A good friend, great memories

Monday morning, I participated in a classroom panel at Saint Mary’s University with former cabinet minister, political commentator and author Graham Steele and Global News journalist Marieke Walsh. The subject was the intersection between politicians, communications and journalism. Graham neatly summed up part of the discussion as distinguishing between lies, spin and BS.

During the session, my phone went off a few times. I noticed that one of the calls was from my old friend Dale Madill. I thought to myself, this kind of session would be perfect for Dale.

I first got to know Dale when I worked as a communications coordinator in the Progressive Conservative Caucus and he was the provincial reporter for the Chronicle Herald in 1996. Three years later, Dale took a buyout package from the Chronicle Herald and started working in the Progressive Conservative Caucus Office as John Hamm’s speechwriter. At that time, not too many people, Dale and I included, thought that working for the third place party leader who had just survived a leadership review and was on the eve of an election presented a long-term job opportunity.

To the surprise of many, John Hamm’s PCs vaulted from third place in the polls to a majority PC government on July 27, 1999. I ended up in New Glasgow on election night, while Dale celebrated in Halifax with our colleague Moira MacLeod and one of John Hamm’s key volunteer communications advisors, Finlay MacDonald (who sadly and suddenly passed away in 2004). A Polaroid picture of Moira, Dale and Finlay from that happy night was posted in his office.

Dale went on to be Premier Hamm’s speechwriter, then communications director from 2000 to 2002. He later moved on to the Departments of Energy and Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, where he ably served governments of all three political persuasions until he retired last year. While we moved in different directions in our respective lives, we stayed in touch periodically.

Sadly, the call from Dale’s home was from his wife Christine with the news that he died peacefully in his sleep overnight.

It’s hard to believe Dale is gone. Although he had been in ill health in recent years, many of us thought Dale would live forever. Born with congenital heart issues, with doctors forecasting not a very long life, Dale often joked that “not having a heart” made him the perfect political journalist. Another joke with Dale was that in the event of a nuclear calamity, the only living beings left would be the cockroaches and Dale!

Dale loved to tell a story. Whether it was a yarn from his misadventures as a Young Liberal in the early 1980s to writing about the challenges of the John Savage and Russell MacLellan governments in the 1990s (when he also got blasted by Tories for not giving John Hamm his due in opposition), Dale’s stories were always interesting and often funny.

One of my favourite Dale stories from his time as a reporter was when he tagged along with one of John Hamm’s first “summer tours” as PC leader. It was 1996. Rumours were rife that John Savage would call a snap election to take advantage of rookie PC and NDP leaders. As part of Hamm’s tour, we visited Oaklawn Zoo in Aylesford, Kings County. Finlay MacDonald tagged along with a camera crew to get some film of John Hamm if need be for the election (that ultimately didn’t come until 1998).

The Chronicle Herald’s Dale Madill wrote an account of the tour, noting the presence of backroom advisor MacDonald and the camera crew, with a reference to MacDonald “licking an ice cream cone” on a hot summer day.

As a young communications person at the time, I paid that no heed. For a seasoned operator like Finlay, he apparently called Dale afterwards to impress upon him in a low-key but clear way that he didn’t appreciate Dale writing about him.

“Dale, this is a give or take business. And you don’t take first.”

Not a threat from Finlay, but a message smoothly delivered nonetheless.  By the way, it didn’t stop Dale, but it did give him a great story to tell!

One of my favourite stories from Dale’s time as communications director was following an early morning briefing of Premier Hamm. I felt that Dale wasn’t sufficiently direct in his advice to the Premier.

“Way to speak truth to power, Dale!” I poked at him after the meeting.

Dale, recognizing, along with others, that perhaps I tended to be a little bit TOO blunt from time to time with the Premier, responded:

“Rob, you can speak truth to power, but you can also p#ss power off at seven o’clock in the morning.”

Dale was smart, funny, curious and persistent (annoyingly so!).

Dale was loyal. He referred to John Hamm as “the boss” – which seemed funny to many, because while John Hamm was definitely the Premier, his leadership style certainly didn’t connote “Boss-like” tendencies.

Dale loved his family; his Mom and Dad; his brothers and sisters, as well as their respective children.

Dale was so proud of his son Matthew, from his time as a boy to growing into an accomplished young man (like father, like son, Matthew is now a Young Liberal too!)

He was grateful for his wife Christine, promoted her volunteer work for many organizations and agonized for her and his former colleagues through the recent labour issues at the Chronicle Herald.

I like to think that Dale is sitting up in heaven now (he would dispute that as a destination, I know), sitting around a bar room table with his former Chronicle Herald boss with whom he later worked in the Hamm government, Jane Purves. Dale is enjoying a coffee with Kahlua and perhaps indulging in one of those God-awful Colt cigarillos he once favoured. Jane has a dry white wine in hand and has lit her own cigarette of choice.  As Dale tells another story, I can see Jane roll her eyes.  There’s laughter, raised voices and a few colourful metaphors.

I’m lucky to have known Dale. I’ll miss you, old friend.