Sergeant Pepper schools journalism students

The one time I interviewed Pat Conroy, 20 years ago, he said no story worth a damn ever began with a weather report.

Ever since, I’m put off by all opening sentences of a climatological nature.

But, since this is no longer the beginning, I can tell you it’s a chilly autumn Thursday in suburban Mississauga, sunshine on the late-turning maples and birch outside my office window.

I am reminded on such mornings of my years teaching journalism at Humber College in Toronto.

Early each fall, soon after I met my first-year post-graduate students – I taught fundamentals of news writing and reporting – I’d arrive in the classroom and announce: “We’re going on a field trip. Grab your notebook and a pen and follow me.”

It was a short walk to the Humber Arboretum. I’d be gleeful if it was raining.

They’d trail me down a hill to the edge of a small pond, where I’d wait until they huddled around.

“It’s 5 a.m.,” I would start. “You were home sleeping when you got a call from your newsroom and told to get out to Humber College, that something was going on – it was all over the police scanner.

“You arrived and saw a couple of cop cars with lights flashing on the road up there. You asked one of the cops what was going on and he told you to talk to the sergeant. That’s me. Now ask your questions.”

“What happened here?”

“That’s not your first question,” I’d reply.

They tried a few more. I would refuse to answer.

Finally, one student would come up with: “May I have your name, please.”

“Yes,” I’d say, “it’s Staff Sergeant Peter Pepper.”

That would get them going – Sergeant Pepper.

“What happened here, sergeant?”

“As you can see,” I’d reply, pointing toward the pond, “there is a car just visible in the water.”

Educated in cop-speak, I would give them the bare bones of the story: two young people in a stolen convertible had rolled down the hill and crashed into the pond.

It usually took the students about 45 minutes to get all the details I was prepared to give – more info than a typical cop would blurt out at a crime scene.

I’d keep the Beatles theme going to amuse them, identifying the suspects as James Paul McCartney and Lucy Skye Diamond.

There was always a kid with a tape recorder – this was before phones did everything but cook breakfast – and I’d instruct them all to learn to take notes and not waste time transcribing every quote before writing.

There was always a kid who wanted to solve the crime. “Sorry, Columbo,” I’d say, “you’re just going to have to stick to what I give you.”

(I called one student Columbo for the rest of the school year. It made her laugh.)

I would give them something to chew on. “The evidence suggests there may have been some hanky-panky going on, that the man and woman may have been otherwise occupied just before the crash.”

I’d refused to answer any followup questions on the specifics of the hanky-panky.

When we returned to the classroom, I would ask: Is there anyone you want to call?

I’d play the part of flacks for a hospital and the college.

I’d always give them a limit on the number of words to tell a story. This one was 200.

“You should be able to write a great story in fewer than 500 words,” I often told students. “You could write the Crucifixion in 500 words. For the Second Coming, I’ll give you 1,000.”

I helped them with their leads on the car-in-pond story. The next day, after I marked up and graded their efforts, I gave them a more polished version:

TORONTO – An amorous young couple in a stolen sports car went on a wild ride that climaxed before dawn Friday in a pond on the Humber College campus, police said.

“The evidence suggests there may have been some hanky-panky going on, that the man and woman may have been otherwise occupied just before the crash,” Staff Sgt. Peter Pepper said at the scene.

Officers found the “partially clothed” pair on the bank of the pond at about 4 a.m., he said.

They were parked in the new Audi TTS Roadster, with the engine running, when it slipped into gear, rolled about 40 metres down a hill – clipping bushes, a tree and plowing through a low fence and bulrushes – before plunging into the shallow, murky water.

They were taken in custody to nearby Etobicoke General Hospital, treated and released, the hospital said.

The red convertible had been reported stolen from a Toronto dealership at about 9 p.m. Thursday.

James Paul McCartney, 22, of Toronto, and Lucy Skye Diamond, 19, of Mississauga, were charged with possession of stolen property.

The college said neither is a student at Humber.


Word count: 186

Over the years, when I saw my former students, they often reminded me of our trip to the pond.

It always made me smile.


A longer more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.


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