I only knew Henry Champ from two parts of the world he had covered and I couldn’t claim to be a lifelong friend, not even a peer really. But that doesn’t lessen my sadness at hearing that the great man had died.
I worked with Henry when he came to CBC Newsworld in Halifax in the 1990s. His distinguished and colourful career with CTV and then NBC had become a bit more colourful than necessary and he had parted ways with NBC. He had lots of money so he didn’t need to work, but he was nowhere near retiring psychologically. He wanted to stay in the game. So he came to the CBC and to Halifax and quite literally, added jazz to our shows. And to our lives.
We Newsworlders already knew Henry from processing his reports from around the world for NBC. At the time, Newsworld had no resources at all and we were reduced to stripping “Amnets” feeds for our early morning newscasts. Henry was a staple and among the conoisseurs of network reporting in our newsroom, he was always a popular reporter.
Most of us already could do Henry impersonations and it happened that he called one day and I happened to pick up the phone. “Newsworld, Dan Leger,” says I. His gravelly rumble came down the line: “Ah, um, me old son. Is Sandy McKeen there? It’s Henry Champ.”
A bit awestruck at actually being one-on-one with the Champster, I muttered something about Sandy, our executive producer, being out of the office. I would find him, I volunteered.
“Not to worry, partner,” Henry said. “Just tell him I called.”
A few weeks later, he came to work with us and the awestruckness became a general sensation in the newsroom. But the best part was, not only was he Mr. Network — there at the fall of Saigon, one of the first journos to pick up the trail of Bill Clinton as a presidential candidate, among many accomplishments on and off the field — but he was a great guy. A great guy.
Henry had no time for the slackers and time-servers. He loved us workhorses, who would make 100 phone calls to get him a good interview. And then we’d love him even though the guest we chased to the ends of the earth wasn’t as funny or interesting or as just plain weird as Henry was “doing” the interview. Or that Henry would mispronounce the guest’s name or just go off on some crazy-assed tangent.
We didn’t care. Among many interests, Henry loved journalism, politics and pro football and was astonishingly knowledgeable about all those topics. I spent a liquid afternoon in a pub in Halifax with Henry and a great friend and running mate Steve Knifton. All three of us were NFL fans, Knifton, sadly, a Bills advocate.
That afternoon, Henry displayed a profound knowledge of football arcana, like second-string NFL quarterbacks, the guys who made good money for many years playing second fiddle to stars like Joe Montana or Bart Starr. It was uncanny. You could mention a great QB and he could name his backup man, usually with his NCAA alma mater thrown in. Better still, he had won the “guillotine game” bet that weekend with his pal in Manhattan and had $800 in his pocket to spend on his work buddies, and he did spend, copiously.
Henry was amazing to work with and while he drove you crazy with his funky approach to anchoring and his arcane speech, we loved him all the more for it. He could hardly ever remember anyone’s name, so he’d resort to “partner” or “my old son,” for the guys. Pretty soon, that’s all we called each other in the newsroom: “me old son, grab that phone,” or “son of mine, would you be so kind as to oblige your old dog to respond to that telephonic communication.”
He assigned nicknames to people in the newsroom, but not as many as we gave him. Hankenstein, the Hankster, Crazy Uncle Henry, Big Hanky, all terms of respect and affection.
He was a big man, with big hands, a TV-friendly big head and a big, big heart and I was privileged to see it up close, on his turf in D.C.
In 2000, I went to Washington to do some Super Tuesday shows as part of the CBC’s U.S. election coverage. By then, Henry was working in the Washington bureau again, contentedly living at home with his brilliant and evidently patient spouse, Karen De Young, and the kids. I called Henry to tell him I was coming down with Nancy Wilson to do the shows.
“My dear man, you will come early, you will stay at my home and we’ll go visit the monuments,” he commanded. What else could I say?
I arrived on a Friday afternoon and took a cab from the airport to Henry’s lovely home near downtown Washington. When I pulled up, Henry, a baseball fanatic and former semi-pro player, was out on the street, surrounded by kids, whacking balls off a pitching machine. He was merrily bouncing them off houses, laughing his head off as the kids scrambled around trying to field his hits.
What followed was a weekend of genteel hospitality and a non-stop, marathon discussion about history, politics, journalism and sports. Yes, we did visit the Washington Monument and The Lincoln Memorial and the profound Vietnam wall. Together, we witnessed one of the most most solemn things I think I’ve ever seen: the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
We watched NCAA basketball into the wee hours and talked about journalism and politics. Sunday morning, I devoured coffee and newspapers with Karen, who is an author, an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post and a world-class journalist in her own right. The next day, she invited me to visit the Post and sit in on their front-page meeting. I saw the wall of Pulitzer Prize citations, a shrine. I still have the news budget from that day.
Henry arranged for me to visit the White House, early in the morning in time for the “gaggle” with the national security adviser and through a day in the bizarrely-cramped White House Press Room. He introduced me to the network heavies as “one of the top TV news producers in Canada,” which was a quite a stretch but very flattering. The journos seemed nice and treated me respectfully.
But I was there to work and with Henry’s great help and vast connections, we shot our shows and I went happily back to Halifax. I didn’t even mind when he pointed out to me, field producer on the shoot, that “the field producer is only along to carry the money and pay the cabs.” He had said it so many times that it was a running joke. It’s an indisputable truth, however, that if I didn’t carry the money, we’d have been broke.
But that generosity of time and skill and passion, that willingness to give to those he respected as fellow professionals, will always live with me.
Henry Champ was a great journalist, a great man and, I’m very proud to say, a friend. A unique figure is gone, a man who was different from the sober, clean-cut and ever-serious crop of present network reporters. TV journalism and the whole of our great craft are lessened by that.
Henry Champ knew his stuff. I’ll miss him.