CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: About town with Peter C. Newman

Peter C. Newman on the Aloha (Photo credit: Chris Finkle)

By Janet Jarrell

Seeing Canadian icon Peter C. Newman around town was a “Wow!” moment. It was late 2012, during a local author event at Greenley’s bookstore in downtown Belleville, when in walked Peter in a dapper suit jacket and his unmistakable sailor cap. He quietly made his way around the room, mixing with the crowd and donning a school boy smile to everyone, before being warmly greeted by local historian Jerry Boyce.

I continued to see him around town, but I didn’t approach and get his picture or autograph, or even say “hello.”

That changed when I was working at the local courthouse and Peter walked in asking for a court date about a minor traffic offense. We talked at length about his writing, and then I asked if he would sign some of his books when he returned for his court date. He said he would and he did, even giving me his business card.

Years after that first encounter, I set out to discover: “What is Peter C. Newman doing living here in Belleville?”

Born in Vienna Austria in 1929, Peta Karel Neumann emigrated from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1940 as a Jewish refugee. He credits his father and this move as saving his life. After graduating from Upper Canada College, he joined the Canadian Navy Reserves, moving up the ranks to Captain. He is passionate about Canadian culture, and was editor of Toronto Star and Maclean’s. In 1978 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and promoted to Companion in 1990. Recipient of seven honourary degrees and author of 36 books on Canadian history, businesses and politics, including his 2005 autobiography Here Be Dragons that spans an impressive 733 pages, he seems more Canadian than many born here.

I started my inquiry with his wife Alvy (Bjorklund) Newman, who has an impeccable memory, recounting stories in great detail from 20 years ago when they met and married in Vancouver. Alvy was looking for a ‘good European Gentleman’- and she found that in Peter. They have lived all over the world, including Europe and Barbados, and spent many years in Toronto. Her stories include an A-list of friends like poet, educator and Canadian nationalist, Doug Beardsley and his wife Rosemary Sullivan, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, and Al and Eurith Purdy.

In 2010 Peter and good friend Dr Joe MacInnis sailed from Toronto to Kingston as Alvy drove the scenic route on Highway 2. Having sailed in this area for over 50 years, Peter knew and loved the bays like any veteran navy officer would. He also loved Belleville: the beautiful heritage homes, and the art community. It was a good location for Alvy’s work (she has a Ph.D in Health Psychology) and for Peter, who was researching his next book on the United Empire Loyalists. A year later they moved here, and so began the stories I was looking for.

One of the first locals to connect with Peter was author Michael Maloney, meeting one day at ‘the Cozy’ where Peter was reading the Globe and Mail. Michael approached, confirmed it was Peter and asked what he was doing in Belleville?

“Well, I moved here.”

“Whatever for?”

Peter gave the usual explanation about his research and writing. Michael offered up any help and Peter took it – not necessarily for the book though. Peter said he needed introductions – a doctor, a dentist, but also the historical society, writers, artists. After that the friends met once a week to talk, Michael always bringing a guest.

Local author Orland French also helped Peter make connections for his research, introducing him to Eban James Sr, Roy Bonisteel and Maurice Rollins to name a few. Orland was surprised to find Peter taking notes when he spoke to the locals about their history.

Alvy fondly speaks of ‘Wednesdays with Gerry,’ the day Gerry Boyce would arrive with the latest copy of the Wellington Times (that he and Peter considered the best literary paper in the area). Gerry would circle the articles he thought Peter would find most interesting, then the two of them would sit and talk.

Richard Hughes says Peter has shown a keen interest in local heritage since moving here: “When we began our fundraising campaign to build the new Community Archives back in 2012, he immediately came forward and accepted to be Honorary chairman of the fundraising committee. He attended events, encouraged major donors and gave us such helpful support. It was a totally successful campaign and made a major contribution to the amazing Archives that we enjoy today.”

Andy Sparling, a former reporter on Parliament Hill, had a chance encounter with Peter on Front Street. There they spoke of their shared love of jazz (Peter played drums in his band with the cheeky name ‘Peter Newman and the Bouncing Czechs’), and that led to a series of co-hosted radio programs:“It led to lots of visits and chats about the big bands, particularly juicy tales arising out of his close friendship with the late bandleader Stan Kenton, a giant of the big band era, and whose many hundreds of recordings Peter collected.” That chance meeting also led to Peter’s attendance at Commodores’ concerts, his voluntarily writing the liner notes on a CD for Andy, and also freely supplying program notes for the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival.

Paul and Elizabeth Dinkel were neighbours of the Newmans. Paul, who came to Canada in the 60’s from Switzerland, had many discussions with Peter about their European descent, the rich history and beauty of this area and the country, and the importance of historical preservation. They shared a love of the Old East Hill homes and both believe it is crucial to preserve every square inch.

Elizabeth, an artist, invited Alvy to sit for a life drawing class. Alvy sent Peter instead. The portrait that Elizabeth painted now hangs in the Newman home, along with portraits by local artists Judy Clarke and Chris Finkle.

Richard Hughes sums up the sentiment from so many people I spoke with for this article: “Some people you meet in life simply leave you in awe at their knowledge, skill, breadth of talents and simply amazing personal character. For me, I consider myself so fortunate to have known and shared some moments with Peter C. Newman, a great Canadian.”

There is no doubt that Peter came to this small town, treated it with grace and respect, quietly integrated with the locals and had an impact that goes far deeper than most will ever know or remember.

And yet Peter’s answer to my question is simply this: “What I wanted in coming to Belleville is to spend less time behind the typewriter and more time on my boat.”

This article was originally published in the summer issue of Umbrella magazine.