The Gift of John Honderich

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation.

Ever since the news of John Honderich’s sudden death broke, like many of you, I’ve been taking in the story of his life. Friends, co-conspirators and rivals alike have attested to John’s brilliance, tenacity, and principled pursuit of stories with the power to re-shape the world. At the Atkinson Foundation, we witnessed all of these leadership qualities before and during his time on our Board of Directors.

John won our enduring respect, however, because he believed the stories of ordinary people belong on A1 above the fold. He was relentless in his support for journalists who form trusting relationships with people and communities that have no special power or privilege. John expected the Star newsroom to amplify their voices, take risks to uncover the truth, and get action on their behalf. This kind of journalism, he taught us, could change the headlines in a profound way.

But make no mistake: John was never satisfied with mere effort. He delighted in celebrating and rewarding excellence in the craft of public interest journalism. The Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy grew out of his deep understanding of the relationship between a free press and democracy, and what it takes to investigate and file game-changing stories.

“The Atkinson”, as it came to be known over more than 30 years, was inspired by a leave of absence John took from the Star in the mid-80s. He spent a year at the London School of Economics and wrote a book about the Arctic. As John tells the story, his father Beland Honderich initially opposed the idea. After seeing what John accomplished during his leave, Beland proposed a collaboration between the Honderich family, the Atkinson Foundation, and the Toronto Star to extend this opportunity to future generations of Canadian journalists. 

Before John’s death, we were collaborating to renew this program for this new time in Canadian media history. I’m so sad that he did not live to see the completion of work that he held so close to his heart.

When the Foundation turned 75, John hosted the Atkinson family, board and staff in the Torstar boardroom. That night, he re-told the larger Atkinson story that began long before many of us were born and would continue even when we could no longer play leading roles.

And while that day has come for John, he has left us with everything we need to keep winning this good fight: his hard-earned wisdom and example.

The late Richard Wagamese, an Ojibwe author and journalist from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations near Kenora, described this truth best:

“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”

And so the story continues, much bigger and better for the priceless gift of John’s chapter.