Yacowar and his legacy

Maurice Yacowar founded the Gauntlet in 1960, replacing a monthly mimeographed single sheet with a 16 page weekly paper. Soon following the creation came the controversy–Yacowar was suspended for an ill-received editorial attacking the unquestioned institution of Remembrance Day and finally banned for a literary issue containing the words “He came into her, and it was good.” Compared to todays Gauntlet, one may call those words tame, but Yacowar was working in a different age. This week, the Gauntlet sits down with its father to ask him about the early days of the paper and what he thinks of the current editions.

Gauntlet: What drove you to found the Gauntlet?

Yacowar: Ambition, I guess. I had always been editor of school papers, in Grade 9, in Central high school in Calgary, in Grade 11 the Reaper, and then the yearbook in Grade 12. It was a natural activity for me, English was my subject, and I loved writing. As soon as I turned 16 I got a summer job with the Northhill News. It paid me $19.76 a week, then the next year $24.15 and then the third year I got 45 bucks. It was a high paying job for me. I saw myself as a journalist and I figured I would become a journalist. That was my ambition.

So, when I was a first year at the university we were still at the Tech, still a branch of Alberta of course. The only student paper there was, a monthly mimeographed sheet called CalVar, only carried the sports scores and that was it. There was a need for a newspaper, and I had the experience so I did it. Probably that’s my single most notable accomplishment even now. I was in second year and replaced a monthly mimeographed sheet with a 16 page weekly professionally printed newspaper that made money. We sold advertising and it earned its own way. It’s too bad that my greatest achievement was at 18 and I haven’t come up to it since, but that’s life.

G: What do you feel you did right at the early days at the Gauntlet?

Y: I got the thing out on time every week. When I applied for the job I promised a four page weekly minimum but then it went up to a 16 minimum. It was read, which was an important thing too, that was the basis with which we could sell advertising. It was controversial; I did an early editorial against the establishment of fraternities on campus, which went over very well at the time. I did another campaign against having the football team on campus that did not go very good. And I had two very controversial issues; the first was on Remembrance Day. We ran an editorial that was critical of that institution; I was suspended for that one by the principal of the university. I was off the paper for two weeks or so. I was finally fired in February for bringing out the first literary issue, which had a controversial short story. It was written by one of the graduate students in Physics actually, John Emberson, who was Irish. He wrote a short story, which had the line in it “He came into her, and it was good.” That was deemed obscene beyond the pale for student experience for writing at the time. And so I was fired for that issue. It was a good cause to go for.

G: What was your motivation behind your editorial on Remembrance Day?

Y: My direct motive was to question an institution that nobody was questioning. I thought, and I still feel very strongly, that the university is a place where no sacred cow should go unchallenged. No institution should go unquestioned. No reflex of thought or emotion, should go unchecked. At the same time, I was aware of a tendency to sentimentalize war, and to valorize the unthinking unit of a military machine. That was an institution that was worth questioning. My regret even now is that I wrote the editorial with more heat than light. That a lot of people felt insulted by it which was certainly not my intention, an unintended effect. Basically it was a work of belligerent pacifism. That was a paradox that I should’ve avoided. As it happened, within 10 years of that editorial, there was a massive questioning of the military reflex around the American engagement of Vietnam. The times caught up with that anger, but I wouldn’t say I was prophet at all. That was just the way world affairs played out. It was a position I had taken at that time. It was picked up by a much wider movement later on.

G: Were you questioning the “holiday” aspect of Remembrance Day?

Y: I was questioning the valorization of the warrior. That was the intention. Should we make heroes of our military, if one of the effects of that is the unquestioning soldier who will go out and kill when he’s told to and be a hero for that? But that’s giving the position more logic and dignity than the wording I used at the time did.

G: What would you have done differently?

Y: I would’ve written in more logical, less emotional terms.

G: Do you think emotion should be a key aspect of journalism, though?

Y: Emotion is a gamble in any area. Once you unleash it, it provokes an equal and perhaps greater opposite emotional response. It’s dangerous enough dealing with logic and risking an emotional response. You’re magnifying the danger when you start out with emotion. In that particular issue, logic would’ve been a more appropriate tone to emphasize. The oddity was in that issue I didn’t think that that editorial would cause any controversy at all. I figured that the week’s controversy would be provoked by an essay that we ran on the back page written by a philosophy student outlining the base of logic behind atheism. I thought that would be what fired everybody up. As it happened, nobody paid attention to that, the madness played out around the poppy day editorial.

G: Who had the most notable response to the Remembrance Day editorial?

