(Long-time broadcaster Gord Atkinson at his home in Stittsville. Photo by Zach Mulder.)
Gord Atkinson was the epitome of kindness. He passed away at age 94. Gord may have been born in Toronto, but he called Stittsville home. Everyone growing up in Ottawa – of a particular age – knew the familiar, smooth voice coming into our homes from radio station CFRA. Gord’s shows – Showbill and Campus Corner (later becoming Campus Club) – captivated audiences of every age.
We also read his words of life in the entertainment world held within the pages of the two books he penned – Gord Atkinson’s ‘Showbill’ in 1996 – a best selling autobiographical tome, published in Carp and launched at the National Library of Canada; and, ‘The Golden Years of Entertainment’ in 2016. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that his beloved wife, Elaine, played a large part inputting the content and acting as personal editor.
The news of his death was widespread on Twitter the morning of April 26. Mayor Jim Watson shared his condolences to the family on his Twitter page stating he was “a true gentleman”. Since the news was announced, many accolades and memories have continued to be shared on radio, television and social media.
He began his career at Decca Records in the 1940s as the Canadian publicist. Gord arrived in Ottawa from having worked at both CFRB and CHUM stations in Toronto in the 1950s. Gord took the mic at CFRA in 1954 as the station’s entertainment editor and immediately became the voice of Ottawa through his daily variety program. He was the influencer who introduced Ottawa-born high school students and celebrities-to-be Paul Anka, who debuted his song ‘Diana’ and Rich Little to the airwaves in the late 1950s.
On April 3, 1957 he introduced Elvis Presley to Ottawa, for the one and only time Elvis visited our capital, at the old Ottawa Auditorium on Argyle Street when Gord was the evening’s emcee.
In 1967, Gord was appointed station manager of Ottawa Radio Station CFMO-FM where he held the position for twenty-two years. He continued to host his weekly program Showbill. His broadcasting career had spanned over 50 years when he retired in 1990.
Then there is the famous Club Crosby. Gord’s first radio show took place in 1948. Gord was honoured to meet Bing Crosby personally in August 1945 at Paramount Studios. He had been a Crosby fan club member for years. The two men quickly became lifelong friends. Gord’s first show was in support of Club Crosby.
In 1974, he went on to narrate, write and produce The Crosby Years for which Columbia University presented him the Armstrong Award in 1976. In 1975, he received the U.S. National Radio Award for the 14 hour musical anthology. He was able to personally present to Bing the entire radio series.
In 1981, at Crosby’s alma mater, Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, Gord served as the Master of Ceremonies for the unveiling of the bronze memorial statue of Bing Crosby. Of all the highlights in his professional life, this was considered one of the greatest. In 1984, another book co-written with Sheldon O’Connell, ‘Bing, A Voice for All Seasons’ was published.
Of Crosby, he told Zach Mulder in a Stittsville Central 2017 interview, “He was really the idol of my life,” Atkinson says with a chuckle. “It’s great when somebody that you’re very fond of and look up to turns out to be the kind of person you really thought and hoped that they would be.”
Over the years, Gord has interviewed over 200 celebrities and received sixteen awards. In 1998, Mayor Jim Watson proclaimed May 23rd as Gord Atkinson Day in Ottawa. A gala and ‘roast’ was held for Gord at which Rich Little was the keynote speaker with funds being raised for the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club. He was always grounded and thought of others in need. He, along with his good friends Rich Little and Frank Sinatra, raised millions of dollars for the Ottawa Hospital in 1981 when they organized a benefit concert at which Little and Sinatra performed. The monies raised helped to build the Rich Little Special Care Nursery.
He received a Gabriel statuette in 1986 for his Bob Hope radio series; in 1987, the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship; from the Association of Canadian TV and Radio Artists, the Graham Spry Award in 1988; also in 1988, Citizen of the Year honours from the Ottawa Lodge of B’nai B’rith; the Rotary Club of Ottawa presented the Paul Harris Award in 1989; between 1982 and 1989, he received seven Certificates of Merit from the International Radio Festival of New York for his radio profiles of Judy Garland, Paul Anka, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, George Burns, James Stewart and Bing Crosby; in New York, his songwriters series is included in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was an Ottawa community builder and was recognized for his hosting of the CFMO-Ottawa Citizen Christmas Exchange annual broadcast and for the benefit concert for the Ottawa Hospital.
Beyond his life as a broadcaster and station manager, Gord loved to write. The Ottawa Citizen published his column ‘The Platter Poll’ for 12 years as well, he wrote columns for the now extinct Ottawa Journal. In addition, the health and livelihood of seniors was always top of his mind and he was a spokesman and featured columnist for several years for ‘Forever Young’ a popular Ottawa seniors’ newspaper.
For all of the awards and honours bestowed on Gord Atkinson, he remained a humble man. In his 2017 interview he told Zach that …… it’s his friendships and family. No matter how much success he saw in his career, family stayed the number one priority.
“Dad usually was very good at balancing family life and his work,” says his son Paul Atkinson. “He is first and foremost a family man, he’s always managed to put family and his marriage in front of any work that he’s done.”
Gord was a familiar face in Stittsville – especially in the neighbourhood where he and Elaine lived. He also enjoyed walking prior to a bad tumble and an aging body that decreased his mobility. It was on these Stittsville walks back in the mid-80s that he met my mother, Lorraine, who was also a walker – before it became the trend of today. I remember her calling me the first day she met him to say, “Guess who I ran into today?” “I knew him, the moment he began to speak!” It was none other than Gord. My Mom rarely missed his radio programs, nor Lowell Green for that matter. From that day forward, when Mom was out walking, she was often invited in to their house for a visit with he and Elaine where he would share stories and the three would reminisce. When Mom became a widow in 1993, Elaine and Gord sent a beautifully written card to our family that is fondly kept in our memory box. The visits continued for several years until Mom became ill and came to live with us. No doubt many in our community of Stittsville have similar stories of meeting and befriending Gord and Elaine.
Gord’s son, Peter, wrote a book review on his father’s 2016 book release of ‘The Golden Years of Entertainment’ in a personal blog. It tells the story of Gord’s many interviews and includes photos of those in the entertainment industry he met personally at their homes or elsewhere. Peter also adds some behind the scenes commentary.
Gord Atkinson passed away on April 26, 2021 at the Queensway Carleton Hospital from a recent stroke. He and Elaine would have been married for 70 years on September 3rd.
Gord is survived by his beloved wife Elaine, his seven children (Michael, Paul, Peter, Suzanne, Greg, John and Mary Elinor) and their spouses, 12 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild.
Gord will be sorely missed by all who knew him. His legacy of his family, good deeds and the many superstar stories he shared will live on in our hearts.
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