Pictou Advocate sports

My conversations with Prince Philip


When I started my newspaper career in New Glasgow 67 years ago, I never imagined the endless number of exciting adventures I would experience — in the sports world and beyond.

There were big events like the Olympics, World Series, Stanley Cup championships, Grey Cup games and Canada Games. Closer to home, there were thousands of games from the kids to the pros, thousands of interviews, thousands of opportunities to meet people from all walks of life, from all levels of success.

Though most of my working life has been in sports, there have been many memorable occasions meeting and chatting with national and international dignitaries.

I’ve interviewed seven Canadian prime ministers — including John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson at the old Norfolk Hotel in New Glasgow, Pierre Trudeau in Port Hawkesbury and, in the most unusual place, interviewing Joe Clark in the back seat of a limousine as the chauffeur drove him from downtown Halifax to the airport.

Two emotional encounters were with Terry Fox when his Marathon of Hope passed through our province and, a few years later, with Rick Hansen when he brought his Man in Motion World Tour to Nova Scotia.

I met singers like Johnny Cash, Hank Snow and Rita MacNeil and, at one NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens, I was seated next to Foster Hewitt while he was broadcasting in his famous Gondola.

Of all the personal highlights I’ve had, however, I’ve left the two that were the most unexpected to the end.

Actually, you could call it one experience that occurred in two parts — the first in Halifax, the second in Montreal.

It was the summer of 1976.

The Chronicle Herald assigned me to cover the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Three weeks mingling with athletic greats from around the world.

It had a Halifax beginning.

A week before the Games, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip spent three days in Nova Scotia, a visit celebrating the Queen’s silver jubilee year. They were in Halifax-Dartmouth and the Annapolis Valley en route to the Olympics, where Princess Anne was on the British equestrian team.

Included in the Royal Couple’s itinerary was a reception aboard H.M. Yacht Britannia in Halifax Harbour. I was on the guest list because I would be covering the Games.

In the receiving line, as I inched closer to the Queen and Prince, I felt a burst of pride like I never felt before. I felt proud to be a Canadian, proud to have this special moment.

I was wearing my favourite sports jacket — actually my official Toronto Maple Leafs blazer I had been given when I was scouting for the Leafs. I had a Nova Scotia pin in the lapel.

My moment arrived. I met the two special guests, exchanged comments with the Prince, then moved along. My heart was beating faster than normal, then I realized the formalities were over, other than to stand among other guests.

When I left, I didn’t realize I would have a second and more memorable Royal moment.

A few days later, I was in Montreal.

For three weeks, the media was treated — okay, I’ll say it — like dignitaries. We had private rooms in the new Hotel Meridien, not yet open to the general public in the city’s downtown.

When I checked the media centre, I found a surprise in my assigned mailbox — a fancy envelope bearing the official insignia for Her Majesty.

It was an invitation: “The Master of the Household is commanded by Her Majesty to invite Mr. Hugh Townsend to a reception to be given by The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on board H.M. Yacht ‘Britannia’ at Montreal on Sunday, 18th July, 1976, at 5:00 p.m.”

These 45 years later, that invitation remains among my most treasured souvenirs.

When Sunday arrived, despite a very hot day, I put my shorts aside and wore my finest — including that same blue blazer with the Nova Scotia pin in the lapel.

Aboard the Britannia, the reception line was similar to the one in Halifax — but longer and with representatives of many countries.

I wasn’t quite as nervous this time. I had the customary Royal handshake with Her Majesty and stepped towards Prince Philip.

“Oh,” he said as I extended by hand, “it’s my friend from Nova Scotia.”

I suspected it was the lapel pin.

Later, during the reception, I saw the Prince approaching, a smile on his face Yes, he was coming towards me.

For several minutes — they went by so quickly — we had a lovely conversation.

He said he was pleased to see me again. He asked what newspaper I was representing. He wondered what sports I would be covering.

I told him we had several Nova Scotians representing Canada in various sports and I would be concentrating on them.

He even asked about their names. Nervously, I started replying — Nancy Garapick, Ann Dodge, Marjorie Bailey, Chris Clarke, Bryan Gibson, John Cassidy.

That’s as far as I got.

An aide came over, whispered in the Prince’s ear, and the Queen’s husband had to move along. Apologizing, he told me to enjoy the Games.

But he offered one more comment. “We had a lovely visit in Nova Scotia. It’s a very beautiful part of Canada. And what a beautiful campus at Acadia University.”

Then he was gone.

Those few moments have never been forgotten. I often think of them, especially when Prince Philip was in the news.

He seemed so personable, so genuine, so at ease making conversation with an ordinary Canadian he’d never see again.

In 1947, I was nine years old listening to the Royal wedding on the radio before going to school that day. Two weeks ago, I watched television highlights of a Prince who lived to be 99.

His death saddened me more than I expected — and had me thinking again of that little chat aboard Britannia.