Vet­eran Prov­ince scribe had nose for hard news and life’s bizarre tales

The Province - - NEWS - JOHN MACKIE jmackie@post­media.com

You meet a lot of char­ac­ters in the news­pa­per busi­ness. But there was never any­body quite like John Cole­bourn, who died Sun­day from esophageal can­cer.

Cole­bourn, 59, was a legend at The Prov­ince, a gifted writer equally adept at hard news and bizarre tabloid sto­ries.

“It’s al­most like the more ridicu­lous the story, the more he en­joyed it,” said as­sis­tant city ed­i­tor Lora Grind­lay.

“He told some se­ri­ous sto­ries, and helped a lot of peo­ple in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. But he had a very keen eye for the ridicu­lous in life. He loved to laugh, and could re­ally hone in on the bizarre, the ridicu­lous, the hi­lar­i­ous.”

In hard news mode, Cole­bourn ex­posed how the own­ers of sev­eral no­to­ri­ous ho­tels in the Down­town East­side owned $130 mil­lion worth of real es­tate, but had left one ho­tel with­out heat for two win­ters.

“That was him at his jour­nal­is­tic best,” said Grind­lay.

“Peo­ple trusted him and talked to him. He wasn’t afraid to go in there. He shook their hands and worked his butt off to help them.”

On the flip side, he won a record 12 Cheesie awards, which Prov­ince staff hand out for the cheesi­est tabloid sto­ries of the year.

Cole­bourn’s first Cheesie came for his cov­er­age of the Stanley Cup riot in 1994.

“I’m work­ing at the city desk and I get a call and it’s Johnny,” re­counts for­mer Prov­ince reporter Ian Austin.

“He says ‘Ian! Ian! It’s Cole­bourn! You’ve gotta get me out of here! I’m in the back of a paddy wagon!’ He won Le Grand Fro­mage, the high­est hon­our at the Cheesies, for ask­ing (the cop that ar­rested him) ‘Hey buddy, what’s your badge num­ber?’ ”

The sto­ries about Cole­bourn were of­ten so good he told them him­self. One of his favourites came from when he was work­ing at the Cal­gary Sun.

It was Stam­pede week, and Cole­bourn had been up all night par­ty­ing. He re­ported to work in cut-offs, a T-shirt, cow­boy boots and a gi­ant foam cow­boy hat.

His ed­i­tor looked at him and said, “Go home and change, you’ve got to meet the Prime Min­is­ter at the air­port.”

In­stead of go­ing home, Cole­bourn went straight to the air­port. He loved to re­late how the eastern me­dia snick­ered when they spot­ted him. And how their jaws dropped when Prime Min­is­ter John Turner dis­em­barked from his plane, walked up to Cole­bourn, shook his hand and asked “How are you, John?”

It turned out John Turner was a fam­ily friend from Cole­bourn’s youth in Toronto.

John Vic­tor Cole­bourn was born in Red Lake, Ont., and grew up in Toronto’s tony High Park neigh­bour­hood. His fa­ther was a lawyer, and the fam­ily knew Turner from Craigleith, a pri­vate ski club north of Collingwood.

Cole­bourn was an in­cred­i­ble skier, rac­ing with the South­ern On­tario Ski Team in his youth.

Af­ter study­ing jour­nal­ism at Car­leton and Ry­er­son, Cole­bourn worked for the Toronto, Ed­mon­ton and Cal­gary Suns be­fore join­ing the Prov­ince in 1993.

John Cole­bourn was ar­rested at the hockey riot in 1994 fol­low­ing the Van­cou­ver Canucks’ loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Fi­nal against the New York Rangers.

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