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Manitoba History: J. W. Chafe: Winnipeg’s Renaissance Man

by Warren Chafe
Ottawa, Ontario

Number 57, February 2008

James Warren Chafe went by many names. To his team mates on Winnipeg’s Shamrock Baseball Club in the 1920s, he was “Chick” Chafe—a pitcher with an astonishing “roundhouse” curve. To young CJRC radio listeners from 1942 until 1947, he was “Uncle Jim” who read the funnies. To CBC listeners of the Canadian and International Services through the 1940s and 1950s he was “J. W. Chafe” the broadcaster; he was also J. W. Chafe, the educator, to his colleagues in the Winnipeg public school system. As an actor with traveling companies, he was “Jas. Chafe”, “Chick Chafe”, “Mr. Warren Chafe”, or “James Chafe.” He was “Duck” to his grandchildren and to me, he was “Dad.”

James Warren Chafe (1900-1984): actor, athlete, author, broadcaster, educator, musician, and playwright.
Source: W. Chafe

His parents were Newfoundlanders who arrived in Manitoba by train in 1892. He was born in the Rural Municipality of Springfield in 1900 where his father had begun to farm. By 1903 the family had moved into Winnipeg, where Dad attended school. He was left-handed but teachers in those days forced him to change to the other hand. Being forced to write right-handed was traumatic and he believed that it put him at great disadvantage at school and at times throughout his life. Also notable in those years was the imposition of his parents’ fundamentalist religion. His Pentecostal mother, sometimes-Pentecostal father, and their strange “holy-roller” comrades infused his mind with a skepticism of religion that lasted throughout his life.

In high school Dad began to be involved with school plays as an actor and musician. This evolved into a life-long love affair with acting, drama and playing musical instruments. In November 1919 he was a member of the cast for Macbeth staged at the Winnipeg Collegiate Institute. Graduating from high school (the only one of his family to do so), he launched into a varied career. He became, often at the same time and spanning several decades, an actor, athlete, author, broadcaster, educator, musician, and playwright. These categories broadly describe his avocations and help to focus on the depth and range of his achievements.

Chafe the Athlete

Dad often spoke and wrote of his love for the type of hockey that was played when Winnipeg and he were young. His hockey rink—an outdoor one, of course—was just west of the Winnipeg General Hospital near his home on Bannatyne Avenue. He spent many fun-filled hours there—his stories of early Winnipeg are full of names of local hockey greats and their accomplishments. [1] He revered their talents because, as a skinny teenager himself, he admired athletic skill over brawn. Later in life he developed strong views about the loss of skill in hockey as a result, he felt, of decades of dominance by the NHL. Lacrosse was also a favourite sport in his early years as was speed skating. One of his feats was jumping over wooden barrels on speed skates at Sherbourne Rink. Dad said he was “pretty fair” at it but not as good as the fellow who set a record by jumping over thirty-five barrels. Dad also played competitive tennis and badminton in his thirties and both became social sports later in his life.

During his late teens Dad became a pitcher for several teams around Winnipeg and in June 1921 he pitched in the Winnipeg Senior Men’s Amateur baseball league. His team was the “Granites” with whom he set a pitching record that would stand for decades. Most batters were right-handed and were uncomfortable facing a southpaw pitcher who could float a slow ball with a massive breaking inside curve just before the plate. The Free Press reported, after a 1921 game, that:

The chief attraction proved a young pitcher, with a freak ball. Chick Chafe is the name of this young phenom, and in breaking into senior company the youngster had the honor of creating a new strikeout record for the league, when he whiffed nineteen … batters in nine rounds of play and incidentally helped defeat the “Freighters” 12 to 3 in a long drawn-out amateur baseball contest. This boy Chafe … shot up a slow curve ball, which was so slow and broke so wide that one fan very properly named it “the stopover.” Whatever the name it proved a mighty effective curve … (as) the ball seemed to have an uncanny habit of nestling in the catcher’s big pad. [2]

So memorable was this record that, thirty years later, the same paper reported on an experiment designed to show whether a pitcher’s slow curve ball really drops away quickly as it approaches the plate—or whether the drop is merely an optical illusion. The results showed that there was indeed a deviation from the normal trajectory of the missile. Dad was described as:

a respectable school teacher and radio broadcaster to little children, [and] was in those days a thoroughly annoying, not to say subversive fellow. What made him especially detestable was the fact that he was a left-hander and the possessor of the biggest roundhouse in-curve ever seen before or since in Winnipeg. In a regulation game at Wesley Park back in the early 1920s, he was in the most effective form. That maddening curve was the means of his striking out 19 batters in the nine-inning game; and it was some weeks before these victims were able to straighten out their backs, twisted as they were almost into the shape of corkscrews from vainly reaching after the elusive ball half way to Balmoral Street … In all the years since then … no Winnipeg senior pitcher has ever duplicated Mr. Chafe’s distressing feat [to the batters]. [3]