Y: Well the Canadian legion was mightily disturbed by it, and I gather have not forgiven me yet. The radio talk shows were full of it at the time. The daily newspapers ran editorials against it. We had to take the phone off the hook at home because we were getting phone calls from the parents of dead soldiers and veterans themselves. I had a phone call at home actually from a man who was a lawyer who had called me earlier when I had been brave enough to write a newspaper report on his brother’s trial. He tried to pressure me then not to cover this trial. [The brother] was from a wealthy family and the dailies hadn’t been covering it but I was covering it in the Northhill News. And now he was calling to take me on a tour of the military graves for a lesson in moral integrity. I thanked him but declined.

G: Do you think a similar editorial would receive the same response now?

Y: No, no. You have to remember at the time that the university was small and new. The city knew they wanted a university but didn’t know quite what they were getting. They were expecting high school extended a bit further, without the controversies and challenges that I think a university owes to its sponsoring community. That was one of the valuable effects that the troubled and troublesome Gauntlet at the time had. It declared what this university was going to be: something that was going to be challenging, and non-conformist. It’s much harder to be non-conformist now that everybody’s non-conformist.

G: Do you consider the risque material published in the Gauntlet now appropriate considering what you were banned for?

Y: Yeah, I’ve got no trouble with it. Sex is still something that the community is irrationally embarrassed by and hung up on. I think it’s the responsibility of the student newspaper to hit the trouble spots. The neurotic zones if not the erogenous zones.

G: Does anyone still bring up the incident for which you were fired?

Y: No, they don’t raise the firing. The poppy day editorial has the legs. Indeed, I think that if you asked anybody at the time why I was fired, they would assume that it was the poppy day editorial. Not the literary issue, but the poppy day editorial still surfaces. When I was dean of fine arts, I was invited to give a talk to open an exhibition at the military museum. When word of that came out, the Canadian legion got word out that they were opposed to have this insulting person do that. So I withdrew from the event. They’d been reminded, but it’s a soft point with them.

G: Did that editorial put you under the microscope?

Y: For sure, I thought at the time that it had probably ruined my career. I would never get a newspaper job again. My lifetime of promise was behind me. I was completely unprepared for the scale of public assault that resulted from that. I would never have dreamed that I’d get threatening phone calls at home and that my parents would get insulting phone calls for having spawned this monster. I was 18 at the time, untravelled, and inexperienced. That was a tough thing to get through. I was probably strengthened by the fact it didn’t kill me.

G: Does being separate from the Students’ Union change the nature of the paper?

Y: For sure, it has an independence it didn’t have then. The SU is not in a position to fire the editor now as it was back then, and as it did then.

G: What sort of device do you think shock value can serve as in the media, if any?

Y: It stops one from coasting. It’s so easy to just carry on with our reflex habits, thoughts and actions. It takes somebody whacking us on the head with something outrageous to make us pause and rethink, reconsider. I think that’s an important responsibility that a journalist has, a fiction writer has, any artist has, to stop the groove when it becomes a rut. It often takes something shocking to break that cruise.

G: What is your opinion of the Gauntlet now?

Y: I think it’s good, and it’s fun. It’s usually not far from one controversy or another. I think that’s important. I don’t think you want an artist or a newspaper or an institution to be nothing but shocking. I think the Gauntlet manages to punctuate itself with challenges. That’s the word I’d use for the shock, a challenge.

G: How do you feel your experiences with the Gauntlet relates to the current controversies, such as the recent feature on Pedophilia in the Gauntlet, or the nude photo that was printed in last year’s paper?

Y: I sympathize with the editor with the nude photo. I thought that was a tempest in a teapot. It struck me that he was being criticized for violating a girl who had set herself up by physical exposure, by divulging her name on her own to any exposure that he was being blamed for. I thought that he was being unfairly persecuted on that one.

G: If you were Editor-in-Chief, what aspects would you change about the current renditions of the Gauntlet?

Y: I would try to get more specialists involved in the writing. Have people writing from what they know rather than from what they think. I think as the student press emulates the professional press, unqualified opinion is given more respect than it deserves. There is an advent of personality over knowledge in journalism today. I would try to put the brakes on that. That’s one of the weak spots of the profession that the student journalist should not be aspiring to. Get people who know what they’re talking about, reviewing things and taking positions.

G: What do you like about the current Gauntlet?

Y: The energy, and the work that goes into it. It’s a polished production. I’m glad to see that. It’s my favourite child.

G: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Y: Carry on. The original slogan is still there I think. “Rage provides arms.” Which is good. There’s a story about the naming of the paper actually. When I applied for the editorship of the student newspaper. I said I intended to sell advertising and fund it that way. And put out a minimum four page a week newspaper and I’d change the name to the Gauntlet [from CalVar]. The Student Council said I couldn’t just name it the Gauntlet like that, it wasn’t my paper, it was their paper. They insisted on setting up a contest, and invite proposed names for the paper. There were maybe 15 names proposed, all 15 submitted by me. They chose the Gauntlet, which was the one I came up with first.

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