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Remembering a great civic debater

It takes a certain type of person to endure a day’s worth of newspaper deadlines and stresses only to retreat home to the tube for four hours of live city council meetings.

It takes a certain type of person to endure a day’s worth of newspaper deadlines and stresses only to retreat home to the tube for four hours of live city council meetings.

While ‘crazy’ might be a good guess, in Sue Gawlak’s case it was a passion for politics, especially the local variety, which she knew had the greatest day-to-day impact on citizens and was the most accountable and respondent to feedback. Over the course of a 25-year career at the Gazette, including 18 as editor, Sue did her darnedest to hold council accountable while at the same time offering her own opinions and suggestions on how things should be done.

The first time I met Sue was during my job interview for the city hall reporter position at the Gazette. We talked about the usual job interview stuff, strengths, weaknesses, goals, etc. until we got to the subject of local politics. Sue asked me about some of the top issues I was covering from municipal councils in central Alberta, where I worked at the time. In typical Sue fashion her queries both tested my knowledge and passion and reflected her own genuine interest in engagement and talking about issues that transcend municipal boundaries. As soon as the words ‘intermunicpal development plan’ left my mouth her eyes lit up. We’d found our common ground.

It was a scene we’d repeat almost daily over the next three years, without a doubt my favourite part of the job. We’d discuss unexpected motions from the previous night’s council meeting, who was grandstanding and who didn’t do their homework and where to focus news coverage. She’d also use that time to bounce around ideas for editorials, an avenue she’d employ to flex her skills at creating a public discourse. Every issue was fair game, city raises, an ill-advised ploy to sell off the naming rights of St. Albert’s hockey heroes, to a supportive stance for the west bypass during a never-ending debate, to views on the city’s underappreciated volunteer sector.

Editorials are often written with input from others, and Sue was great at incorporating other opinions to make a sound argument, even if she didn’t 100 per cent agree. But most times a Sue editorial was just that: it was Sue through and through. She called it as she saw it even if someone somewhere — usually a red-faced city councillor — found it temporarily unpleasant. Sometimes she’d seek a second opinion to see if she was being too harsh which happened from time to time. More often her editorials were tough, but fair. That was Sue.

Social issues like affordable housing were close to Sue’s heart, partly influenced by growing up in a family of modest means in England. As much as Sue loved St. Albert there were aspects of the community she found troubling, including the rising cost of housing and property taxes that put the city out of reach for a large portion of seniors and young people, including her own kids. If council was paying the issue lip service, she wasn’t afraid to say so, especially around election time. Sometimes her editorial positions raised the ire of neighbours, as was the case during the last round of Arlington Drive debates in 2005, when Sue, who lived in the area, supported a proposed seniors’ assisted living complex. When the angry phone calls came in with accusations of ‘you must not live in Akinsdale,’ she just smiled and jumped into the debate.

Despite her ability to engage through her pen, Sue also enjoyed her privacy. People with an active interest in the community, especially its political and volunteer scene, of course knew Sue, but much of her work as editor went unnoticed by the larger community. Readers were accustomed to an award-winning newspaper with top-notch writing, photos and opinion and didn’t think too much about why it was that way, which is how it should be. Sue loved her job — she wasn’t in it for the byline. She enjoyed putting out a great product, which she did without fail. The St. Albert Gazette and everyone at this newspaper is better off for knowing Sue Gawlak. And so is St. Albert.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette.