There are two things you should probably know about my friend Charles King and why he would be really bugged by this blog post.
1. It's about him. Charles, a rare breed in Ottawa, wasn't a big seeker of attention.
2. It's written in the past tense. This city lost a very good man early this morning, far too early all together, in fact, when Charles, at the age of 47, passed away after a battle with cancer. That feels very unfair and ridiculous. And trust me, nothing bugged Charles more than unfairness and ridiculousness.
So even though what I'm about to say would bug Charles, and even why many of you reading this blog may not have known him, I'd like to use this space to try to explain what we've lost; why Ottawa feels a bit sadder, a bit more subdued today.
Charles King (R) with Patrick Kennedy (L) at the 2010 Politics and the Pen dinner. Photo courtesy of Writers' Trust.
Charles, in his most recent job, was the vice-president of government relations for Shaw Communications. Before that, he worked for years at the prestigious Earnscliffe Strategy Group. He wasn't one of those strategists you saw on TV, however. Charles, as I said, worked diligently to get attention for others and other causes, but not for himself. (I think that's what made him good.) Don't get the idea he was some shrinking violet, however -- quite the opposite. Everyone seemed to know Charles, and admire him -- across all kinds of divides in this fractious political universe.
I first met Charles more than 20 years ago, when he was in his early 20s and working as an assistant in the Liberal party's national headquarters. I soon realized, as others did, that Charles wasn't the first stop in the search for information at Liberal party central, but the last stop. He knew everything, and bonus, he was hilariously non-deferential. No sucking up to the media, ie: "What the hell (or worse expletive) do you want to know that for?" Fluently bilingual, brought up in Northern Ontario, he could tell you to take a hike (or worse expletive), charmingly, in French and English.
I remember when Jean Chretien's communications director, Peter Donolo, started having to deal with Liberal Party HQ more extensively in advance of the 1993 election. We were talking on the phone one day and he said: "You know Charles King? He's amazing. He's the Radar O'Reilly (M*A*S*H reference) of the Liberal party." (For those too young to recognize the 1980s-TV allusion, Donolo was talking about Charles' ability to know/find anything in the Liberal universe.)
After the Liberals won the 1993 election, Charles moved on, appropriately, to bigger and better things -- in Lloyd Axworthy's office, with the Canadian cable broadcasters' association, and then with Earnscliffe during some interesting years.
Though many of the key players at Earnscliffe were associated with Paul Martin's Liberals through the 1990s, somehow Charles became one of the few partisans in Ottawa who did not get tied up with one faction or another.
I came to rely on Charles as a precious voice of balance amid all those Liberal feuds of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He didn't choose neutrality simply because he had beloved friends on both sides (which he did.) Typically for Charles, he chose to stay in the middle because the excesses on both sides were pissing him off. Though an extremely forgiving sort, Charles wasn't the type to tolerate a lot of ridiculousness, as mentioned. And silly partisan games and hyperbole were ridiculous to him.
By luck, in the very heat of much of the past Liberal drama, I chose Charles as my "date" for the 2002 Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner. This event, some might remember, was held on the very same weekend as the famous showdown between Martin and Chretien, which resulted in Martin quitting/getting quit/whatever from Chretien's cabinet the next day. That gallery dinner, held at the National Arts Centre, was filled with intrigue and gossip, and I just happened to be there with one of the few people in town who straddled both sides; who was hearing all the rumours from all quarters that night. It wouldn't be the first or last time that it made Charles a perfect source for analysis of Liberal party dynamics and dysfunction.
Charles had triumphantly fought his first bout of cancer earlier that year, in 2002, and the gallery-dinner invitation was a celebration of sorts. We were all sure it was behind him forever, and it almost was -- until another, more worrying diagnosis late last spring.
For much of the last year, I kept forgetting that Charles was ill. I don't say this callously -- I saw him quite a bit around town, here and there, and he was his same, old self, looking good, happy to share a laugh at the latest outrage or with the funniest remark he'd heard recently. If you asked how he was doing, health-wise, he'd say something optimistic and shrug off any melodrama. I think Charles would be happy I kept forgetting. I know it bothered him to think that people were only looking at him and only seeing the big scary word, cancer, written across his forehead (metaphorically speaking.) Charles just wanted everyone to act normally around him; no bullshit.
Many of us wondered why he kept going to work, except then we'd remember that hard work and diligence defined Charles. I'm sure he was a bit lucky to have employers, first at Earnscliffe, then at Shaw, who were unbelievably supportive through his health struggles. But that can't be a coincidence -- I think they felt lucky to have him too. I think we all felt a bit lucky to know Charles.
Most of the health updates about Charles in the past months came from gracefully eloquent emails sent out to his many friends by his wife, Kelly Mounce. I wish I could show you the vast range of people on the email list; the sheer number and variety of friends who were hanging on every word, cheering every bit of good news, trying to play down the gathering shadows of bad news.
It should be noted, and not just because I am one, how many women were on that list. Charles had an amazing number of strong women friends; he seemed to enjoy the company of women as much as the often-raucous gang of men friends he hung out with. It was no surprise to us that he would fall in love with and marry a woman like Kelly, who shared Charles' no-nonsense attitude and appreciation for fun, friends and laughter. Of course I'm writing this blog post for her too; to let her know we're still standing with her.
There will be a formal service later this week in Ottawa, which will provide a vivid picture of all of those people whose lives were touched by Charles King. I'm just one of them, giving him the attention he never sought, at a far-too-early date and with a finality many of us feared.
I've always thought there should be more people like Charles King in Ottawa. Now I'd be happy if there was still just one.