Much later, about 1948, Dad pursued golf with a zeal bordering on obsession. As a beginner he struggled with lessons, but as with everything else he took up, the struggle was part of the higher ground to be gained. His ability grew in leaps through self-study and prolonged practice so that later, with some talent acquired, he was gratified with a profound sense of achievement. He then played at every possible opportunity over the next thirty years. His wife became a “golf widow” and I was a “golf orphan.” Dad enjoyed the social side of the 19th hole but without the drinking, no doubt as a result of his religious upbringing.

In the 1950s, Dad took up figure skating. He and his family belonged to a local social club that had a large rink. He had always been a good skater but as a hockey player and speed skater. Now he rose to the challenge of learning to do waltzes and foxtrots on the ice. His love of music and his athletic sense of timing were a help in learning to ice dance. There was a synergy in this sport that appealed to him and he persisted at a beginner level for several years.

After finding himself exhausted from touring exhibits at Expo 67 in Montreal, Dad realized that he was in poor physical shape. Back home he pored over the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Five Basic Exercises and took up jogging. After “sticking with it” (his memorable words used in many uphill battles) at age 68 he found he could, at first, run short and eventually longer distances. He worked up to three miles, three times a week until he was about 78. When winter made running outside treacherous he worked out on a stationary cycle or he jogged back and forth across the basement floor of his home clad only in his underwear. With gusto Dad would recite poetry and Shakespearean soliloquies aloud as he ran. This annoyed my mother no end.

“Chick” Chafe pitched for the Shamrock Baseball Club in 1920.

“Chick” Chafe pitched for the Shamrock Baseball Club in 1920.
Source: W. Chafe

Chafe the Actor

After a year or two of amateur acting in Winnipeg during the early 1920s, Dad got bitten by the professional acting bug. He saw a billboard in 1924 that advertised for actors to work in the USA and so, traveling first to North Dakota and later to New York, he followed his dream. Bit parts gradually grew into larger roles. In four years, he traveled over 50,000 miles and performed in over a hundred plays, moving progressively to better theatre companies and gaining experience. Toward the end of the ‘20s he began to feel a need to go home and do something “important”—to him this meant becoming a school teacher. Acting companies were about to be upstaged by “the talkies,” moving pictures with sound. His desire for a new career and the decline of traveling acting companies coincided.

The second phase of Dad’s acting career occurred in his 50s when he played a minor role and co-directed the musical South Pacific for the Manitoba Theatre Centre. In January 1961, he played a part in another MTC production The Biggest Thief in Town with Winnipeg’s Jim Duncan and Arnold Spohr. He also acted in local television plays through the next decade.

Puttin’ on the ritz. J. W. Chafe as an actor in New York, 1928.

Puttin’ on the ritz.
J. W. Chafe as an actor in New York, 1928.
Source: W. Chafe

Chafe the Educator

Dad returned to Winnipeg in the spring of 1929. In evenings and on weekends he played baseball in Wesley Park (no records but laudable reports from the press about his pitching), he acted in plays at the Dominion Theatre, and he played the trombone in a local orchestra. After a brief stint selling shoes for the Hudson’s Bay Company, he entered “Normal School” (a one-year provincial teaching program) to become a teacher that fall. He taught for a year then, in 1930, became assistant principal at Norwood Collegiate. He moved the next year to Taché High School and on to General Wolfe and Norwood Collegiate. In his spare time, he dated fellow teacher Georgina Swanton, and they married in 1934. He continued to teach while completing his BA (1935) and BEd (1938) part time in the evening.

In 1938, after accepting a teaching exchange position in New Zealand, Dad sailed with my mother and two year-old sister across the Pacific Ocean. In true Chafe fashion, he kept a journal of life on board ship for the three-week journey. He wrote that he taught English to a number of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany. In New Zealand he was assigned to schools in Christchurch and then Auckland. Ever the inquisitive writer, he was fascinated by the Maori culture and later wrote factual documentaries and a radio play about Maori life for Canadian and overseas radio. Returning to Winnipeg, in the early 1940s Dad started teaching Canadian history and English at Gordon Bell High School and, as a small part of the War effort, helped to organize the student Air Cadets. He also taught drama, directed school plays and, outside of school time, began to write plays for local radio stations CJRC and CBC. Over the next eleven years he produced more than 100 radio programs, many of which were broadcast on the CBC’s International Service. He, like others, was impressed by Gordon Bell’s outspoken and charismatic principal, O. V. Jewitt, about whom he wrote a newspaper article on Jewitt’s retirement in 1955. The article was later aired on an episode of the program Points West on CBC radio. In 1958, accompanied by my mother and me, Dad went to western Germany to teach high school at the Department of National Defense School of the Third Fighter Wing, Royal Canadian Air Force, in Zweibrücken. In his two years there he determinedly studied and practiced speaking German at every opportunity.

