A career spent being curious about Vancouver Chuck Davis catalogues every tidbit of city history By Dan Rowe Vancouver Sun February 20, 2010
The cliches of the television coverage of any Olympics are, by now, obvious to most viewers: the profiles introducing us to hitherto-anonymous athletes, the elaborate sets and hyperbolic announcers, the timpani-heavy martial theme music (replaced this year, by CTV at least, by a cloying soft-pop tune) and, finally, the vignettes designed to expose couch-bound viewers to the host city's history and culture.
For the most part, the CTVRogers consortium hasn't seen the need to air these localcolour segments. NBC, however, has attempted to convey some of Vancouver's essence to its U.S. audience.
During the opening ceremony, Matt Lauer was heard intoning over an aerial shot of the city's downtown that Vancouver is known as the "city of glass."
About a year ago, a Sports Emmy Award-winning team of NBC producers, including Joe Gesue, editorial director for NBC Sports and Olympics, came to Vancouver to start working on stories about the city.
"When we first began to put together story ideas about the host city, my colleagues Mark Levy, Brian Brown and I visited Vancouver on a scouting trip," Gesue told me in an e-mail.
"We pretty quickly learned that one man we absolutely needed to see was Mr. [Chuck] Davis, who was kind enough to spend time with us and generously share his vast knowledge of the city and surrounding area.
"He helped kick-start our efforts to add context and local flavour to our broadcasts."
Since the mid-1970s, Chuck Davis has been gathering the history of Vancouver, piece by piece.
You can see evidence of his approach on his website, Vancouverhistory.ca.The home page is a portal to a variety of projects and more than 2,000 pages of information, including a valuable list of the best books with connections to Vancouver.
The list can be found under "Vancouver Books" on the lefthand side of the home page. Compiled with the assistance of Karen Cannon of the Friends of the Vancouver Public Library, it lists everything from the City of Vancouver's 1886 voters' list to more recent works of poetry ( e. g., Kingsway, by Michael Turner) and fiction ( e. g., The Man Game, by Lee Henderson).
"I'm a tidbit man," Davis admits. "What I'm good at is, 'You see that building over there? That was built in 1912 by So-and-So.'
"If you want to know about the effect of Asian immigration on Vancouver and what it does to the local psyche, I'm not your guy.
"I can tell you when they came, and how many came, and why their restaurants are so good."
Ironically for one who can recall so many snippets of information about Vancouver, Davis can't remember much from his meeting with Gesue and his NBC colleagues. He did, though, give them a copy of Greater Vancouver, one of the 16 books he has written.
Davis, 74, is a slice of Vancouver life in his own right. Like so many others who live in Vancouver (and so many others who chronicle its history), he wasn't born in Vancouver. He moved to the West Coast from Winnipeg in 1944 with his father. (His parents were divorced.)
"My father had been running a small confectionery in Winnipeg and the cold winters were getting to him, so he packed up everything and me," Davis recalls.
"Someone told him there were lots of stores vacant in Vancouver: 'You can find one easily.' And we got out here and there weren't any."
He and his father spent their early days in the area living in a squatter's shack in Burnaby, across the water from the Dollarton shack where Malcolm Lowry was working on his classic novel, Under The Volcano, at roughly the same time.
Here's Davis on his first memories of Vancouver: "When we left Winnipeg, there was snow that had been heaped up by the plows higher than the height of the train.
"By the time we got to Vancouver, there were flowers growing outside of the train station.
"I remember saying to my dad, 'I think we've come to the right place'."
He dropped out of school after Grade 8 and, four years later, moved to Toronto, where he worked at more than 20 jobs before he was able to join the Canadian Army at 17.
Eventually, Davis, who still has a smooth, soothing voice made for FM radio, began working as an announcer at an armed forces radio station in Germany.
It was his career in radio that brought him back to B.C. He worked in radio and TV in Victoria before signing on with the CBC in Prince Rupert and Vancouver. He also worked at a number of commercial radio stations in the Vancouver area.
In the mid-1970s, he was also writing a column forThe Province -an items column made up of briefs studded with boldfaced names -when he was struck by something he and most Vancouverites see all the time.
"I was driving across the Burrard Bridge for about the ten thousandth time and, for the first time, I really looked at that bridge, which is really beautiful."
Instead of writing his usual column, he went to the archives and researched the history of the bridge. "When I finished, the reaction was good, so I thought I'll do another one next Sunday," he says.
"I ended up doing 194 consecutive columns."
In recent years, he's written short, pithy pieces for The Vancouver Sun with titles like "80 years ago today" and "120 years ago today."
In the more than 30 years since Davis's fateful trip across the Burrard Bridge, he has dedicated his working life to learning about the history of Vancouver.
"I just love learning new things. I really am rapacious about it. . . . I suck it up like a vacuum cleaner."
His passion for writing the history of the city and his desire to make it his career is even more remarkable, considering some of the challenges he has faced.
He says only two of the 16 books he has written have been profitable. The one he published himself -- Greater Vancouver -- and shared with Gesue and the NBC producers he describes as a "financial nightmare.
"I sold something like 14,000 copies, but it cost so much to produce that I eventually ended up losing a huge amount of money. Most of the contributors to the book still haven't been paid. My business partner went into bankruptcy.
"I still have this dream of paying everybody. It's really painful. I took out a second mortgage.
"The book came out nine years ago and I'm still paying for it. It was not a happy experience, but it was great to have done the book."
In recent years, Davis has been toiling over another book, The History of Metropolitan Vancouver, which is to be published by Harbour Publishing. It has a chapter for each year of Vancouver's history since its incorporation.
Work on the project fell 16 months behind when Davis was diagnosed with three types of cancer in one month -"a trifecta," he wryly calls it.
Now that he has recovered to the point of being able to work, he has had to take on another project, a book about the mining history of B.C., so he won't be able to focus on Metropolitan Vancouver for at least a few months.
"I need to pay the mortgage and buy groceries," he says.
In the meantime, he still manages to produce new material for Vancouverhistory.ca,which he operates with technical assistance from his daughter.
In the week before the Games began, the number of visitors to the site nearly doubled, reaching between 700 and 800. To welcome them, he posted an item about famous Vancouver Olympians and a piece on the connections between each of the 50 states in the U.S. and Vancouver's history.
Even with his recent setbacks, Davis can't stop looking for tidbits that might interest U.S. network producers, other foreign visitors, Vancouverites or just himself.
"It's the thrill of the chase," he says. "It's actually the most fun I have as a writer."
I picked up Chuck's 1993 coffee-table tome on CKNW "Top Dog" this week, and once again couldn't put it down. For the next two hours I was re-reading some of the best stories about any local radio station, anywhere anytime. Fascinating stuff for anyone reared on Vancouver radio.
The Sun article tends to give Chuck's broadcast career short shrift, but I`m old enough to remember his work on CHEK TV in the 1950`s. I recall thinking at the time, this guy is something special, a cut above the average TV talking head.
I remember having the pleasure of recording Chuck's Our Vancouver audio series on CJOR ( OR 60) which ran in the early eighties and popped up again around Expo 86 which I believe Chuck did a series on as well. It's nice to see that Chuck is still going strong a true icon for Vancouver.