A Pain in the Butt, Reporter Wes Keller
Wes can smell a story a kilometre away, and rain or shine he’ll be on the news scene.
Queen Elizabeth II has presided over twelve different British prime ministers during her fifty-five year reign, starting with Sir Winston Churchill.
In the thirty years since the byline of legendary local newspaper reporter Wes Keller first appeared in this region, there have come to pass twenty-three Dufferin County wardens, nine mayors of Orangeville and Shelburne, and more reeves, deputy reeves, deputy mayors and councillors than you can shake a beer bottle at.
He’s been a pain in the butt to pretty much all of them. And that’s just a start.
You’ve likely read Wes’s stories in Claridge Community Newspapers – the Orangeville or Caledon Citizen, the Shelburne Free Press and Economist, or the Grand Valley Star and Vidette. Many Headwaters residents will also know him personally. If you’ve been involved with local politics or attended a public meeting, Wes likely covered it. If you’ve had a fender-bender or your kid was in a public-speaking contest, Wes may have turned up and started snapping pictures. If you’ve been involved with the courts, there’s a good chance you’ve spotted him in the back of the courtroom like some weather-beaten Yoda, scribbling.
So Wes knows everybody’s story. Not so many of us, however, know his.
The Durham Chronicle. That’s who to thank, or blame, depending on your perspective. It was reading that paper in the 1940s, when he was a high-school student in the village, that Wes developed an interest in the news. His parents had moved to the area with six-year-old Wes, his brother and two sisters in 1937 after escaping the Saskatchewan dust bowl.
After high school, young Wes set out for Toronto and a career in life insurance. He married his first wife, Greta, in 1954. “It was the day after Hurricane Hazel,” he recalls. By 1956, another interest had also taken hold. “I heard the Canadian Army was looking for commissioned officers, so I joined in Toronto.” He received his commission as an artillery officer in 1957 and spent the next eight years as a reservist, working half-time for the military, while continuing to sell life insurance. Though he never saw action, he did become an expert in various killing machinery, including 105-mm howitzers. Must have made for an odd day: I’m gonna blow you away, but first, can I interest you in term life?
Wes’s son, Mark, was born in 1958, and the early sixties saw the birth of his daughter, Krystal, along with a move to Winnipeg. It was there, in 1964, that Wes’s first freelance writing assignment – coverage of local community clubs – was published in the St. Boniface Courier.
The second half of the 1960s found Wes in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, running a life insurance agency and writing freelance for the Yorkton Enterprise. On his return to Ontario in 1969, he obtained his private investigator’s license.
Private investigator? Picture it, dear reader. It’s 1969. The wa-wa music wails, the beads part and – it’s Wes Keller, P.I.! Somewhere, Austin Powers is blushing.
The reality was likely a little less groovy. Most of Wes’s sleuthing was on behalf of insurance companies and Toronto law firms. Investigations involved third-party injury claims, suspicious suicides claimed as accidental death, and other sorts of fraud. “People thought I was good at it in those days, but I don’t think I could do it any more. One has to be a competent actor to get away with it,” he says. Book ’em, Danno. And now, the news.
By the mid-1970s, Wes decided to pursue writing full time. He enrolled in a journalism course and later interned at the Orangeville Banner. His long association with Claridge Community Newspapers began on January 9th, 1978, at the Shelburne Free Press and Economist.
If ever there was a time for Wes Nessman, sorry, Wes Keller to be a reporter in Shelburne, 1982 was likely it. The town was embroiled in a steamy sex scandal. In July, Mayor George Morden appeared in court on charges of trespassing, pointing a firearm and possession of a dangerous weapon. The story went that, in a fit of rage, the mayor had broken into the home of his lady-friend in Hornings Mills.
“So he’s starting up the stairs, .22 [calibre rifle] in hand,” Wes says, his eyes still lighting up at retelling the story twenty-five years later. “And he’s met by the woman’s husband at the top – and his 30-30.”
Literally outgunned, the mayor decided to reverse his position, and the tense moment was eventually defused. “He had to step down as mayor,” Wes says. Not for long though. In a move foreshadowing Washington mayor Marion Barry’s re-election after facing drug charges, the good people of Shelburne saw fit to overlook Mayor Morden’s passionate side. They put him right back in office in the fall of 1982, and again in 1985.
