Four decades of journalism have not quelled Kathy Renwald’s curiosity about the world and people around her – but it’s been a heck of a ride for the freelance writer who these days, regularly contributes to the Hamilton Spectator, the Toronto Star, some regional magazines and, as an automobile columnist, for the Bay Observer.
Kathy who was born in the Chicago suburb of Hammond Indiana was brought to Canada by the steel industry. “My parents moved to Welland where my dad managed Atlas Steel. He spent his entire life in the steel business…so we lived in many cities that were exactly like Hamilton—Erie Pennsylvania, Lima Ohio—many steel-based manufacturing towns in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California and Massachusetts.” When Kathy arrived in Welland from Cape Cod where she had been a self-described hippie, Kathy had a high school diploma and no clear idea of what she should do next. “So I went to Niagara College and took an aptitude test”. The results showed promise for a career in advertising or journalism. A cigar-smoking female journalism instructor advised Kathy against advertising. “So I took journalism at Niagara and was hired part time at CHOW in Welland.” In radio in those days the only way to get a raise was to move to larger markets, so Kathy soon left Welland for CJRN in Niagara Falls before coming to Hamilton for a two-year stint at CKOC.
Moving into television showed Kathy Renwald’s flair for taking the road less travelled. She approached then CHCH General Manager Frank Denardis, “saying I’d love to cover sports for you—I notice you don’t have a sports reporter. So he sent me to the opening game of the Blue Jays—their very first game—he said ‘cover the game as an audition’ so I strung (a story) on the air like I was a normal reporter and he hired me.” That was 1977. The only other female doing sports at that time was Christy Blatchford of the Globe and Mail.
Entering those male dressing rooms was not a pleasant experience for a young women. There was a lot of gross-out humour. “It was horrible”, Kathy recalls …”I only did it a couple of times and then (Leaf owner Harold) Ballard said no. And then I did the Tiger Cat dressing room and that was awful too, because they did not want women in the dressing room. I would try to interview someone and they (other players) would be jumping up and down—it was not appealing at all. So I started interviewing them outside the locker room. Once you got them outside they were fine—it was kind of a herd mentality—they all had to act the same way”. There were some funny moments in the dank dungeon that was Ivor Wynne stadium. “I remember being at Ivor Wynne interviewing one of the coaches, and the offices would leak water and the coach had a tray of rat poison on his desk…and his lamp—the bulb had burned through the shade and of course we incorporated that into the story; so that made me pretty unpopular with them. It was great fun.”
The 1980’s were the golden years at CHCH. TV was a money-maker then and that meant big news budgets and lots of opportunities for a sports reporter. “It was one of the best places you could ever wish to work. First of all it was wildly successful—when (late sports director) Dick Beddoes was there he ran it like the Globe and Mail sports department…how often would I have the chance to go to the Indy 500, the Americas Cup in Australia, the world cup downhill skiing in Austria when Steve Podborski won the world cup…we went to the Sarajevo Olympics—what an opportunity…you know, World Series—everything. So the job was so fantastic, to me there was nowhere else to be.”
Kathy’s work caught the notice of big-time media, but she stayed put in Hamilton. “We had so much freedom—and fun…I was offered a good job with TSN when they started…as an anchor…I said no…and I was at a Blue Jays game and a producer from NBC asked me to send in a tape,… they were looking for females at the time, but I didn’t do that either—I could have had a bigger career. I was also never interested in being an anchor and doing nothing else.
After almost a decade as a pioneering sports reporter Kathy abruptly requested a transfer to regular news reporting, where she spent the best part of a decade covering practically every kind of story. This led to her career as a gardening journalist. “I was working in the news and I loved covering agriculture…and we had just bought a house and I got interested in gardening.” Kathy started producing garden stories for the news. “We called it the 90 second gardener”. From there, Kathy approached the station about producing a weekly half-hour gardening program. “They were skeptical but they said yes,” Kathy recalls noting that the program was shot on a shoestring budget with tight deadlines. “We would shoot on a Thursday and be on the air that weekend. And we used to do 26 episodes a year and that was horrendous for something that is so dependent on the weather.” In 1977 the program was syndicated to HGTV in the US which was just getting started and was in the market for as much programming as was available.
With the garden show launched Kathy started to think about leaving the newsroom altogether and striking out on her own as an independent producer. “I was still doing (general assignment) reporting and I got this assignment about a bush party that had gone wrong and a youngster was beaten to death…and I said to myself, I don’t want to do this anymore and I decided to leave.” Steve Smith of Red Green fame advised Kathy to get control of her Gardening show. So she called a well-known entertainment lawyer in Toronto. “ He told me ‘I charge 400 bucks an hour so make sure you have all your questions ready and we’ll make it fast’. So I negotiated to get my shows by offering CHCH a percentage of any future sales I would make and they said—fine…and I left.”
They independently produced the Garden show until 2002 when a young producer at HGTV advised her that they had just seen a new phenomenon in Britain called ‘reality’ TV and that the television landscape would never be the same again. Kathy’s gardening shows were abruptly cancelled, but over the years had provided her with “great income—fabulous.” It was time to slow things down from the gruelling pace of series television. Kathy started her freelance writing career contributing articles about gardening but also homes, travel, and most recently– automotive reviews. There also was a one year interlude with the Royal Botanical Gardens.
One of the reasons Kathy has survived in journalism is that she is not afraid to take on new challenges and to embrace technology. Covering the Detroit Auto Show for the Star provides an example of the multi-tasking necessary in today’s journalism. Says Kathy, “you live Tweet, you write a blog, you take your own stills, shoot video, and file stories for print—so man, if you don’t learn all that stuff, you’re done.”
30-odd years ago–long before it was the thing to do, Kathy and Husband Bob Finlay were among the very earliest to take a chance by moving into Hamilton’s then far-from-chic north end. They purchased, and over the years, significantly renovated a beautiful property backing onto the Bay. Kathy, who has been a vocal champion of the greening of Hamilton’s West Harbour area for decades, is nonetheless
somewhat skeptical of the relatively recent influx of what some longer time north enders consider parvenus who have moved into the area and have become increasingly militant about the future of the district, particularly around the city’s proposed intensification of the area. Kathy observes, “They want to draw a moat around the North End. When I go to a lot of these public meetings some of these newcomers are rude and they treat city staffers very badly…The attitude seems to be, “I’ve got mine…you can’t have yours.”
Back to journalism, Kathy reflects that with the Internet and blogging you can stay in the game even though it is harder to make a living at it. “You don’t have to say goodbye to it…I really can’t imagine not doing it. If you can write and ask questions, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the best thing about journalism–you can call anybody in the world to get an interview with them…and the journalism is the excuse.”