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Tucker’s times: reporter relives career

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Royal Gazette reporter: Ernest Tucker was first black reporter for newspaper (Photograph by Meredith Ebbin)

Chateauguay, Quebec, is the last place you would expect to find a Bermudian journalist, let alone one who has blazed quite a few trails during a distinguished career in Canada. But Ernest Scott Tucker has lived in the Montreal suburb for nearly 50 years.

Mr Tucker, now 87, got his start at the Bermuda Recorder, but made his name in Canada, where he interviewed celebrities as a trainee reporter, among them Broadway singer and dancer Josephine Baker and others such as actor and singer Bing Crosby during his 34 years as a broadcast journalist.

Other highlights of his career included his Canadian Broadcasting Company interview with Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael in Montreal in 1968 and coverage for the same station of Bermuda’s Black Power conference in 1969.

Mr Tucker said that Mr Carmichael “encouraged the oppressed to get guns”.

He added his coverage was seen across Canada, as was his work on the Quebec separatist movement’s kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross in 1970.

Mr Tucker said: “As the CBC reporter for Montreal, I was heard on radio almost every day and occasionally on television.”

Although long retired, he is currently writing a third novel, which is set in Bermuda.

He was born into a family of teachers in Warwick, but followed a different career path.

He became the first black graduate of The Ryerson Institute of Technology’s journalism school in Toronto, was The Royal Gazette’s first black journalist and was also the first black reporter to be hired by the CBC.

He interviewed entertainers during his student days at Ryerson and covered the Beatles’ visit to Toronto in 1964.

Mr Tucker said: “I got a chance to speak to Ringo before they pulled me off the tarmac.”

One of seven children, he is a son of Benjamin Tucker and the former Eleanor Anderson.

He was named after his grandfather Ernest Scott Tucker, a prominent teacher who served on the first executive committee of the Bermuda Union of Teachers.

His aunts Elmira Tucker Hunt, wife of cricket great Alma “Champ” Hunt, and May Johnston, and cousin Esther DeShields Pitt taught him at Spring Hill School in Warwick. Because of those family connections, he eliminated teaching as a career early on.

He said: “There were so many teachers in my family, I didn’t want to be a teacher. All of these people were teaching me. I hated teachers. They were always on to me because I had to know everything.”

His first job was as a waiter at Belmont Manor Hotel, where his father was maître d’.

But he said he had written from his days in primary school as a way of getting revenge from bullies.

Mr Tucker explained: “They used to beat me up so I wrote stories about them.”

He attended the Berkeley Institute, but left when he was 14 for Toronto with his older brother, George, who had won a teacher-training scholarship as his brother decided both of them could live off the scholarship money.

Mr Tucker completed high school in Toronto and enrolled at Ryerson, now Ryerson University, where he graduated with a diploma in journalism in 1954.

In Toronto, he roomed with Walter Brangman, the future architect and MP, and hung out with other Bermudian students, among them future Cabinet Minister Quinton Edness.

He also gained first-hand experience working with newspaper reporters in his third and final year.

Hanging out in clubs was his favourite beat. With his backstage pass, he got access to celebrities such as singer and pianist Nat King Cole, entertainer Vic Damone, Ms Baker and boxer Joe Louis and interviewed them for the college newspaper, the Ryersonian.

Mr Tucker said it was great experience, but he struggled to get a job after his graduation.

He was offered a position in Sudbury, Ontario, but when he got off the bus, he was told it was not available — his first experience of racism in Canada.

He returned to Bermuda, worked for the Bermuda Recorder, and then returned to Canada to continue his studies at Montreal’s McGill University.

He was keen to write for McGill’s student newspaper, but unwilling to wait until his second year to become eligible, he transferred to Sir George Williams College, now Concordia University.

He was appointed news editor of Sir George’s newspaper and promoted to editor-in-chief the following year. He also worked at nights at the Montreal Gazette as a proofreader.

While at Ryerson and Sir George, he found time to produce and act in school productions. He was president of the Ryerson Opera house workshop and wrote and sang calypsos for Ryerson’s annual song and dance review.

In 1958, he graduated from Sir George with a bachelor of arts degree but, unable to find a job, he again returned to Bermuda.

Mr Tucker worked first for the Recorder, then The Royal Gazette, where the editor gave him work on a freelance basis.

He said he was paid “a penny a line for every story they used”.

Mr Tucker added: “So I went out and I worked and worked and that first week they had to pay me something like 70 pounds. I covered every black funeral, every baby that was born.

