Remembering Phil Adler, whose a curiosity and passion fuelled a long career with the Canadian Press
A boy who spent his early years in a settlement house, left a difficult home life and was forced to drop out of school as he struggled through the Great Depression, Phil Adler used his natural talent and persistence to become a leader of one of Canada’s top news organizations.
A reporter-turned-editor-turned-bureau chief for the Canadian Press, he “loved the newsroom and the characters that inhabited it,” says his daughter, Nancy Adler. “They all seemed larger than life. Reporters — almost exclusively male when he started — would sit at their desks banging out stories on typewriters, drinking heavily, the air thick with cigarette smoke. The camaraderie was like family for him.”
For a man whose early family life was precarious, perhaps that was one of the attractions. He was born Joseph William Phillip Adler in Montreal to a teenage Bill Adler and his wife, the former Cecilia Metz. His mother died at age 18, before her only son turned one. Cecilia’s widower, himself only 17 (he’d lied about his age so that they could marry without parental consent, says Nancy) was unable to take care of his son during dire economic times. Instead, Adler went to live with his maternal grandparents in Montreal. When his grandfather died, Adler was sent to a Catholic-run settlement house.
Adler remained there for several years until his father — a bespoke tailor and part-time office cleaner — remarried and brought him home. His new stepmother locked him out of the house when her husband was at work and did not feed him, says Nancy. “As a result, our father had two jobs at 10 years of age, one of which was working in a catering business before school, where he would eat crusts of bread and scraps of sandwich meat. The other was as a delivery boy for a florist after school.”
At 14, Adler became a copy boy for the Canadian Press (CP). Living on his own by 16, he left high school and worked full time to support himself. He took his first reporter job at the Kingston Whig-Standard, but when CP’s Edmonton office came calling, he jumped at the opportunity.
While in Edmonton, he suffered a ruptured appendix and met a nurse, Irene Ruth Glenn. They married in 1956, despite the disapproval of her parents, who didn’t believe a union between the Catholic Adler and their daughter, raised in a fundamentalist Protestant church, would last. It did — for 65 years.
The couple had four children: Glenn (in 1957), David (1959), Douglas (1963) and Nancy (1965). They later became grandparents as well as great-grandparents.
Adler lived and breathed news. Early during his tenure at CP, the boy who had never finished high school attended Columbia University, where he took a year of journalism classes.
He had a widespread reputation for being fair (“He didn’t have a particular editorial stance,” says Nancy) and politicians, including John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau, often called upon the legislative beat reporter.
He had his share of memorable news moments. On Oct. 7, 1966, Adler was first at the scene of the Dorion level crossing accident, where a CN Rail freight train struck a school bus carrying 41 students to a dance in Dorion, Que. The multiple injuries and 19 deaths gave Adler lifelong nightmares, Nancy says. He also filed stories from the locked-down British Columbia Penitentiary during a weeklong inmate riot in 1976, using one of the first portable phones to call in his stories.
Adler’s 48-year career eventually took him to CP’s Broadcast News in downtown Toronto, where he spent 16 years before retiring in 1996.
Adler had an interesting relationship with religion. He attended a Catholic school and lived with his father and stepmother in a Jewish household, but he became intrigued by, although did not practice, the Ba’hai faith, which unites all major religions and rejects racism, nationalism and speaking negatively about others. “Since most wars in the world are fundamentally caused by a difference in religious beliefs,” Nancy says, “our dad liked the philosophy and idealism of the Ba’hai faith.”
When visiting a new city, he liked to search through phone books for other people with the last name Adler. Even with four half-siblings, he felt the desire to connect with lost family members. “[It] had something to do with not knowing any of his Adler relatives when growing up,” says Nancy. When he found a distant relative, Kelowna dentist Bernie Adler, they kept in touch for the rest of their lives.
He liked puns, had a dry sense of humour and only argued with those he considered his closest friends, which included Canadian futurist Frank Ogden, who taught Adler how to fly a plane. He also successfully ran for seats on two different school boards to expose flaws in local election processes, but once elected, fervently carried out his duties.
Through it all, journalism was his passion, and the Canadian Press, his tool. “While tempted by job offers at foreign offices and AP (the Associated Press), he was ever-loyal to CP,” says Nancy. “He wasn’t defined by or limited because of where he came from. He worked hard, dreamed big and he succeeded.”