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MARK CRITCH: John Crosbie was a giant among people

John Crosbie and comedian/actor/writer Mark Critch after a performance by the Newfoundland Symphony Ochestra in 2013, to which they happened to wear matching bow ties. SUBMITTED PHOTO
John Crosbie and comedian/actor/writer Mark Critch after a performance by the Newfoundland Symphony Ochestra in 2013, to which they happened to wear matching bow ties. SUBMITTED PHOTO
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Mark Critch Special to The Telegram

“They don’t make them like that anymore.”

I keep hearing that phrase over and over again.

As people say goodbye to John Crosbie, they seem to be saying goodbye to another time as well.

A time when giants walked the Earth and left footprints the size of the potholes on the Team Gushue Highway.

John Crosbie has been a part of Newfoundland legend for so long that it can be hard to think of him as just a guy.

I never think of John Crosbie as an old man. I only see him as a young fella, ever sprightly, ever quick, a twinkle forever dancing in his eye, causing mischief. When I looked at John Crosbie, I saw the young fella who dared challenge Joey Smallwood for the provincial crown.

Imagine that. John Crosbie had been around so long that he was once the young upstart and Joey Smallwood was the old guard — the John Crosbie, if you will.

One of the great moments in our province’s political history was when Joey, having defeated the mutton-chopped proto-hipster Crosbie, salivated into a microphone at Memorial Stadium and demanded that his challenger admit defeat. Like a power-mad king, he wanted to chop off the head of his challenger right there on the battleground. Smallwood thrust the microphone into John’s face and demanded it be made “unanimous.”

The young man who wished Smallwood well seems meeker than the John we now know.

David had not defeated Goliath, but he had knocked his glasses off and given him a black eye. I always saw that young man in John. He often found himself in places where he probably did not want to be. Like when he found himself on a waterfront in Bay Bulls, next to an ocean that had more fishermen than fish. Here, again, he found himself admitting a defeat of sorts. John Crosbie had the toughest job ever bestowed upon a Newfoundlander — shutting down our fishery.

This time, John was a little bolder, telling them that he “didn’t take the fish out of the God damn water.”

Can you imagine that happening today? What politician would even wade onto that wharf? At best you’d get a statement posted to Twitter and a promise of a media availability emailed out on a Friday afternoon while the MHA or MP slunk out the back door to take some “personal time.” That is, if you could find a politician who would have the stuff to actually make a tough decision these days.

But John Crosbie faced people. He looked them in the eye. He spoke simply and directly. Perhaps too directly. But that was why people loved John Crosbie. You knew what he thought. In today’s cancel culture, John Crosbie would have disappeared somewhere between “just quieten down, baby” and “pour me a tequila, Sheila.” Today, though, Sheila Copps mourns her close friend John Crosbie. Maybe they don’t make forgiveness and contrition anymore, either.

I interviewed John for “This Hour Hass 22 Minutes” once when he found himself in hot water over an off-colour joke made when he was lieutenant-governor. The aides-de-camp flittered about, surely thinking that this was a mistake. John couldn’t wait to face his lumps head on and even let me muzzle him. But nobody could ever really muzzle a Newfoundland dog that size.

It reminded me of a time, much earlier, when as a young pup, I asked the great John Crosbie to appear on a talk show pilot at CBC. I was just 28 and had never met the man, but he agreed. He let me make fun of him, he sang “Pour Me a Tequila, Sheila” with the house band and even played ball hockey with me and half of Great Big Sea.

Nothing became of that show, but I used that tape for my “22 Minutes” audition. They asked, “How did you get John Crosbie?” I answered, “I asked.” And as John closed the fishery, but then helped usher in the age of oil, now the good Lord giveth and He taketh away.

John Crosbie, our Newfoundland guard dog, dead at 88. Wherever he is now, I’m sure he is wading into it, face first, no holds barred.

I do know that he will have the last laugh. I hope there are fish in heaven, even if there still can’t be any here. And I hope John is kicked back now, his line in the water with a well-earned glass of rum. I hope there is a nibble. And I hope he finally gets to take that g.d. fish out of the water. They don’t make them like that anymore. Mark Critch is a comedian, actor and writer who hails from St. John’s.

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