The memory leaves Wes laughing so hard he chokes on his cigarette smoke and erupts in a coughing fit. “Actually,” he says later, “I always thought he was a good mayor – honest and straight-from-the-shoulder.”
When his first marriage ended late in 1982, Wes again headed west. After a year at the local paper in Crow’s Nest Pass, Alberta, he moved on to the Lethbridge Herald. Two years later he was freelancing, not only for the Herald, but also for the Great Falls Tribune in Montana and Western Producer and Alberta Reports magazines.
During this time he covered a story about a fire started by local youths at an arena that was scheduled for demolition. Although firefighters had arrived in plenty of time to put out the flames, they decided instead to let the soon-to-be-torn-down building burn, even adding gasoline to the fire.
The municipality, either intentionally or by oversight, subsequently collected on its fire insurance policy. When Wes discovered, and reported, that the town’s own fire department had been among the arsonists, the town was forced to return the insurance money. Wes’s coverage of the story earned him the Open Class Alberta Government Telephone Award for Best Local Editorial in the Province in 1986.
Wes had married his second wife, Debra, in 1984 and, in 1989, the two returned to Ontario. While his wife furthered her educational training, Wes returned to the Claridge newspaper fold. He’s been airing our laundry, dirty or otherwise, ever since.
Even if it’s a little bloodshot, there’s something in his piercing blue-eyed stare that can make an interviewee a little uneasy. One local politician, invited to comment on Wes’s career, said “A politician commenting on a journalist is treacherous territory; territory I am not going to traverse.” In short, people are just a little afraid of him.
“Oh yes,” Wes acknowledges, “I’ve noticed. Sometimes a silence descends when I come into a meeting. I interviewed a politician once – I forget who now – and he gave me a two-word answer to a question. I went off and wrote my story and after that he would tell everyone ‘Don’t give Keller two words. He’ll write five inches of column from it.’”
Orangeville mayor Rob Adams, however, praises the skill in Wes’s approach: “He asks the ‘Columbo’ questions and roots away until he gets to the bottom of the issue. His writing ability is at the highest level. We are extremely fortunate to have an individual with such a high degree of professional ethics, journalistic ability, and deep-rooted grasp of local issues.” The mayor adds, “His genius for looking outside the box gives him the rare ability to get to the facts below the surface of what appears to be ordinary.”
Over such a long career, that view below the surface can sometimes be murky, and a few mistakes are bound to happen. What was the worst?
“There’s only one serious error that comes to mind,” Wes says. In 1993, he received a tip that a local gynecologist, who had since moved from the community, had been profiled on the television show “America’s Most Wanted” for sexually assaulting patients. Wes contacted the show, confirming the name of the individual and that he was indeed from Orangeville. His story ran that week on the front page.
Later, it came to light that the criminal gynecologist was, in fact, someone else. Though it sounded the same, the name was spelled slightly differently (with an ‘n’ instead of ‘m’), and the television show had incorrectly confirmed his residence as Orangeville, rather than his actual residence in Orange County, California.
“Of course, the paper ran a correction, but the whole thing was awful,” Wes recalls with a shudder.
Sheila Duncan, a former editor of the Citizen, has known Wes for a long time and in a number of roles – colleague, supervisor, competitor and friend.
“Though he has always done a good job with almost any type of article, he thrives on the image of the hardened investigative reporter,” she says. “Wes can smell a story a kilometre away, and rain or shine he’ll be on the news scene. He can wring information out of almost any source. He’s witty, sarcastic, determined and humorous. He knows all about long hours, tight-lipped sources, and working on deadline.
“Wes is a true journalist and a real character. We had a lot of fun finding the news when we were of like mind, and when we had conflicting opinions, well, it was interesting times.”
Even in the relatively benign community of Headwaters, reporters – along with police, paramedics and like professions – can be exposed to the brutal and criminal side of life. That involves not only investigating and describing the initial horror, but following up through what can be a protracted legal process.
