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At lunchtime on Christmas Eve day, I walked up to the Great Northern Peninsula shore and added some tears to the vast, salty expanse of the North Atlantic.
That morning, as I was getting ready for work, I found out Neil Thom, my dear friend and former employer had died.
Until cancer intervened a couple of years ago, Neil was the publisher of Yorkton This Week, a community newspaper that serves southeastern Saskatchewan. Above all else, I will remember him as one of the most decent people I have ever known.
My enduring image of Neil will be of him walking with his wife Julianne and their little dog on the outskirts of Yorkton just days before I embarked on my cross-country journey to a new home in Newfoundland and Labrador. Even in the grip of that horrible disease, there was no mistaking Neil’s deep and abiding love for Julianne and passionate embrace of life’s simple pleasures.
The last time I saw him, his face half removed from successive surgeries, thin and frail from chemo and radiation, he still somehow exuded his trademark positivity and optimism. He was quick with his charming smile and infectious laugh, looking forward, not back, and deeply interested in me and my well-being at a time when he could have been, understandably, much more inward-looking.
As publisher of the city’s newspaper of record, a longstanding business person, a lifelong resident of the community and a tireless Yorkton-booster, Neil was a prominent public figure, but away from work, he was a private person.
As such, and although I count Neil among the best friends I had in Yorkton, I cannot honestly say I know what he went through privately, but I cannot imagine it was easy to remain as bright and cheerful as he seemed when I saw him last. That was Neil: energetic, empathetic, moral, funny, loyal, and I could go on until I filled a thesaurus of positive adjectives.
Neil Thom was one of the first people I met when I moved to Yorkton in the spring of 2012. As a journalist without employment, I marched into his office looking for work. He didn’t have anything for me at the time, but as it turned out, we were neighbours. I would see him from time to time over the back fence and we would exchange pleasantries. We dubbed that summer “the summer of Thom” owing to the fact I was more or less on vacation in my backyard.
One Saturday, as the summer of Thom was winding down, he called over to me from his deck—what you would call a bridge here in Newfoundland.
“You should come see me on Monday,” he said.
I worked for Yorkton This Week for five years and a better publisher I could not have asked for. I had my reservations at first because Neil came from the advertising side of the business, what we editorial types sometimes refer to as “the dark side.”
Despite that egregious flaw—don’t worry, he would appreciate the dig—Neil was a newspaperman through and through.
He and I shared many things beyond the name (correctly spelled) and the same taste in leather jackets and shoes. The greatest of these was an idealistic view of the noble role of journalism in society and a commitment to the truth.
In the time I was there, Neil never once balked at publishing news that might not be favourable to advertisers, nor can I recall him ever trying to quash controversial opinions of any kind.
And when my writing ran afoul of advertisers or politicians, or drug dealers and pedophiles (whose lives I apparently ruined by reporting on their nefarious activities), Neil always had my back.
He was a relentless champion of local news, recognizing it as an essential instrument of democracy. Even with diminishing resources, Neil strove every day to provide full and meaningful coverage of the stories that were important to Yorkton and the surrounding area while also working at the regional and national level to preserve the important contributions of community newspapers everywhere.
Neil’s personal and professional legacy is something his family and Yorkton can be very proud of and I cannot think of a better use for dead trees and spilled ink than paying tribute to him.
Rest in peace, pal.