Losing a ‘golden’ mentor

Amid the joy of the Christmas season and the chaos of last week’s stormy weather, I experienced the sadness that comes with losing a mentor from my formative years.

Michael Cobden, who was the director of the King’s College School of Journalism during my five years at the Halifax campus, passed away at the age of 77 on Christmas Eve.

By the time I arrived at King’s in 1990, Michael had already been there for two years, following a lengthy career at such newspapers as The Toronto Star and The Kingston Whig-Standard after he and his first wife moved from South Africa to Canada in 1968.

I would not learn until after Michael’s death that the Cobdens left the country of his birth in protest of its apartheid policies, which Michael – a Caucasian – had protested within his early newspaper columns.

I sincerely regret missing the opportunity to ask Michael about that time of his life. Mind you, I was barely able to ask him anything in the first couple of years I knew him.

At the time, his duties including editing The North End News, a student-produced newspaper centering on Gottingen Street, Uniacke Square and the like. An older student suggested I pitch some of my editorial cartoons to Michael, who eventually agreed to run them, but not before delivering a lengthy discourse on my admittedly-rudimentary artistic skills.

Nearing the end of my second year at King’s, I took a bold gamble for my last assignment. I interviewed several classmates who cheerfully branded themselves as “The J-School Posse,” and then upped the ante by asking Michael if I could interview him about student malaise.

When my line of questioning finally unveiled that I was preparing a quasi-satirical piece about smart-alecky students, Michael broke into a wide smile, gamely answered my last couple of queries, and concluded by insisting that he “enjoyed” being the butt of a good joke and “looked forward to the further antics of the J-School Posse.”

Inexplicably, I got an A on that assignment.

That was Michael Cobden. He was serious about journalism but also insistent that it had a fun side, recalling his early days in Toronto as “a gas.”

This spirit coloured our annual fake year-end awards show for King’s Journalism staff and students, which was nicknamed The Golden Cobdens in Michael’s honour. The older students that launched the show in 1993 came up with the name and the concept of presenting gold-painted beer bottles to the various “winners.”

My grad class went a step further, commissioning fellow student Dawn Hall – who would later serve as back-up editorial cartoonist for The Chronicle-Herald – to caricature Michael in a “typical” pose for the individual award certificates, with his feet on his desk, his hands behind his head, and a dour look on his face as he proclaimed: “Oh, you won. Great.”

However, Michael Cobden wasn’t a caricature, either in the literal or metaphorical sense. When I required multiple surgeries to save my eyesight midway through my third year at King’s, Michael was very kind to me and my family, helping us to figure out how we would re-launch my studies the following September and even calling me at the hospital to see how I was doing in the recovery period following my second surgery in early 1993.

As I returned to King’s several months later, after a life-changing spring and summer as a fill-in afternoon news reporter at CIGO AM Radio, I struggled on several levels. The right eye that had undergone so much delicate medical work was now hampered by a growing cataract that would require further surgery that December. I was stumbling through my courses, even bombing my assignments in the King’s J-School radio program – a hard pill to swallow, given that I had spent the previous five months as an actual, paid radio journalist.

I was so rankled by my worst mark in this respect, a D-plus, that I launched a formal appeal of the grade. This brought me to Michael’s office, where I subsequently broke down from all the pressure and burst into tears.

The man that had so intimidated me in my first two years at King’s sat next to me, put his arm around me, reminded me that everyone has difficulties at some parts of their lives, insisted that my current troubles were not permanent, and encouraged me to be kinder to myself. Before I left his office, he gave me the kind of reassuring hug that a father gives to his children.

I don’t know if any of that was appropriate, and I don’t particularly care. All I know is that I am grateful to have had a Michael Cobden in my life, and I hope the next generation of up-and-coming journalists gets one, too, at King’s or anywhere else.

Thank you for everything, Michael.