The nostalgia was flowing freely at Excalibur’s 40th anniversary party, held in the Underground April 26, as editors from past decades returned to salute the student weekly’s impact on the York community and their careers.
The event drew 100 or more current and former Excalibur staff members, four of whom were asked to represent their decade of the newspaper’s history.
As each of them spoke, the guests realized how similar their shared experience of an introduction to journalism was, despite the very different political climates of each decade.
Rolly Stroeter (BA ’77, MBA ‘84) (right), who edited the paper in its first days during the mid-‘60s, spoke about the early struggle for independence. “We wrote about anti-war protests, campus unrest around the world, the rise of American super power and corporate control, keeping the Canadian economy under [Canadian] control,” Stroeter said. “We were very worried about American control of our natural resources, so you wonder how little has changed.”
Most importantly for the future independence of the student newspaper, Stroeter added, “we kept good accounting records.” It was during Stroeter’s time at the paper that Excalibur was freed from the control of the University and made accountable to an independent Board of Publications.
Right: (from left) Michael Hollett and Brian Milner
Michael Hollett, editor/publisher and co-founder of NOW magazine, who shared the managing editor’s position with Anna (Vaitiekunas) Dowbiggen (BA ’82) in 1976-1977, was chosen to speak on behalf of the ‘70s Excalibur alumni. In his recollections of the bitter struggle for control of the newspaper that year, Hollet said he came to appreciate “how passionate the place was – people really, really cared and really thought we had a chance to make a difference.”
Dowbiggen also attended the event and recalled the battle between right and left, which was echoed by almost every speaker. “The biggest struggle was reconciling my interests with Mike Hollett’s interests in what made good content and good editorial strategy," she said. "I politically sat on the right side of the fence and he, very clearly, sat on the extreme left side.”
Hollett paid tribute to his editor, Brian Milner (BA ’70, BA ’72), now a writer at The Globe and Mail, who was also in attendance, and went on to talk about how the experience of that year affected his career.
“Excalibur was my introduction to the efforts that people with money and power will [go to] to challenge you, to make you not publish what you feel is important to you,” Hollett said. “Much to my surprise – and it continues to surprise me – I found myself developing an independent business and an independent newspaper. That’s because of what I learned at Excalibur.”
Edo Van Belkom (BA ’91) (left) and his wife Roberta Van Belkom (BA ’91) whom he met during their time at Excalibur in the ‘80s, spoke about the challenges of producing the newspaper in the pre-computer era. “I spent more time in the newspaper office than I did in class, said Edo to a burst of applause. Roberta also noted that her professors had ongoing proof of her existence on campus more from her bylines in Excalibur than her attendance.
Van Belkom went on to be a journalist at the Brampton Times and is an award-winning horror fiction writer.
Toronto Star writer and former Excalibur editor Miguel Martin-Garcia, speaking for the ‘90s staff, also talked about attempts by the student government to take over the paper and recalled how editorial staff went on strike – “put down tools” – in a dispute over content in 1999.
Sean Palter (BA ’05), the only two-time editor of the paper (2003-2005) who now works for the provincial government, said “journalism is the greatest profession around” and described how working at Excalibur taught him to “act in the public interest, fight for those who cannot fight.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to get into journalism school (Columbia) without my experience here," said former editor Elliott Shiff (BA ’85), now a television producer at Discovery Channel Canada, adding he thought York should have a school of journalism. “Excalibur is the journalism school here,” he said.
Story by David Fuller, York communications officer and Excalibur alumnus