Dad became the principal of Alexandria Elementary School in 1951 then moved to Norquay Elementary from 1955 until 1958. Near the end of his term at Norquay, he realized a golden opportunity for his pupils on the occasion of the last run of Winnipeg’s streetcars down Main Street on almost the same day as the closing of the old Norquay School building just off Main Street at Euclid. He gathered his pupils along Main Street to wave farewell to the last street car and, in a memo to teachers that morning, showed the similarities between Norquay School and the city street railway:

Year

Street Railway

Norquay School

1882

First horse-car

School (wooden building) opened

1890

Horse & car-barn burned

Wooden school burned

1892

First electric cars on 5 September

New (present) school opens on 5 September

1955

Last electric car on 19 September

Last classes held in present school on 30 September

Dad remained in the Winnipeg public school system until his retirement as principal of Mulvey Elementary in June 1966. Interestingly, Mulvey was in the same building and facilities as Gordon Bell High School had been twenty years before where he had been a teacher there.

Chafe the Author

Dad was a prolific author of articles, scripts, and books produced in two periods: from the early 1940s to 1950, and from 1967 to 1973. Writing in evenings, on weekends and during holidays, his seven history books—all published— were as follows:

Early Life in Canada. In 1943, this little hard-covered book, written in collaboration with fellow educator Sybil Shack, was published by Ryerson Press of Toronto. The book was part of the “Guidebook Series in Social Studies.” Set in a mythical Pleasant Valley School somewhere in Manitoba, it featured an on-going narrative of questions and answers between a fictional Miss Gordon and her 8-10 year old students.

We Live Together, A Study in Inter-Dependence. This 36- page monograph was a fictional and historical study written for 8 to 10 year olds. Published in 1944 by Copp Clark of Toronto, it was a tale of two young boys, Bill and Bob, who learn about economic inter-dependence in Canadian society. Its chapters presented “lessons” for the boys who travel across Canada to see the world around them for the first time. Their exposure varies from grandparents to industry workers to service providers in society.

Canada - A Nation And How It Came To Be. In the mid-1940s Dad collaborated with United College history professor A. R. M. Lower (1889-1988) to produce a textbook for the anglophone Canadian high school market. First released in 1948, the book was reprinted in 1958, 1961, 1963, and 1964. It was the standard Grade 11 and 12 textbook in Ontario and the Prairie Provinces for many years. The book emphasized to teachers (and urged students to accept) three major themes: first, that Canada is a geographical monstrosity and provides a strange bed for the union of two of the most incompatible and stubborn cultures in the world, French and English, and that despite fundamental differences, they “do rub along together.” Second, it stressed that Canada had become a proud and sovereign nation with her own distinct social values despite the dual influences of Great Britain and the United States. And finally, it took the view that Canada has acquitted herself well through two world wars, and had formed herself into a competitive industrial nation high in the ranks of progressive countries.

Canada, Your Country. This easy-to-read textbook, published in 1950, was targeted at junior high school students. It covered Canadian history from the Vikings, through to Jacques Cartier and the early French settlements, to the years immediately after Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. Upbeat, clearly written, and with many “How to…” projects for young students, the book ended by noting that an individual could play a small but significant part in influencing public policy and improving this country.

An Apple for the Teacher, A Centennial History of the Winnipeg School Division. Published in 1967, this historical narrative commemorated the centenary of the School Division No. 1 in which he attended school and later taught. He had been commissioned by the School Board “to preserve for the future” the major events and some lighter moments in the development of the city’s public schools. The book focused on the many people who nurtured the educational system along the road, and it was also a history of Winnipeg through the years.

Chalk, Sweat and Cheers, A History of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society was published for the Society’s fiftieth anniversary in 1969, following two years of intensive research and assistance from fellow teachers. Dad was selected to lead the project because, in the words of the Society’s President, of his “long and distinguished teaching career not only as a recognized writer, but a character in the history he relates.” His complex story of the MTS told of the evolution of the Province, the livelihood of teachers, and the fights for a rise in educational standards. It was thorough and detailed, ending with a severe reminder that, despite technological advances and innovations, teachers remain at the core of education.

