By Stefanie Phillips, RSJ ’18
If you ask Wendy Mesley what she remembers most about journalism school at Ryerson in the late ‘70s, she’ll tell you about the nights spent drinking with friends in the upstairs bar of the Imperial Pub.
“I remember making friends and having fun,” she said with a laugh, a few days after being inducted into the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ) Headliner hall of fame.
This month, Mesley was recognized with the title by the Ryerson Journalism Alumni Association (RJAA) at the 2017 awards ceremony.
In a witty and honest speech at an after party held for the Headliners, Mesley’s good friend from the class of ’79 and former Globe and Mail justice reporter, Kirk Makin spoke about their time in the journalism school when Ryerson was still a polytechnic institute.
In which, he admitted that Mesley owes “a modest debt” to the journalism school for her success. Instead, he said, her success should be accredited to her curiosity and drive that catapulted her off of the “launch pad” the journalism school slipped under her feet.
“Ryerson is gritty and it is real,” he said with pride. “No institution of higher learning can match its working class sensibilities.”
But Mesley’s “confidence” and “certainty” led the way, he said. He recalled the time she became bilingual in just a few months and when she pulled multiple all-nighters to read local news on CKFM radio.
Growing up in Toronto with a single mother who had a keen interest in political issues and social activism, Mesley would often listen to Barbara Frum on As it Happens. But in Grade 13 she, like many 17-year-olds, didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career. It wasn’t until her first job answering phones at CHIN Radio that everything clicked and she caught the journalism “bug.”
She started her bachelor of journalism degree at Ryerson in 1976 and shortly after began working at local radio stations like, CFRB and CKFM. One part-time job led to another and her grades started to slip. By the time she was ready to graduate in ‘79, Mesley was offered a full-time job at both CTV and CBC, but she was short one credit to get her diploma.
“I failed advanced reporting in third year,” she admitted. “I was never a terribly dedicated student.”
She decided to take the job with CTV’s CFCF in Montreal that year, where she embarked on an established career in broadcast journalism. She later contested the final grade and received a diploma from the University in 1990.
As a young reporter, Mesley realized her main interest was covering politics. In the early ‘80s she applied to be the Montreal legislative reporter for CBC local news and The National – and got it. But at that time, she said, there were few women covering Canadian politics.
“It was hard to get in and be taken seriously,” she said.
Mesley remembers walking into editing suites where photos of naked women hung on the wall.
“In those days, we all dressed like men with the big shoulder pads and the flat shoes and the big hair and we all just basically tried to act like the men and hide that we were women,” she said. “We worked really hard and tried to make a name for ourselves.”
In 1985, Mesley moved to Ottawa where she became the first woman to cover the prime minister for The National.
“It was commonly said that women couldn’t be news anchors or news readers or news reporters covering things other than cooking because their voices weren’t authoritative enough,” she said. “But we broke through.”
And break through she did.
Mesley went on to co-create and host CBC’s, Undercurrents, her “all-time favourite show,” that lasted six seasons and won a Gemini Award. She also hosted CBC Marketplace and became the regular Sunday anchor for The National. In her career so far, she has won a total of three Gemini Awards, won Best News Host or Interviewer at the Canadian Screen Awards and has been honoured with the John Drainie Award, for her contribution to Canadian broadcasting.
After nearly four decades, Mesley returned to the Imperial Pub for the 2017 RJAA’s Headliners’ party.
“Was a real throwback,” she said about being reminded of the days she used to drink there as a student.
The Imperial Pub hasn’t changed much since Jack Newman opened its doors in the Spring of 1944. Sitting at the north east corner of Yonge and Dundas Square, the family-owned and operated pub features an upstairs bar called, Library Lounge, where shelves of books line the walls of the square room.
The lounge has been serving cheap lager to students, like Mesley, since it started running ads in The Eyeopener and The Ryersonian that cleverly encouraged students to “tell your folks you’re at the Library.”
Mesley said being back at the Imperial Pub reminded her of the great friends she made at Ryerson, including Makin and the late Joan Donaldson.
“[Joan] and Kirk were the best things that ever happened to me at Ryerson,” she said.
At the end of his speech inside the gitty grotty that is the Imperial Pub, Makin attempted to predict the future.
“Come Sunday mornings, when Wendy’s peers and old classmates are settled into our rocking chairs, gumming our porridge and squinting at the Globe, the attendants turn on CBC. And there she will be, chomping at the bit, blending her infectious sense of humour with the elegant thrust of the Mesley shiv. To which I can only add, long live Her Mesleyness,” he said.