There is a dwindling number of those who worked in television from its early days of low-definition black and white images on screens that today, would seem ridiculously small. In Hamilton, the Tom Cheringtons, Norm Marshalls, Dick Beddoes’s — legends in their day, are long gone. But less known to the Hamilton general public was Jerry Boileau, a legendary cameraman nonetheless, who died in Hamilton at age 91. Of CHCH’s then galaxy of local stars, Jerry knew them all, photographed them all, bailed some of them out of scrapes, and was everyone’s favorite confidante. Not only did he know the TV stars, but in Hamilton and Toronto he was on a first-name basis with politicians of all stripes, broken down journalists, business people, professional athletes and a wide variety of local characters, big and small.
Born in Northern Ontario, Jerry pursued a career as an up-and-coming boxer. He arrived in Hamilton in the late 40’s and took part in bouts around southern Ontario and into the United States. They used to install a boxing ring over the swimming area at Jimmy Thompson Pool and Jerry would fight there. When he wasn’t boxing. Jerry worked at Westinghouse which sponsored his boxing as well. He lived in Hamilton’s North End and encountered another boxer of the same age, Frank Papalia, who fought in the same circuit as Jerry, and went on to other pursuits later. He was a friend of Hamilton boxer Patsy Brandino who had a lengthy career, as a lightweight—all 5ft. 4 inches of him. At some point Jerry became friends with Jake Lamotta, who later was immortalized in the film Raging Bull.
Television Career Begins
But as the boxing career wound down and with a young family, Jerry started looking for something new. He had always been interested in photography and somehow that led him to the relatively new CHCH TV, where he was hired by then news director Ron Ellis. It was a time when there were no community colleges to train fledgling TV crews –they learned on the job. Jerry tackled every assignment he was handed, from covering the war in Cyprus, the Martin Luther King march in Washington, countless political conventions and every visit by a Canadian Prime Minister, celebrity or big shot to Hamilton or Toronto. When not doing that, he shot film for local commercials between news assignments.
Jerry started out shooting black and white silent film on a variety of spring-loaded cameras, and graduated through the CP-16 sound camera which was introduced during the Vietnam war. Later he was the first at CHCH to work with videotape through its various iterations until he retired in 1991.
As CHCH increased the size of its news operation, more photographers were added to the roster and by the early 1980’s when this writer joined CHCH, Jerry was in charge of a large crew of photographers, with a fleet of cruisers and lots of equipment. As head photographer, Jerry’s authority was never questioned. Jerry quickly taught a young journalist with a radio background the ins and outs of telling stories on TV.
Reporters used to fight over who would get paired with Jerry on a shoot, not only because of his meticulous camera work, but because he was such great company. Reporters can be prima donnas at times (at times!) and on the long rides to assignments, Jerry would listen patiently to their grievances and offer the odd soothing word. Beyond that he stayed out of office politics. The news cruiser was Jerry’s confessional—what was said there, stayed there.
Shooting the sports stars and events
Gerry was at his best on the road. For years he would combine visits to his winter home in Florida with shooting the Blue Jays Spring training camp. During that time he shot interviews by reporter Fred Anderton with pretty much every major league baseball star of the early 1980’s—Dave Stieb, Johnny Bench, Fergie Jenkins, Rusty Staub—you name it.
Mentoring a female sports reporter
Kathy Renwald, who was one of the first female sports reporters in Canada, before she went on to a successful career as an independent television producer remembers her first meeting with Jerry Boileau. She recalls:
I was sent to cover the Blue Jays opening day April 7, 1977, as an audition if you can believe it for a sports reporting job at CHCH-TV. I was working in radio at CKOC and had no TV experience. Lucky that I was paired up with cameraman Jerry Boileau. We drove in his Volvo to the stadium-which I thought was pretty swank, and covered that memorable game in a near blizzard. It’s possible that we even had time to stop for lunch on the way back to the newsroom, because Jerry had his priorities right. I remember it as an exciting, fun day-which describes many times working with Jerry. He was a kind, patient man, and he knew everybody in sports then. A woman sports reporter in 1977 was a rare thing, but Jerry’s ease with people and knowledge of the scene was a great help to me starting out. We had many interesting talks driving to assignments, my favourites being anything to do with boxing. As a former boxer Jerry was on a first name basis with the type of character rarely encountered now in sports-George Chuvalo, Irv Ungerman, Nicky Furlano-people that were larger than life and totally unguarded when interviewed. He was a great guide and a great guy.
The Italy Trip
This writer hit the road with him on a trip to Italy. Somehow, we were approached for news coverage by a group of coroners holding a convention in Hamilton, and one of their workshops was to try to sort out the forensics of the Shroud of Turin—the supposed burial cloth of Christ. One thing led to another, and we wangled, through Hamilton ethnic television impresario Emilio Mascia, a contra deal with Alitalia, not only to get us to Italy, but to fly us around the country, because we tacked on an additional assignment, covering the aftermath of an earthquake in Southern Italy. Hamilton’s Labourers International Union had organized relief fundraising for the disaster. In the week we were gone, we covered a lot of ground-Rome, Naples, Calabria, Turin and Milan. We, (correction, Jerry), shot hours of tape and we got two entirely forgettable documentaries out of it; forgettable not because of Jerry’s work but because of the inexperience of the producer. Being a good Canadian of a certain age, Jerry’s favorite drink was Canadian rye and coke. Just because he was in Italy, Jerry saw no need to change his regimen. Ever resourceful, Jerry spotted a wine shop across from our Rome hotel and managed to make the proprietor understand what he wanted. The clerk took out one of those long bamboo poles with jaws on it and fished down a dusty bottle of Wisers from the top shelf.
There is no getting around saying that Jerry was a good-looking guy, to both men and women and (without detracting in any way from his generally modest demeanor), Jerry knew it. The boxing had not marred his rugged movie star features, reminiscent of a Charles Bronson. Women were attracted to him, and Jerry, twice widowed, appreciated their company.
Jerry may have been the best-dressed news photographer in the entire Dominion –leather jackets, expensive-looking overcoats, suits and always shined shoes. The classic photo of the day is the one with Jerry, impeccably groomed, clad in suit, tie and London Fog overcoat, gleaming shoes, climbing a telephone pole to get a better shot of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on a visit to Hamilton.
When Jerry retired in 1991, the industry he knew from its infancy was also undergoing structural change. TV stations that had been founded by local families (like CHCH was with Ken Soble), were being swallowed up by bigger players. CHCH was in the midst of a series of money-losing years and being sold to a succession of larger broadcasters.
Jerry enjoyed more than 20 years of generally healthy and happy retirement, alternating between Florida and a sprawling summer home on Gloucester Pool in Muskoka. He was in declining health in his last few years, but before entering a retirement facility he went on one last major world cruise with an old friend. Though he hated getting old, Jerry Boileau had lived the fullest life imaginable, mostly on his own terms. Jerry had been a witness to history, an adventurer, a great friend to many and just a helluva guy.