John Blair spent over 41 years on staff to produce the newspaper that was read throughout Virden, surrounding communities and even farther afield – the Virden Empire-Advance (VEA). He saw one printing press replaced with a newer, bigger model, which was in-turn replaced with computerized digital printing and pictures.
Blair recalls his early days in what turned out to be his first career. “I started at the bottom. I was in the casting room where you poured the hot metal onto what we called the matt.”
He began the job in 1953 when the old press in the back room churned out the news. It was a painstaking process to reproduce images for print.
As part of the production team, Blair became a compositor, working with hand-set type, and preparing photos for the printing press in the back of the original brick Empire-Advance, at the corner of Nelson Street and Eighth Ave, across the street from the current VEA office.
“I did press work.”
A new press was eventually purchased, so large it didn’t fit in the back room and was installed down below, in the cut-stone basement of the building.
In 1965 John Blair married June, the love of his life. Together they raised two boys and a girl.
Blair recalls the 1960s when Rundle McLachlan was editor/owner of the paper.
“He’d come roaring down stairs and say ‘stop the press!’ There was a mistake!”
The error was fixed and the papers began to roll out again.
“Nothing got by him.”
Rundle’s brother Bill worked there, Torben Laursen was a reporter, and a half-dozen other full and part-time staff.
After the big new press was purchased, there were heavy ‘chases’ that had to be carried downstairs to the press. (A chase is a steel frame used to hold type in a letterpress.)
“Everybody worked. It wasn’t easy work.”
Work for the next week began on a Thursday. “We used to publish on a Wednesday.”
Tuesday was the big day, and Christmas was the busiest season.
“Lots of extra pages. Back then, if you were not feeling well, you still went to work.” He paused reflectively, “Because everybody had their job. If one person didn’t show, lots of times there was nobody to cover for them.”
“We had two weeks holidays. It started out, we closed the shop. After a while we got to a point where half of us could do it, so we only closed the shop for a week.” The staff alternated taking their holidays.
Eventually he got three weeks of holidays.
The staff was treated to the odd Friday afternoon off, “Only if you wanted to go to the horse races. Rundle loved horse races.” Harness races that is.
Blair stayed with the paper into the years of transition, the early 1990s, when computers changed the printing process and the news was sent out to be printed at Dauphin, Brandon or Killarney.
Looking around the Blairs’ living room, beautifully mounted pictures and Terry McLean plates adorn the walls. Some recent custom work, framed jigsaw puzzles and a restored piece of original art are lined up against the wall.
Before Blair retired, he began to do picture framing.
“The same time Terry McLean opened up his gallery, John started picture framing,” says June. “He did most of the framing for the gallery. It was a hobby but it turned out to be a full-time job too.”
In his soft-spoken way Blair says, “I’ll be 89 in December, so I guess it’s time I quit.”
Their attached garage is a perfect place for the fine woodworking equipment, glass cutter, straightedge trimmer, under-pinner and the stock for matting, backing and framing.
A true craftsman
“Any stretching I do, I do by hand, I do everything right from scratch.”
When the McLean gallery was open, Blair was really busy framing. In three months he did 365 collector plate frames.
In his orderly workshop, Blair moves one thing out of his way - it’s his bicycle that he still rides. “Not as much as I should,” he stated.
“John’s got a good eye for colour, picking out matts,” says June. “He was doing carpentry work on the side, before [photo-framing]. It was getting pretty heavy.”
Blair snips a piece of moulding, pins it together at right angles, cuts a matt. A perfect job, all in about five minutes.
June Blair has been her husband’s helper over the years. They hope to pass the business and their knowledge on to someone local, when the time comes.
Blair says, “If you have the right equipment, you can do the job.” But there’s more to it than that. “You’ve got to have the patience too.”
Even if the framing business is laid aside, John Blair won’t be idle. The couple also plays music, John on the guitar, June on keyboard, entertaining at seniors’ residences.