Don Johnston – the long-time news director of CFRB and founding member of the Gordon Sinclair Foundation – is turning 90. As a longstanding colleague and close friend of the controversial broadcaster, Johnston was a driving force in the movement to raise funds and set up a charitable foundation in Gordon Sinclair’s honour after the broadcaster’s death in 1984.
Since then, Johnston has been a stalwart member of the Foundation, which initially offered a scholarship to young journalism graduates and since 2011 has awarded the annual $15,000 Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary to support a research and reporting trip by an early career Canadian journalist who has recently graduated from one of Canada’s journalism programs.
The members of the Gordon Sinclair Foundation would normally have met in early June for their annual board meeting and could have used the occasion to wish Don all the best on his 90th birthday on June 6. But because of the COVID-19 lockdown, the annual Roving Reporter Bursary competition was delayed. (The call for applications closed on June 1 and the outcome of the competition will be announced this summer). Nonetheless, board members wanted to extend their good wishes to Don.
“Don has been a steady presence on the Foundation’s board from the very beginning, helping us to enshrine the memory of his friend Gordon Sinclair by giving young journalists the chance to embark on the kind of reporting adventure for which Sinclair was famous,’’ said Allan Thompson, the President of the Foundation and the incoming head of Carleton University’s journalism program.
As the news director at CFRB, Don had the challenge of managing the outspoken Sinclair.
“There was nobody like him—the crackling energy, the curiosity, the little barbs and observations on life,” Don recalled at the time of Sinclair’s death.
Gordon Sinclair informed, agitated and entertained generations of Canadians and Americans too as reporter and commentator in the newspaper and on radio and TV. He began his career as a roving reporter for the Toronto Star and became a legendary journalist, author, radio commentator and television panelist on CBC’s Front Page Challenge who until his death in 1984 was one of Canada’s most enduring celebrities.
Indeed, while he is little known to today’s young journalists, he was arguably one of the most famous Canadian journalists of his time, a household word. He died May 17, 1984 at the age of 84 shortly after collapsing on his way home from his daily radio broadcasts on CFRB radio.
The original Gordon Sinclair Fellowship was established in 1986 after friends of the late broadcaster created the Gordon Sinclair Foundation and a university scholarship for recent journalism graduates to honour his memory. The stated purpose of the original award was to encourage a recent journalism graduate to embark on another year of study that would enrich them as journalists. The award was presented 22 times in the years that followed.
In 2011, the Gordon Sinclair Foundation decided to review its mandate and examine the contribution the annual award was making to journalism. After some deliberation, a decision was made to revamp the annual competition. The Foundation decided to use the endowment to support a different type of award, but one still very much in keeping with the spirit of the kind of adventurous journalism Gordon Sinclair came to represent.
The new Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary was established to support a research and reporting trip by an early career Canadian journalist who has recently graduated from one of Canada’s journalism programs.
Don’s niece, Mary Pickett, got in touch with the Foundation to say that she wanted to recognize her uncle’s milestone birthday by making a donation to the Gordon Sinclair Foundation, to help support young journalists.
“Because of Don’s great respect for Gordon Sinclair and his long involvement with the Foundation, making a donation to the Foundation in Don’s honor seemed a very appropriate way to celebrate Don’s 90th birthday,” she said.