstar Corp. at the time and well-connected in medicine. Within an hour, an ambulance was at my parents’ home to take her to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, where she remained for nearly a month before she was able to return home and pass away peacefully in early April. John never said so much as a word to me about it, but I knew who pulled the string.

John always had our backs, in a way that you might not realize until you needed him. Another time, I did a lot of reporting on problems with the NDP’s social housing development program in the early ’90s. It incensed one housing advocate who penned a scathing dissection of a particular story of mine and sent it to John.

Before replying, John sought me out in the newsroom. He came to my desk with his mile-wide grin and said, “I thought you should see this before I sent it.” With a flourish, he slapped down a one-page reply and laughed. In precise, succinct language, John told the guy to, uh, take a hike. I never felt more supported in my life.

Mary Tezak and John Honderich at the Star's's 60s-themed sales kickoff event.

Mary Tezak, former special section administrator: What a gentleman, a man who taught those of us in advertising how to understand the editorial staff and how to work together in the special section environment. John explained what “editorial integrity” means and how it must be respected by all. We did and it worked.

Taras Slawnych, visuals editor: He knows my name! That’s the first thing I remember about John. I was a young junior photo editor, and the president of Torstar, who seemed bigger than life, knows my name. I can not tell you how thrilled that made me feel. Throughout my career, John was always there, checking up on me, my career, and my family. He even made a special visit to my house when I was recovering from an illness. (Our neighbor was deeply impressed when he rolled up in his Jaguar.)

I was especially honored when John presented my 30-year pin of service to me, the same year I was president of the Star’s Quarter Century Club, which celebrates staff who worked for the Star for over 25 years. Celebrating those many employees with a long history at the Star is a testament to the company culture he and his family created and nurtured.

Working with volunteers at the Metropolitan Community Church in 2020 to sort boxes for the Star Santa Claus Fund.

Dana Robbins, Vice President, Content, Community and Operations of Metroland Media: Today I’m remembering the kindness John showed a young, terribly green editor from The Hammer. When I was offered up as the Spec’s editor-in-chief, I had to make the trek to Toronto to meet with John. I was told by the Spec’s then publisher that the job would only be mine if I passed muster with John.

If you are tempted to speculate that I approached that lunch in the dining room of the Harbor Castle Hotel with some trepidation – even foreboding – I would not argue. I retain two distinct memories. The first was the steady stream of diners who made their way to our table, and the graciousness with which John greeted each and every one, the influential accorded no more than the unknown and anonymous. My second recollection is of the absolute pains to which John went to put me at ease. It seemed to me he was more interested in my childhood in a northern mining town, in my parents’ hardscrabble upbringing on the Prairies, in my love of Hamilton, as he was in any journalistic cred I might claim.

Charming is an overused word, but John was charming. His passing truly is the end of an era, the closing of a door, the shuttering of a window. In this new, fractured and fragmented media world, there will not be another whose gravitational weight will ever tip the scales quite the way that John’s did. And certainly none that will ever attempt it with as much charm.

John Honderich receiving his 40-year service pin from George Pereira in 2017.

George Pereira, president of the Quarter Century Club: He was an inspiring executive, a skilled news manager and a talented journalist in his own right. But he is also fondly remembered for being a stalwart supporter of the Toronto Star’s Quarter Century Club. The club was established in 1954 for those working 25 years, or more, at the paper. John was inducted into its ranks in 2001.

He was a regular attendee at the annual club banquet and revealed in meeting current and retired employees. He had a remarkable talent for remembering people’s names and acknowledging their contribution to the paper; details which were always accompanied by his trademark grin.

Maithily Panchalingam, the Star's public editor associate and her late husband, former Star photographer Vince Talotta, mug with Honderich in 2018. “John was a rare gem.  He made us all feel like family and inspired us to be our best, ”Panchalingam said.  “He always cared.  He had our backs and was proud of us. ”

Maithily Panchalingam, public editor associate and reader relation manager: John was a rare gem. He made us all feel like family and inspired us to be our best. He always cared. I am grateful for everything he did for me since I started as a Honderich Award student in ’97 and for my late husband, photographer Vince Talotta. He will always be part of our family.

David Agnew, president of Seneca College, where Honderich served as a board member from 2013 to 2019: John was no pushover. Honed by his years as a reporter, he had a healthy skepticism, and would ask tough, penetrating questions. But his goal was always to make something better.

He was a progressive, forward thinker with an unshakable sense of fairness. I was fortunate to call John a friend. Getting together for lunch or dinner with him was a guarantee of a great conversation about people, politics and power. And with a twinkle in his eye and that huge grin of his, John also loved to share a little gossip, always at the expense of the self-important.

John Honderich with the newsroom celebrating John's appointment as a member of the Order of Canada in 2004.

Carola Vyhnak, former editor and reporter and current freelance contributor: In the 1990s when I was special sections editor, I wanted to produce what would have been the Star’s first stand-alone section celebrating Pride week and Toronto’s gay community. It took a three-year struggle to find sponsors and support in the wider community for the section, but John was in my corner championing the initiative all the way.

When we finally published a Pride special section – the first of many subsequent sections – John sent me a handwritten note congratulating me on making it come to life. He called it “a real triumph and a major milestone in Canadian journalism.” I still have that note – it’s a highlight of my 46-year career in journalism – and I’m now going to frame and hang it on the wall.

Heather Greenwood Davis, former staff reporter: John Honderich played a pivotal role in my days as a junior reporter for the Star. In my mind, his was the voice that most represented what the paper stood for. He showed confidence in my abilities even when I felt unsure. And when, at the last moment, I made a decision to take a shot at securing a position at a law firm, he wrote me a letter of recommendation that I’m sure helped get me through a few doors. You do not have to be kind when you have power. He was.

John Honderich with Nello Merante at the Toronto Star Quarter Century gala in November 2019.

Wanda Goodwin, former photo editor: John was a gentle man, one that I fondly recall buying me a coffee at the tuck shop in the Star’s lobby when we arrived at the same time, me on crutches following Achilles surgery. He escorted me to the elevator and through the fifth-floor newsroom door to my desk. What a sad loss of a great newspaperman.

Richard Ouzounian, former theater critic: I was lucky enough to work with him for 15 years. In an era when most papers were eliminating their theater criticism, or marginalizing it, he believed a theater critic was one of the most important hires a paper could make. He loved it when I scored major scoops, delighted in the controversy I often caused and rode to my defense if organizations complained about me.

I had only been there a few months when he took the entire entertainment team (which was huge in those days) to his corporate box at the Skydome to hear Tina Turner on her record-breaking tour. The next day we all got an email thanking us for being there and saying, “In the words of Ms. Turner, you’re ‘Simply the best!’ “Take care, John. I’m sure bowties will start trending in the afterlife as soon as you arrive.

A tribute to John Honderich

Morris Greener, former circulation manager responsible for home delivery: What a loss. Along with many memories, I reflect back on my last day at the Star in May 2005, walking towards the parking lot with a dolly of personal stuff. John was walking south with his son and another youngster when he stopped me and told the kids a little about me and that I was retiring after over 30 years. He then said it was people like Morris who helped make the Star the great paper it was, shook my hand and wished me well. That memory will never leave me.

With files from May Warren and David Rider

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