“The editor said ‘Look, how would you like to come on staff, and work for 35 pounds a week?’ So they gave me a scooter. I was running around covering everything.”

He was on the staff at the Gazette for about two years, until he got his first big career break, which be put down to luck.

Mr Tucker said he was in a bar one night and met two young Australians who had made a stop in Bermuda while travelling around the world by motorcycle.

The story he wrote about them for the Sunday Gazette caught the eye of the Ernest Bartlett, travel editor of the Toronto Telegram, who was in Bermuda and he tracked him down to the newspaper.

Mr Tucker said: “We went out to dinner, had a few drinks and he said, ‘How would you like to work for the Toronto Telegram?’ I said, ‘great’. So he set it up.”

He was flown to Toronto for an interview with the newspaper’s publisher John Bassett, who Mr Tucker said “had this great big office over Bay Street. In this office, a girl was doing his nails, the barber was trimming his hair, he was dictating a letter to his secretary and his lawyer was there saying: ‘You can’t say it like that.’”

Mr Bartlett had lent Mr Tucker a tie, jacket and shirt, which were too big for him, but Mr Tucker made an impression because he was hired.

Mr Tucker was a married man by then. His wife, Jeanette Jarvis Tucker, from Montreal, had moved with him to Bermuda, but returned to Canada after a year as the island’s racial climate was not conducive to interracial marriages.

He worked at the Telegram for a short time, but left to join the CBC in the Toronto Radio newsroom in October 1961.

He got his second big break on November 22, 1963.

He was left alone in the newsroom while his three supervisors were at lunch off the premises. The bells on the Teletype machine began to ring “furiously” and the wire copy he pulled off the machine said US President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

Unable to reach his supervisors, he consulted the newsroom “bible” for guidance on how the death of a head of state should be reported, but it was of no help.

So he ran into the cafeteria to find an announcer, who put the story on air. When the supervisors made their way back to the newsroom, Mr Tucker was reprimanded. Among other things, he was supposed to wait for confirmation by a Canadian press agency.

Mr Tucker said: “They gave me heck. I had no right to put this on the air. The next day the Toronto Star comes out — CBC news was on top of it all the way.”

The result was a promotion for the new man in the newsroom and Mr Tucker became producer for an afternoon news show Across Canada, writing for new announcers Alec Trebek, now famous as the host of Jeopardy!, and Lloyd Robertson, who became a CTV news anchor.

Mr Tucker also edited the West Indian Reporter, Toronto’s first black newspaper, while at CBC.

He later transferred to CBC in Montreal and started work on a master of arts degree at the city’s Sir George, which he completed in 1975.

Bermuda and Montreal would not escape the political turbulence of the 1960s, so Stokely Carmichael and the Bermuda Black Power conference were among his assignments.

Mr Tucker began to teach broadcast journalism at John Abbott College, outside Montreal, became a full-time lecturer and cut back his hours at CBC.

He taught at John Abbott College for 36 years.

Mr Tucker and his wife, Jeannette, have been married for 60 years. They moved to Chateauguay in 1970 and raised five children. Their daughter Jasmin lives in Ontario, while Rebecca and Julien live in Montreal. Michael and Krista are deceased.

While at John Abbott, Mr Tucker began work on his first novel, Underworld Dwellers, which was published in 1994. His second Lost Boundaries, which is about police harassment of black Montrealers and set against the backdrop of the 1995 Quebec referendum on independence, was published in 2004.

The second book has Bermuda references — Cobbs Hill, cassava pie and a DaCosta scholarship, a nod to George DaCosta, the first headteacher of Berkeley Institute.

Mr Tucker’s accomplishments have not gone unrecognised.

In 2013, Ryerson’s diamond anniversary year, he was among 12 journalism school alumni honoured for “Making A Mark” during their careers.

NBC newsman Kevin Tibbles was a fellow honouree.

Mr Tucker was also granted Emeritus faculty status by John Abbot College in March.

He was last in Bermuda to attend the funeral of his sister, Vivian Pearman, in 2013. Four of his six brothers and sisters are deceased. A sister, Eleanor, lives in Virginia and his brother, Benjamin, lives in Connecticut.

Mr Tucker said he planned a visit to Bermuda to launch his third novel, which he is expected to finish this year.

The novel is set in a hotel and is inspired by events at Belmont Manor Hotel where he and his father worked many years ago.

Family name: Ernest Tucker is named after his grandfather Ernest Scott Tucker (pictured left), who was a member of the Bermuda Union of Teachers’ first executive committee in 1919 (Photograph courtesy of Shirley Pearman)