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John Godfrey’s meaningful life

JOHN DEMONT @Ch_coalblackhrt

I don’t know exactly what year it was, just that it was summer in the mid-1980s and, while back home in Halifax, I had wandered over to my alma mater, the University of King’s College.

Somehow, I found myself in the office of the school’s president. Though John Godfrey had yet to hit 40, the room was already bursting with mementos of a sweeping life and career.

I recall that he was sharpening his golf skills as I entered, putting balls across his presidential carpet into a water glass which had been turned sideways.

When I asked what his plans were for the summer, Godfrey, angular frame still bent over the makeshift putting green, said that he was weighing three options: to perhaps run for the federal Liberals in the coming election; to head up to the high Arctic where, since 1978, he had been joining a crew of adventurers — who included journalism giants like Craig Oliver and Tim Kotcheff, and such Liberal royalty as Jean Chretien advisor Eddie Goldenberg and, once, Pierre Trudeau — who liked to test their canoeing skills on thundering northern rivers.

To be honest, I forget what the third option was, but I would have to think that it was epic.

Godfrey, who died this week one day before his 81st birthday, once told me about his love of the books of Richard Haliburton, the American travel writer and adventurer, who once swam the length of the Panama Canal.

He seems to have taken those swashbuckling lessons to heart. The scion of a prominent Ontario Liberal family, Godfrey cut a dashing figure wherever he went, and leaves behind a legacy of achievement in academia, journalism, politics, and public service.

“A fine decent, hugely intelligent man who gave so much to his country,” Andrew Bevan, chief of staff

to federal finance minister and deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, wrote on X of his “mentor, friend and co-conspirator.”

On that point, it is impossible to disagree — as is the fact that by his mere presence Godfrey brightened the world.


I met him for the first time over glasses of port in the King’s College president’s lodge — him in tweeds, me in construction boots and stained work pants — as he took time to explain to me why the university’s journalism school might be a fit for an aimless fellow with a summer construction job.

By then he was already cutting a striking figure in Halifax. There, he jogged when few others did, drove through the city streets in his convertible, and became a fixture at cultural, social, and political events.

He even brought some of the hallmarks of Oxford University, where he studied French history, to the small Halifax school he took over in 1977 — the same year Godfrey made the New York Times after unsuccessfully asking Columbia University for $460 million in reparations because King’s once stood where the New York institution was now located.

The ploy was a publicity stunt, part of a fund-raising campaign for the university. But Godfrey, who became president at just 35, found other ways to put King’s on the map.

By for example, hiring George Bain, the fabled Globe and Mail columnist and war correspondent, as head of the journalism school, in the hope of burnishing the young program which Godfrey pushed to launch.

And by taking an interest in issues like the airlift to combat the famine in Ethiopia which might have been thought to be beyond the purview of the president of a small, Maritime liberal arts school.

The latter tendency spawned a joke uttered during his decade-long presidency: what is the difference between God and Godfrey?

God is here, there, and everywhere.

Godfrey is everywhere but here.

“He became bigger than the university,” said long-time King’s journalism professor Stephen Kimber, “almost a travelling ambassador for Kings.”


Halifax was always thought to be too small for his ambitions. It was still a surprise in June of 1987 when Godfrey became the editor of the venerable weekly Financial Post, where I happened to be working.

Serious old-school Posties did not know what to make of him.

Author Gordon Pitts, who worked at the FP at the same time, recalled that Godfrey “would breeze through the newsroom in formal wear, on his way to some exotic gathering, while we ink-stained wretches put out the paper.”

After the Post was bought by the Toronto Sun, Pitts recalled that some in the newsroom resented what they thought of as Godfrey’s showy “elitism,” his distance from “real journalism” as practised by the Toronto tabloid.

“But in retrospect, with his cheery good humor and flair, maybe he helped ease us through the upheaval of the old-dowager Post going daily under the feisty, macho Sun.”

The humour and flair are what I remember most from the brief period that Godfrey was my boss. Somewhere deep in my cerebral cortex, for example, resides a vague memory of a hat-themed party at his parent’s place in Toronto’s upscale Rosedale neighbourhood.

As the evening progressed, there would be the editor of the Financial Post — this progressive Liberal who liked to play tennis with Sun columnist Peter Worthington — walking through the room with an ever-changing array of headgear: a Scottish tam, perhaps a bowler hat, other more exotic chapeaus, until it all culminated in a bishop’s miter, which could have been a nod to King’s Anglican roots.


We saw each other from time to time in Ottawa after he became the Liberal MP for the Ontario riding of Don Valley West and joined Paul Martin’s cabinet.

The many online condolences after word of his death broke Tuesday underscore that Godfrey made his mark in the federal government, particularly when it came to advancing environmental and city-related issues.

I only saw Godfrey once more, at a King’s anniversary. By then he had left politics to become headmaster at the Toronto French School.

For all I know he had moved onto something else, in keeping with what the Canadian Encyclopedia calls “his eclectic professional history.”

I was on stage with a panel of some other King’s grads explaining how they ever came to be at the school.

As I recounted my long-ago visit to the President’s lodge, I could see a familiar face in the crowd nodding.

Afterwards, I tried to find John Godfrey for a quick word. But he was already out the door and down a hall as if something somewhere new and exciting was waiting there for him.

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