News Canada

Award-winning Sun journalist Earl McRae dies

QMI Agency

Canada's media family lost a giant Saturday night with the death of Ottawa Sun writer Earl McRae.

The colourful columnist collapsed in the Sun newsroom and was rushed to hospital, but doctors were unable to revive him.

McRae was 69 years old.

Earl was a brilliant storyteller whose writing awards could fill a wall. Opinionated and mischievous, the self-proclaimed "Lippy Little Shin Kicker" could make you laugh or cry, sometimes in a single sentence.

"Earl was a fixture in the Ottawa media scene. His words will be missed by his many followers and friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"He was old school as a journalist and a great mentor for younger newsroom staff," said Ottawa Sun publisher Rick Gibbons. "Most of all, he was an incredibly courageous writer whose opinions often got him, and occasionally his bosses, in hot water.

"Earl identified with the man on the street, the war vet, the down-on-his-luck resident of a local mission. He gave voice to all of them. His death comes as a terrible shock to everyone. On behalf of all staff of the Ottawa Sun and Sun Media I want to express our deepest condolences to Earl's family. I want them to know that we join them in grief over this terrible loss."

"It is a great shock," said friend and colleague Mike Therien, "Earl was more full of life than people half his age."

McRae wrote columns in news and sports for the Sun for 20 years. Before that, he had a long and colourful career that included stints with the Ottawa Journal, the Peterborough Examiner, the Toronto Star and the Sun's cross-town rivals at the Citizen.

"Earl was a bit of an institution -- he caused a lot of commotion," said former heavyweight boxer George Chuvalo. "We had our moments. I chased him down the bloody street somewhere over something he wrote.

"We started off on the wrong foot, but as often happens in life we ended up friends."

McRae loved words. They mattered to him. The portraits of the famous and the regular won him many awards and top nominations. His profiles for the Canadian Magazine were among his personal favourites. The best of which were made into successful books, A Requiem for Reggie and The Victors and the Vanquished.

"These books are a clinic in sports writing," said Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons. "They are what every young writer should read; what every journalist should look at."

During his career McRae covered everything from local sports to international events like the funeral of Princess Diana.

"Earl kept everything he ever wrote and everything he loved by other authors," said Therien. "Often he would bring me in old yellow clippings to share like a proud father."

Amazingly unpretentious, McRae was most at home at the Prescott or at the Newport Restaurant in Westboro, where he would chat for hours with anyone from politicians to journalism students. It's also the place where he helped found the Elvis Sighting Society.

"It's a big loss, a big shock -- it's overwhelming," said Newport owner and close friend Moe Atallah. "I lost a brother."

Earl leaves a gap in Ottawa journalism that will be impossible to fill.

"I miss him already," said Ottawa Sun editor in chief Mitchell Axelrad. "He was a true pro who loved to be in the paper and had a passion for the work he did. He was, quite simply, a magician when it came to stringing words together and telling stories."

Former mayor Larry O'Brien saw what many of McRae's readers did.

"He understood human nature," O'Brien said. "I thought he was always fair, he was light-hearted, a wonderful human being. He had a huge sense of humour, this all makes me very sad.

"He had this humour of biting commentary. He will be missed by the paper and the people of Ottawa."

Mayor Jim Watson said McRae had an uncanny ability to bring words to life and make one laugh with his style and quirky way of looking at life.

"From his work with the Elvis Sighting Society, to his journalistic awards, he has left a huge mark on our country and city and will be missed," Watson said.

For some, McRae's influence extended beyond his articles.

"I owe my induction to the Hall of Fame in part to the persuasive way he had on my behalf," said former CFLer Ken Lehmann. "He was a great writer."

McRae's stories influenced generations of Canadian writers.

"He had an absolutely unique talent -- to me he was a giant," said Simmons. "He would get a person to open up like no one else would."

McRae is survived by his daughters Jill and Caitie, sons Robert, Neil and Dave, sisters Laurie and Chris, brothers Bob, Bill and Steve, and grandchildren Lesya, Ayden and Paige.