Susan Newhook still has her “Coffee Break” mug, but she doesn't put it in the dishwasher anymore. The words are faded, but still legible.
It’s a reminder of her mother’s talk show that ran for 17 years on CBNT-TV in St. John’s before the corporate hammer obliterated all but the flagship news program, “Here & Now,” in 1991. (A sustained lobby eventually rescued “Land & Sea” from the chopping block.)
“She researched and booked every single guest, and she had hundreds,” Newhook said from Halifax, where she is a professor at the King’s College School of Journalism.
“She put an enormous amount of work into that show. She didn’t just show up and ask questions.”
She and her then husband, Warren, moved their young family to Newfoundland from New York in 1961, where she had been a professional model, singer, publicity co-ordinator and designer. They soon got involved in the local arts scene, making television appearances and participating in local variety and musical shows.
“She loved St. John’s the instant she got here,” says Susan.
"I came here in 1961 with a three-year-old daughter and a three-month-old daughter,” Shirley told The Telegram in a 2001 interview. “A couple of years later I had a son. I loved it here. The day I arrived it was sunny and absolutely gorgeous. Everybody tried to assure me that's the way the weather was in Newfoundland all the time."
In 1969, Newhook became fashion co-ordinator for what was called the Water Street Mall (an idea that was revived in the pedestrian mall of 2020). During that summer, part of Water Street was turned into a mall, which saw fashion shows, concerts and games being held on the street to attract and entertain shoppers.
"It was a fascinating thing. I loved it," Newhook told The Telegram. "It brought together music in the way of concerts, and I organized all the fashion shows, to which the stores would send models. It only lasted one summer and they talked about doing it again, but it did not happen."
Shirley was also involved with several groups and organizations, including the Rennie’s River Foundation, VOWR, WHIN Publications, the Salvation Army, the Downtown Development Association, Welcome Wagon, Big Brothers, St. John’s Day Committee, the Y, the Status of Women Council, the College of Trades (now College of the North Atlantic) and the NTA Music Council Concerts.
She was also the first woman to join the St. John’s Rotary Club.
With such a full itinerary, her family remembers her most common utterance was, “Hang on, let me get my appointment book.”
Former CBC broadcaster and food critic Karl Wells remembers when Shirley snagged a “Coffee Break” interview with renowned comic pianist Victor Borge.
“She interviewed him, and after the interview, Victor Borge went up to (the producer) and he said, ‘I hope you realize what a tremendous treasure you have in that lady. She is absolutely fabulous.’”
Other guests included Kenny Rogers and Margaret Trudeau, and even some people with unusual pets. Once she appeared with a boa constrictor around her neck. Another time, a monkey couldn't sit still on the set and began swinging from the studio light fixtures.
Shirley and a number of her CBC colleagues moved on to Atlantic Cablevision (now Rogers TV) after “Coffee Break,” hosting a show called “Shirley’s Place.”
About 20 years ago, she returned to writing and joined the pages of The Telegram with a society column called “The Hectic Pace.”
Susan says despite her unending commitments outside the home, her mother was a loving parent and host, and was famous for her magnificent Christmas parties.
“She was the best mom, best nana in the world,” she said.
“She taught us all to bake and cook, and figured that that was part of what you needed, boy or girl, to be grown up.”
— With files from Glen Whiffen