Although I worked at The Toronto Sun for seven years, I never got to know the late, great George Gross. I'm sorry about that now, especially after reading the many tributes pouring in after his death from a heart attack this past Friday morning.
The internationally renown sports editor was 85. You can read many memories from colleagues past and present here at The Sun (from fellow Day One-er Peter Worthington) and here at The Toronto Sun Family.
Here is what I did observe, what anybody with eyes could report. Gross was a dapper fellow from another era, always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. He seemed more like a CEO than one of us. Twice a month, he would float noiselessly into the entertainment department and flirt with department manager Melinda Mantel. I wasn't a sports guy, so all I would get is an occasional nod or a wink. (From Gross or Mantel.)
What I knew long before I worked there was that Gross was one of those larger-than-life Toronto players, part of the disappearing landscape of his adopted city. All those towering figures, Ed Mirvish, Sam Sniderman, Milt Dunnell, Al Waxman, many others. They all survived a great depression and a world war, went on to live their dreams, make a little money and leave their mark. They seemed so permanent, like Simpsons, Eatons and Frans.
It must have been tough, I sometimes thought when I would pass him in the hall, for Gross (and, for that matter, for Worthington) to still be on the floor of the Sun after so many of his peers has passed on. It must be different when you are in on the start, when the paper is your legacy.
I'll never forget seeing Bob MacDonald, sick and in his '70s, roused to the point of fisticuffs at the end of a particularly suffocating human resources meeting. MacDonald, who wrote the Sun's very first page one story, sat and listened as his job and others were reduced to bottom line statistics. Eyes blazing, defiant, he turned around at one point in this meeting and suggested he could still "lick every man in the room." He was like Rudy on Survivor, the Navy SEAL who battled the odds to make it to the finals. Nobody was going to snuff out MacDonald's tiki torch.
These genuine newsmen bled Toronto Sun red and black ink and it still burned in their belly. Gross's fire always seemed more contained from where I sat but I'm guessing he shared the same fierce passion for a business that was once all that and more.
I did have one, memorable, chance encounter with Gross on the highway. Once, barrelling westbound on the Gardiner Expressway in the usual mad dash home, I exited off the Islington Ave. North ramp. Hogging two lanes in front of me was this poky Mercedes. Through the back window I could see that there was some old dude driving. He's got one hand on the wheel, one hand on a cell phone. I honk hoping he'll pick a lane. Suddenly he has one hand on the cell phone, one hand held up in the air for me to see. The old bastard is giving me the universal one finger salute! He now has no hands on the wheel and I'm wondering how he is steering. I'm both pissed and impressed.
I charge up behind to give it to gramps and I get close enough to read the licence plate: BARON. Uh oh. It is Sun Legend George Gross.
I fade back and give him his due. That's all I can do today. Wish I had gotten to know him better.