Posted in Media, Montreal, Radio, TV

Eulogy for Neil McKenty: “one the most complicated and interesting men who ever lived”

I received this from Daniel Freedman. He’s a former news director at CFCF-12 and produced McKenty Live, the TV call-in show starring his friend Neil McKenty, who died a week ago. He also delivered a eulogy at McKenty’s funeral on Saturday, which he wanted to share. It’s republished here with his permission.

Some people make a difference in the world.

Neil McKenty was one of those people.

Though he often led a troubled life himself, Neil ended up making the world a better place. That’s because he touched so many lives.

Mine was one of them.

I’m Daniel Freedman. Like so many others, I grew up listening to Neil on CJAD. Neil was more than special. He was unique. Nobody did a call-in show like Neil. His gift went beyond putting his fierce intellect to work in building bridges…at a time when so many others were trying to blow them up.

Neil actually listened. He could get politicians to actually think on the air…and say something unexpected and newsworthy. And he could get callers to open up about the most intimate details of their lives. And it’s all because he listened. And because he cared.

Life’s rich pageant unfolds in unexpected ways. One day in 1987, I was surprised to find myself in my boss’s office at CFCF Television, meeting Neil for the first time.

The meeting was to discuss the possibility of reviving Neil’s program for television. The boss in question was Don McGowan, who in his inimitable style saw fit to begin the meeting with the following question: “So Father McKenty … do you still consider yourself a good Catholic?” As my mouth dropped open, Neil remained unfazed. “Yes,” he instantly replied, “I do consider myself a good Catholic……in my own way.”

Mr. McGowan was reduced to silence – the first and last time I ever saw that happen.

The program went ahead and I became the producer. Mr. McGowan, in his largesse, made the grandiose gesture of sending a limousine to pick Neil up each morning. But since this is Montreal… and not Hollywood …the so-called limousine turned out to be a very big…. but very old and very noisy… Cadillac. And since I lived near Neil, this ridiculous vehicle also stopped to pick me.

On the first morning Neil said to me: “This is really a bit much.” He was embarrassed. I later learned that Neil had once turned down a suite at a hotel. The suite was to have been his reward for speaking at conference. But Neil was embarrassed at the fuss. He asked for a regular room instead.

That was Neil. He hated pretence. And he hated hypocrisy. I saw him show the same respect for a make-up artist, stagehand or waitress that he showed for a professor or prime minister.

Neil’s idea of a good time was dinner and dancing with Catharine at the Rib and Reef Restaurant….not exactly the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria.

Neil once told me: “I’ve made many mistakes in my life. But I got one thing right. I married Catharine. I’m the luckiest guy alive.”
I long ago concluded Neil was one the most complicated and interesting men who ever lived.

For much of his life, Neil wrestled with demons. But throughout it all, and behind the sometimes formidable exterior, Neil also had a great gift for friendship. Neil valued his friends from a Laurentian ski lodge…whose history he later wrote with Catharine.

Neil also had a great capacity for mentorship. I worked on Neil’s program with two exceptional colleagues: Joan Takefman and Wendy Helfenbaum. We called our team “Three Jews And A Jesuit” and kept threatening to get T-shirts printed.

You never knew what to expect from Neil. He could be funny….he could be demanding…he could be endearing…and, Lord knows, he could be exasperating – all in the same conversation.

For a time, Neil shared a tiny, glassed-in office with Dick Irvin. But he seemed to have bionic ears, perhaps acquired during his tenure as a teacher in the Jesuits. Neil had an uncanny ability to overhear what we were saying and correct our many errors of logic from afar – all in that booming voice so familiar to everyone.

But we always knew that Neil cared about us.

Neil cared about a lot of things. He cared about the truth. He cared about humanity. He cared about the church, with which he was so often at odds.

On one occasion, an author who had written a book critical of the church was a guest on the program. To my astonishment, Neil took her to task. His criticism was that somewhere along the road of criticizing the Vatican she had taken a detour to invent her own religion. Neil thought that was cheating.

So life with Neil was never dull. He ate ice cream on the air with one of the founders of Ben and Jerry’s – with great gusto, but very little elegance. Earlier in his career, when asked to comment on the Pope’s visit to Montreal Neil uttered the immortal words: “I’m having an ecclesiastical orgasm.” Who else could have gotten away with it?

On one occasion, we experienced every producer’s nightmare: multiple, simultaneous and catastrophic technical failures while live on air. Neil was left utterly alone on a single camera with no capability of talking to guests or callers. Most broadcasters would have melted down under the pressure.

But not Neil. Talking — and arguing — was never a problem for him. If he had to argue with himself … well, that just made it more fun. So Neil ad-libbed for almost 15 minutes, making such perfect sense that some viewers thought it had all been planned.

One thing stands out above all else. Above all, Neil was always interested in justice.

I’m sure Neil is already in heaven. And I suspect he’s already fighting to make it a better place, arguing that too many people are excluded and it’s too unfair.

After all, Neil always fought the good fight. Why would he stop now?

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