William Arthur Irwin (Obituary)

A death is always hard on the family, regardless of its timing. So it was in the passing on Aug. 9 at his Victoria home, albeit at the rich old age of 101, of Arthur IRWIN, the influential journalist and diplomat and Canadian nationalist - hard for his wife of almost 49 years, poet and painter P. K.

Irwin, Arthur

A death is always hard on the family, regardless of its timing. So it was in the passing on Aug. 9 at his Victoria home, albeit at the rich old age of 101, of Arthur IRWIN, the influential journalist and diplomat and Canadian nationalist - hard for his wife of almost 49 years, poet and painter P. K. PAGE, for his son and two daughters of an earlier marriage that left him a widower, for his 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. And so it was also, if only by long remembrance or reputation, in a coast-to-coast family of past and present members and readers of Maclean's, the magazine he helped nourish throughout the second quarter of this century in ways that echo still in its pages and in its purpose.

William Arthur Irwin - Art to those who breached his careful tidiness and manner to reach the caring humanist within - was a Methodist preacher's kid, which may have underpinned both his humanity and his perfectionist impulses as an editorial overseer at Maclean's from early 1926, first as associate editor, then managing editor and finally, from 1945 to 1950, as editor in chief. His pencilled editing queries and comments on copy became legendary expressions of his insistence on clarity and honesty. "A confirmed nationalist, he saw his task as 'interpreting Canada to Canadians,' " recalled one of his many famous recruits, Pierre Berton, who has described Irwin as "a tough editor, and a brilliant spotter of talent who believed in careful research [and] attracted and helped train an entire generation of young writers."

Born in the small-town southern Ontario community of Ayr, a sometime railway construction worker in his youth, Irwin interrupted his university studies in Winnipeg - later completed in Toronto - by going to Europe as an artilleryman during the First World War, an experience he later credited with stimulating his Canadianism. After postwar graduation, he worked for stints on predecessors of The Globe and Mail - as a reporter on The Mail and Empire, then as a writer of editorials on The Globe, which he quit late in 1925 in a dispute over his critical treatment of business interests behind the Conservative party. At age 27, he took up a Maclean's job offer that led to his appointment on April 1, 1926, as second in editorial command to a new chief editor, H. Napier Moore.

When Moore and Irwin took over, Maclean's was basking in its progress from its start in 1905 as a monthly culling of material from British and American publications into a twice-monthly journal written largely by and for Canadians. Two weeks before announcing the new appointments, outgoing editor Vernon McKenzie noted in the magazine that all but a few of its hundreds of features in the previous year were Canadian and observed: "The fundamental Canadianism of MacLean's [as it was then spelled] is one of the rock-bottom foundations upon which Canada's National Periodical has been established."

Still, in building on that foundation, Irwin found himself in conflict with the English-born Moore. "We used to fight over everything," Irwin recalled in a 1984 Maclean's interview. Nevertheless, Berton says, "Irwin quickly became the magazine's motivating force, long before he assumed the editor's chair."

After five years in the top Maclean's seat, Irwin left to reorganize the National Film Board in the wake of Cold War accusations that it was infested with communists (Irwin found faint evidence of that) and went on to serve as Canada's top envoy to Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala before settling in the British Columbia capital, where, from 1964 to 1971, he was publisher of the Victoria Daily Times. But his greatest gift, according to those who knew him at Maclean's, was to push the magazine towards feeling, as Irwin recruit June Callwood said in a 1995 recollection, "like the beating heart of the country."

Maclean's August 23, 1999