The Record - still here 20 years after devastating fire
It was one of those bone-chilling nights that Environment Canada issues extreme weather forecasts about. But the biting cold didn’t deter Record staff from huddling around the huge blaze as they watched The Record building go up in smoke.
The call came just before midnight Jan. 2, 1999. “The Record is on fire!”
I was there within 10 minutes but already a large number of Record staffers were at the scene watching flames on the Delorme Street building shoot into the sky. Among them was then-publisher Randy Kinnear who managed to grab a few files and a computer before the building exploded in flames.
Firefighters put up a valiant effort, but by morning there was nothing left but a burned-out shell with dangling electrical wires and some spectacular ice sculptures.
It was not a great building, to be sure. A few months earlier, Radio Canada had used The Record newsroom, and its antiquated equipment, as a backdrop for a series on turn-of-the-century newsrooms. The cameraman enthused about the vintage typewriter and old oak desks. (Yes, there was a bottle of whiskey in a drawer.) But for those who spent a good part of their working lives there, the rotary telephones, three-legged chairs and air, heavy with ink and cigarette smoke, were part and parcel of the place where award-winning stories were hammered out and staff became family.
The morning after the fire, a Delorme Street neighbour offered warehouse space to house any equipment that could be salvaged. Record staffers, unsolicited, showed up and began sifting through the rubble, heavy with worry that their livelihood, and the Townships’ 101-year-old English-language daily newspaper, could be gone forever.
Without a press or any of the equipment required to produce a newspaper, it was not a stretch to think that Quebecor might seize the opportunity to walk away from the small English newspaper with declining revenues, take the insurance money, and call it a day.
Instead, the corporation sent out its top guns and pulled out all the stops to get The Record back on the street in three days.
Pierre Francoeur, chief of operations for Quebecor’s dailies, and a former Sherbrookois, understood the importance of The Record, and became the paper’s chief advocate.
"I am here to confirm that The Record is here to stay in the Townships and Quebecor will continue to support it,” he told staff and reporters who had gathered the day after the fire. Francoeur noted that the essential elements of the paper - spirit and brains - were still intact. “It is the content of the paper, the people who do the work and the people who read it, that make a paper, and starting tomorrow, we will have that again,” he said.
A makeshift office was quickly set up in a building owned by the Eastern Townships School Board at 257 Queen Street in Lennoxville, and while reporters worked from laptops and cell phones, the production crew saved prepared pages on CDS and editorial staff drove to Quebecor’s plant in St-jean-surrichelieu with CDS (Dial-up Internet was not adequate to send large files – and, we only had one telephone set up to take calls).
In the midst of the chaos, one elderly woman called to complain she didn’t get her paper. I explained The Record was destroyed by fire the day before and all the equipment and the press had been lost. There was a pause before she asked, “Well, am I going to get it tomorrow?” Her response was indicative of the important role the newspaper plays in the lives of Townshippers. For many, reading the daily paper was a household tradition for generations – one of the few constants in a changing landscape. Pierre Francoeur, amused, ordered Tshirts for the entire staff with the tagline: “The Record - Always There.”
The heartwarming support of the community, advertisers and subscribers fueled the determination of Record staff to accomplish the near impossible. The Lennoxville mayor and councillors showed up one day to set up a buffet lunch and served Record staff. Being situated next to Lorraine’s bakery was a mixed blessing - a supply of fresh donuts would appear in the office daily from readers who would gift us with treats and encouraging words as they stopped by to pay for their subscription renewal.
It was a Herculean effort to get the paper back on its feet 20 years ago and many of the same people are still with The Record, laboring daily to keep this important institution of the Englishspeaking community alive. Because we know that once there is no further evidence of our schools, churches, community groups and leaders, we will have forfeited our future as a community, and allowed the efforts of our forefathers to be forgotten.