Extraordinary Tales From Manitoba History. After the seriousness of the above two union histories, Dad welcomed the challenge provided to him by the Manitoba Historical Society. This delightful little book, published in 1973 by McClelland & Stewart under the auspices of the MHS with a grant from the Manitoba Centennial Corporation, skimmed “lightly through the pages of Manitoba’s long story”, and told tales of history in which early Manitobans have done things—unusual, tragic, funny things—that are not taught in schools but “perhaps should be.” It was an eclectic collection of stories—amusing, lively and often irreverent accounts of human episodes in the Province’s earlier years—that have been told before, but which he “warmed up” a bit. From the fight for furs and trading monopoly, to the Riel rebellion, and to the long-traveling bells of the St. Boniface Cathedral, the collection combined anecdote, comic opera, fun and farce.

In his seventies, Dad wrote several books of historical fiction but none was published. Two were set in Assiniboia in the early 1800s. Another was located in the interior of British Columbia in the 1970s and crafted as a science fiction novel with a historical bent. For him, the fun and challenge was in the planning and word crafting, not in its ultimate commercial success or potential to make money. In the late 1970s, he began to write his autobiography. It was to be another history book, his eighth, entitled When We Were Young: Winnipeg and I covering the years 1900 to about 1919. Although he worked on it until almost the day he died, the manuscript was never published. Instead, excerpts were published in a local weekly Seniors Today. Over forty of these articles appeared from 16 June 1982 until 14 June 1984, after he had died. Each article was an intriguing vignette of Winnipeg life in the early twentieth century.

Dad was acutely aware of Canada’s growing independence from England and he had written extensively about it in his books. Canada’s membership in the League of Nations, her appointment of diplomats to foreign countries, the 1931 passage of the Statute of Westminster which allowed Canada to conduct its own affairs abroad, and the experience of the Second World War—all these and other smaller steps—had elevated Canada to new levels of independence. As an observant bystander, Dad was enormously proud of his country and believed he was fortunate to be able to write about this evolution. In 24 May 1955, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s birthday, he called the local press to his school office. He proceeded to repudiate the long-practiced celebration in Canada of her birthday. “Canadians should be celebrating Canada’s birthday, not the birthday of this long-dead English Queen,” he proclaimed with certitude. The press deemed his opinion newsworthy and had a small field day with it. Local reaction was swift. There were many calls to our home and few were supportive. Then came the knock on the door. A “burly ape,” in his words, had arrived to defend the honour of the Empire. Dad managed to dissuade him. Ten years later, the federal government adopted the distinctive new Canadian flag and in 1982 proclaimed Canada Day in celebration of the nation’s birthday. Dad felt vindicated and so pleased!

An Apple for the Teacher.
Chafe used old classroom registers, among other documents, in writing his 1967 book on the centenary of the Winnipeg School Division.
Source: W. Chafe

Chafe the Broadcaster

From 1942 to 1947 Dad read the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday comic strips over CJRC radio. This station called upon young Winnipeg listeners “to listen when ‘Uncle Jim Reads The Funnies’ while mother prepared the evening meal in peace.” He taped them every Saturday morning. Initially they aired on Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. and in the later years on Sunday mornings. In the late 1940s he produced and moderated “Junior Jury,” a live radio program on CJRC. The Jury comprised four bright young people, aged 11 and 12. They would listen to “Uncle Jim” read a letter from a young writer seeking social advice about a family or adolescent problem, then they would offer advice, opinions and solutions on the spot. It is possible that he wrote these letters himself. The show lasted one or two seasons. Between 1951 and 1954 he wrote and broadcast some fifteen pieces for the CBC International Service. These included forays into women’s history in the west for the program Pioneer Women of the West, and ten radio broadcasts for the CBC National Services on such topics as “Food - Canadian Food!”, “Prairie Landmarks”, and “Lower Fort Garry”. Three “Go West” pieces under the CBC’s Those Were the Days program and a large number of short talks under various program names were broadcast between 1951 and 1965. In 1957 and 1958, he interviewed a number of interesting characters for CBC’s Roving Reporter program, including the Warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary, a famous Canadian owner of racing pigeons, and Mrs. Daisy Gainsford, granddaughter of Sir John A. Macdonald. The interviews aired locally and sometimes internationally.