For Wes, one such case was the death of Jennifer Zumach in 1999. Her common-law husband, James Randall, was found guilty of first-degree murder after he was caught with her severed head in a box on the back of his motorcycle. His claim that the death was accidental, and that he dismembered her body after the fact, had been consistently rejected by the courts. However, it took until 2007, when final appeals were exhausted – a period of some eight years – before Wes was finished with the story, reporting it both locally and for The Toronto Star.
And there is one story in particular that still causes a certain haunted look to cross Wes’s face. The brutal 2002 murder of Orangeville teenager Robbie McLennan left the community outraged and in shock. The trio who committed the crime was quickly apprehended and Wes attended legal proceedings for each of them. The graphic testimony, and its impact on the boy’s mother who also attended, clearly left a mark on Wes. “Never, never had I ever imagined that, even in torture, anyone could do the things done to Robbie McLennan,” he says. “So yes, that story touched me.”
Also in 2002, Wes’s second marriage ended. Things were rough for a while, but took a turn for the better when he was offered an apartment in the home of his friends Nancy Belsey and JP Nadeau, a young and supportive couple he’d met through his involvement with the Royal Canadian Legion.
The local newspaper industry has come a long way during Wes’s time. “When I first started, some places were still pulling lead type,” he recalls. In the early days he processed his own black and white film, set his own type, and laid out his own pages. But over the years, he has adapted readily to the constantly changing electronic technology, that now allows him to file stories simply by pressing “Send.” In fact he was a bit of a pioneer. “In the early eighties I got a Tandy computer,” he says. “I could type something up and transmit it to the paper. Everybody thought it was a marvel.”
Although he is enthusiastic about the technological evolutions in the newspaper industry, he has few kind words for the industry’s trend toward concentration of corporate ownership. “Too many weeklies have come into the fold of the corporate conglomerates. Years ago, I remember (newspaper baron) Lord Thomson saying ‘News is the stuff that goes between the ads.’ They’re more concerned about advertising income than the news business, so the news doesn’t get fully reported.”
That view may go some distance toward explaining Wes’s long relationship with the Claridge family’s independent newspapers. He’s a rare bird of a dying breed and so, to some extent, are they. “I respect and admire the Claridges for continuing a newspaper that is a newspaper.” he says. “Local news belongs in the purview of local newspaper ownership.”
Now seventy-five years old, Wes is still at it. Poking. Prodding. Cranking out a half-dozen or more articles a week. Pacing the driveway at three in the morning, chain-smoking. Consulting the muses of days gone by.
Our ink-stained scribe grows ever more leathery, but no less plugged in. He’s got a handle on who has the most power: “Municipal CAOs, they shape the council agenda.” He’s happy to tell you who has made the biggest mistake: “[Former Orangeville mayor] Drew Brown. The Broadway median is a disaster.” He’s hot on the trail of native land claims in this region, of the wind power controversy in Melancthon, and he’s just about the only local weekly reporter who still treats agriculture as a serious beat.
Most of all, he’s willing and able to stir up a little controversy. In reference to a recent dispatch, which generated three angry letters to the editor, he says with an impish grin: “So I know at least three people read my story.”
Shelburne mayor Ed Crewson says, “I have enjoyed my eighteen-year relationship with Wes Keller and hope that he continues to serve the community for many years to come.”
And the mayor may get his wish – Wes isn’t likely to retire any time soon. “I’ve seen too many people retire and then within a few months they start to vegetate,” he says. “[Local insurance man] Keith Hunter, who just turned eighty, says that his age in Celsius is only twenty-seven. That means I’m only twenty-four.” Nor is Wes about to waste time pondering his own mortality: “I’ve come this far. I don’t intend to stop now.”
Love him or hate him, at a time in life when most people would long since have been put themselves out to pasture, Wes Keller remains a central force in the community – the crusty old newspaperman, but these days with a laptop and a cellphone. It has been his task, decade in and decade out, to bear witness to both the best and the worst of us – the heroes and villains and all the pontificating politicians in-between. Like most of us, his life has held success and failure, tragedy and triumph.
But for Wes, that’s all yesterday’s news. It’s tomorrow’s headline that counts.