In Memoriam - Michael Fitz-James
Many, many years ago, before becoming a librarian, and before that before becoming a web producer, I had worked in journalism. My first ever job in that field was as a researcher with CBC Radio in Montreal.
One day, I had to dig into a legal story and I hadn't the foggiest idea where to begin but I had seen the name Fitz-James in a very brief newspaper account of the issue I was told to cover. So, naively, I called him up.
First thing he tells me on the phone after I introduce myself is "I think I know your father". Perfect way to embarrass me. "A great lawyer, a great lawyer," he immediately adds in his very loud, very gruff voice. My dad has somewhat of a reputation as a man who knows his way around the Constitution.
Soon, my colleagues are glancing over towards my desk where I am doubled over laughing as Fitz-James launches into a verbal performance that is part learned analysis, part play-by-play description of courtroom theatrics, and part cynical and very funny take on the sometimes twisted thinking of lawyers and judges. I knew within a minute I would call him back as often as I could.
The best thing is that he made me feel smart. I was in my twenties and in way over my head. He probably sensed this over the phone in that first background interview. But he made me feel smart. There are some in and around the legal profession who can make other people feel little, and stupid. Not him.
He was profiled last year in the Ontario Lawyers Gazette:
"Fitz-James (...) is the type of guy that you love or you love to hate and there’s not a lot of middle ground in between. He’s a walking contradiction with a larger-than-life personality. On one hand, he’s pure, old-style journalist – loud, aggressive, blunt and gruff... On the other hand, there’s the soft, gentle side to him, a side that attracts loyalty and dishes it out in equal amounts. He’s very funny, entertaining, a walking encyclopedia and self-effacing about his accomplishments."
He knew how to talk over the phone, he knew how to explain, he knew how to make sense to a young researcher even in those situations when the law and all the lawyers and the entire legal system seemed to inhabit one vast Absurdistan.
That's because he knew lawyers could be weird and wonderful and exasperating and that their shenanigans will always be fodder for a good story. And that's why many consider him the grandfather of legal journalism in Canada.