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Grainews founder John Clark dies in Winnipeg

ohn Clark, the founder and first editor of Grainews, passed away Jan. 18 in Winnipeg at age 81.

Born in Regina, John spent much of his early life in Kamsack, where his father Stan worked for Canada Malting. John went into plant science at the University of Saskatchewan where he received a master’s degree with the intention of being a barley breeder. Learning that was probably a surprise to anyone who met John later in his career, as I did when he hired me as a field editor in the spring of 1976. Plant breeders require the ultimate in patience as they wait years for their work to become a commercial reality, and meticulous organizational habits.

Neither were John’s strong suits. He had an idea a minute, and once they came to him he wanted them acted on as soon as possible. As for organization, the office manager lived in fear of the regular visit by the fire inspector, who took a dim view of the many stacks of paper in John’s office, always in close proximity to at least one burning cigarette.

That was at United Grain Growers in Winnipeg, where John headed the information division. Grainews started life as a free publication for UGG members, and part of the content was by and about UGG staff and directors, promoting its commercial and policy objectives.

However, John took it well beyond that. He saw a gap in the farm publication marketplace for the “how to” in grain production and marketing. He also realized that farmers would like to read articles and opinion pieces written by other farmers, and always wanted every article to contain information that would allow the reader to make an extra buck. For the first managing editor, John didn’t hire a writer, but Lin Boyes, an ag rep from Saskatchewan.

John combined those attributes of the publication with an insistence for good — although not necessarily polished — writing. Anyone who wrote for Grainews got the lecture on “Write like you speak, with short sentences and no big words.” If the columns didn’t come in that way, the writers may not have recognized them after John went to work with a ruthless “blue pencil.”

He combined his eye for good writing with a desire to find writers who didn’t mind shaking things up a bit, such as Alf Bryan, who passed away recently, and Lyle Walker. John spotted Lyle through his letters to the Western Producer, and called him up to ask if he’d write for Grainews. In addition to his still-requested pieces on old machinery, Lyle would either entertain, infuriate or both with his ruminations on metric, the wheat board, governments in general or whatever was on his mind at the time.

Like the grain business itself, Grainews was a wild and wooly place in those early days, and not only for readers. Production day tended to turn into production day(s) and nights. More than once when an edition was almost ready, John would come in and start ripping pages apart to make them look better. This was in pre-computer days, when everything had to be typeset all over again.

At some point UGG decided it would no longer foot the entire bill for Grainews and that readers would have to subscribe, which they did by the thousand, a testament to John’s winning formula. Grainews also started to accept advertising, partly because UGG was happy for the revenue but partly because the publication was so popular that advertisers wanted to be in it.

After 38 years, Grainews is still going strong, largely because it’s still following the principles John Clark set out. We’ll miss him.

Our condolences to his wife Colette, his children Stan, Lori, Wendy and Fred, and his 13 grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for a later date. †

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