And that’s the kind of life it’s been

Lloyd Robertson, 77, is signing off. We think.
And that’s the kind of life it’s been
CTV; The Toronto Star; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

It was two decades ago that the media first started asking Lloyd Robertson when he was finally going to retire. We’re talking 1991, the year of Bush the elder’s Iraq war, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Brian Mulroney was prime minister and the GST came into effect. Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and that Coke can were a hot topic. A time so distant that a Kevin Costner movie won the Best Picture Oscar. Nirvana, then the world’s hottest band, is now played on “oldie” stations.

Robertson, CTV’s éminence orange, was just 57, but had already been anchoring the network’s national news for 15 years, and before that had been a CBC fixture for another 22. “I always thought I’d be out of there by now, that someone would come along and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, you’re getting long in the tooth—get out,’ ” he told the Montreal Gazette. Absent the push, the trick, said the anchor, was to “pick a time that’s obvious to you and your audience.” He mused about the big 6-0. It’s possible that some people even believed him.

Should all go according to plan, Robertson will actually step down this Sept. 1. Now 77, and with a combined 41 years behind the anchor’s desk at CBC and CTV, he is the longest-serving national anchor in North American TV history. Not exactly a retirement, since Robertson plans to continue on in his other job co-hosting the current affairs show W5, and will appear for some special event coverage. But it brings an end to his nightly television presence, and an era in Canadian broadcasting.

The goodbye has been lengthy: a year-long transition to new anchor Lisa LaFlamme that was officially announced in June 2010, and rumoured for many months before. And the commemorations are low-key, like the man himself. On Aug. 30, there will be a special Gemini award—named after another broadcasting Methuselah, Gordon Sinclair—for his lifetime contributions. (Robertson already has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, and is a member of the Order of Canada.) A one-hour retrospective—Lloyd Robertson: And That’s The Kind of Life It’s Been—directed by his daughter Lisa, will air on Sept. 1, leading into his final newscast.

After 60 years in the public eye, the story’s outlines are familiar. Robertson was a poor kid from small-town Stratford, Ont., who fell in love with broadcasting while watching a radio host cover a homecoming parade for Second World War soldiers. Blessed with a sonorous voice, he eschewed university for a job as a local disc jockey, spinning 78-rpm records (google it, kids) and hosting a request show called Uncle Lloyd’s Birthday Club. He married his high school sweetheart, Nancy, and in 1954 joined CBC television as an announcer (broadcasts had only started two years before). For more than a decade, he amiably emceed everything from quiz shows to country and western singalongs, before carving out a niche as a special events host. In 1970, he became anchor of The National. Six years later, chafing at union rules that wouldn’t allow him to report or even write his own copy, he jumped to CTV, for the unheard-of salary of $100,000 a year.

Off-screen, still married to the same woman, with four grown girls and seven grandchildren, he has long led a “dull life.” Late to bed, late to rise, porridge and papers, and a short commute from a gated Markham, Ont., community to CTV’s suburban studios. The documentary hints that things haven’t always been so placid. Robertson speaks frankly about his own mother’s mental illness and lobotomy. He was, and probably still is, a workaholic. “Mom spent many years alone,” comments one of his daughters. “Lloyd has mellowed,” says his wife. “He focuses more on the family. He’s there for the daughters 100 per cent emotionally.” What might pass as controversy—famously sharp elbows that Robertson used to lay low pretenders to his throne like Keith Morrison—is ignored.

Anything more substantial will have to wait for his memoirs, to be published in 2012. Or not. The “most trusted” man in Canadian news didn’t get where he is by causing offence. Despite his avowed desire to learn the bagpipes, now that he finally has the time.