Remembering Mel

When Mel Lastman passed away this week at the age of 88, most write-ups focussed on his role as the Megacity's first mayor. But, for those of us who knew him before then, Mel was much more than that.

For more than two decades as the supremely popular Mayor of North York, he might as well have been King, controlling all decisions large and small, mostly with a heap of benevolence. He was a populist before that term got mixed up with demagogue, a politician who need only to put a finger in the wind to see which way opinion was blowing and then adapt government policy to lead it there.

But he could also lead into controversial waters. During my time with him on North York Council, Mel doled out so much density to developers on Yonge Street that we initially clashed over it. But over time I came to realize that his vision was balanced, requiring developers to provide lots of funding for child care centres and other community facilities. And he worked closely with the leaders of local homeowners' associations, so that they would buy into his plans.

I have many personal memories of Mel, going back to my time with the Toronto Star, for whom I covered the committee meeting at which he bounded into the room to announce that he was creating an instant downtown. He promised to "put North York on the map." Hyperbole, I thought, until, as Canadian Editor for the World Almanac, I received a letter from Mel, addressed to my boss in New York, demanding that North York be as prominently displayed as Toronto on the Almanac's map of Canada.

Mel was unpredictable, in a predictable sort of way, as I found out during my first year as Chair of the North York Board of Education when he invited me onto his Straight Talk cable show. Cameras make me nervous, so I had our communications director obtain a list of Mel's questions so that I could spend several hours rehearsing the answers.

As the director signalled 30 seconds to air time, Mel glanced at the prepared questions for the first time. "These are boring," he declared. "I'll make up my own."

My favourite Lastman story, one that I told at Council in 2003 at Mel's last meeting, reveals how closely he kept his ear to the ground and how he would be as quick to call in favours for the little folks as he did for the high and mighty.

A strike by the City staff was shutting down local arenas just as a Willowdale hockey group was hosting a large tournament. The kids had been looking forward to it all season, and group's leaders went to Mel for help. He always found time for them.

"Just let me make a phone call," he told them, getting Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard on the line. When the call was over, he turned to the group: "How would you like to have your tournament at Maple Leaf Gardens?"

- John