Dad wrote six radio plays that aired, mostly on CBC local and International Services, between the early 1940s and the mid-1950s. He played the characters in some of the parts, learning the accents and dialects as he went along. One play was A Trapper’s Tale, a comic narrative set in the north featuring a French Canadian trapper, his Scottish buddy with a thick brogue, an attractive blue-eyed blonde, a Mountie and a … well, a pet skunk. It was a love story of sorts, written in rhyming verse reminiscent of Robert W. Service. The story was straightforward, ending happily, and was totally inoffensive. He played the part of the trapper. Another of his radio plays was The Amazing Adventures of Peter Radisson!, produced for CBC Radio in thirteen episodes. The story, set in the 1600s, was for ten year olds and focused on liberally-interpreted aspects of Peter’s capture by Iroquois, attacks by wild and hungry wolves and by equally wild and money-hungry Englishmen. The story aired in May to June 1950. The Adventures of John Tanner, White Indian was another historical play about a fourteen year old boy, John Tanner, born “near Lake Ontario” about 1800, who had adventures as an adopted Chippewa Indian in Lord Selkirk country, that is, in Manitoba. The boy’s almost unbelievable experiences were of the sort written in that era to capture the imagination of youngsters. The program aired in 1951. Small Town Teacher was a CBC radio play, possibly not produced, about a young teacher in fictitious Turnerville, Manitoba. Then he wrote Arctic Adventure in thirteen episodes in 1952, intended for six to ten year olds. A young Air Cadet survived an air crash in the Northwest Territories and was rescued by “white,” that is, blond Eskimos (Inuit). He lived with them as a family member, and had adventures with a walrus, polar bears, wolves, and icebergs. It was recorded in May to July 1951 but I do not know if it aired. New Zealand Adventures, also with thirteen episodes, was written in the early 1940s for CBC radio, after his exposure to aboriginal culture in New Zealand in 1938-39. It was a fictional work about two young boys, one Canadian and the other Maori, who experience incredible adventures in and on the South island of New Zealand.

Chafe the Musician

In his early high school days Dad learned to play the trombone in the orchestra. As a sixteen year-old he took up street-corner playing with Winnipeg’s Salvation Army Band, again with the trombone. There were stories in the family of his playing across from ale houses and the like on Logan and up and down Main Street. The Salvationists were seen as “do-gooders,” of course, and this perhaps appealed to him as he may well have been searching for approval from his Pentecostal parents. He could also chord on the piano and, at family gatherings, he would dig deeply into his sing-along repertoire and play a variety of pieces. One that I remember particularly was “Has Anybody Seen My Cat?” that he would spontaneously chord and make up silly rhyming verses as he went along.

Conclusion

Dad was always doing something—often things unfamiliar to him—but he took on challenges and mastered them. He continued to live this way until practically the day he died. In the winter of his 83rd year he was still writing daily to complete the manuscript of his autobiography. In it, he reflected on his life’s achievements:

As a young fellow, I was a nut on sports. Spent too much time on them: hockey, speed skating, and baseball. In only one did I attain any distinction; as a pitcher I achieved a strike-out record that made me famous—temporarily … Then, I became a nut on the theatre. With much more success; for five years I made a good living acting—all over the States. Came the Depression, theatre folded, and I switched from the ‘glamorous’ to the ‘dull’—teaching. And found it far from dull; in fact, soon decided that, well, maybe that’s what I was born for. I spent three years abroad: a year in New Zealand, teaching—and seeing that wonder-world; two in Germany teaching, but spent a lot of the time learning the language. Then for twenty years after age forty, I did a lot of “after four o’clock” radio. Children’s programs: for five years I read the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday comics on Saturday morning radio; and wrote and read a hundred or so stories from Canadian political and social history. Adult programs: I acted in dramas; broadcast prairie news to England; interviewed oldtimers—one, the granddaughter of Sir John A. Macdonald. And in my “spare” time, I wrote seven history books. All this, of course, while carrying on as teacher and principal. And why did I do it? I guess it was the challenge; to be able to look forward to the moment when I could say: ‘I doo’d it!’

A true “renaissance man,” my Dad, James Warren Chafe, died on 27 April 1984, at age 83.

Notes

1. Chafe cited such Manitoba “greats” as Goalie “Stonewall” Byron, defenseman Bobbie Benson (at 135 pounds), Connie Johanneson, Slim Halderson, Captain Frank Frederickson, and Mike Goodman. They were primarily second generation Icelanders from Gimli who had enlisted and went overseas with the 223rd Battalion. J. W. Chafe, “When Winnipeg Won the Hockey Olympics,” Winnipeg Free Press, 17 March 1964.

2. Winnipeg Free Press, 24 June 1921.

3. W. H. Metcalfe, “The Brain and Mr. Chafe,” Winnipeg Free Press, 30 May 1952.

Page revised: 21 January 2018

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