As I was walking through the door of the Portadown Times office as the paper’s new deputy editor in late 2006, Victor Gordon was preparing for an altogether more daunting challenge, a heart by-pass operation.
I talked to editor David Armstrong, the long-time boss and great friend of the veteran journalist. The consensus was that Victor, who had ‘retired’ as deputy editor but had returned as a freelance, would be off until after Christmas. Perhaps he wouldn’t be back at all and we had to plan for the next few months at least without him.
Who were we trying to kid? He was back within a matter of weeks, probably against his doctor’s advice. I arrived one winter morning to find him perched in his prime window slot on the first floor, one of several mobile phones that he owned lodged to his ear. He was feverishly scribbling down notes, as if he had never been away. His next phone call was inevitably to photographer Tony Hendron, and within minutes they were disappearing out of the office, on the trail of another exclusive.
After suffering a heart attack while holidaying with his wife Elizabeth in Westport, it might have made sense for Victor to have walked away, saved himself from the stresses and strains of journalism.
Had he done so I would have been deprived of the services of one of Northern Ireland’s finest journalists, and someone who became a great friend.
David Armstrong retired in the spring of the following year, and I’ll admit, I sat a little warily in the editor’s chair, wondering what lay ahead.
Victor had been the beating heart of the Portadown Times for the best part of four decades already, his relationship with my predecessor had been so close that he, David and now retired reporter Brian Courtney were jokingly known as Portadown’s Holy Trinity, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’.
I needn’t have worried. There can never have been a journalist so fiercely loyal to his town, to his newspaper, and fortunately as editor and reporter, we were entirely on the same wavelength.
Not that it was a totally smooth ride. We had our moments, starting with my decision to axe the long-running Vic on the Box column, a page that appeared to be more about Victor venting his many frustrations than that week’s television entertainment.
He would tout his own stories as that week’s banker front page splash, and you always ran the risk of a sulk (yes he liked those!) if you went against his recommendation.
There were some mighty rows, including once when Victor told me that was it, he was walking away, and out he stormed. My heart in my mouth, I broke the news to the staff, but they seemed strangely nonplussed.
Right enough about an hour later he was back at his desk, typing furiously on his keyboard, mobile phone clasped again to his ear. Dead-pan to his face, I secretly breathed a huge sign of relief next door in the editor’s office.
Victor loved knowing that his editor depended on him. David once told him that, as his deputy editor, he should be doing more to help him out with subbing copy. After some protesting Victor agreed, only to hold back a host of his own stories the following week, leaving blank space after blank space on prime news pages.
As the week progressed, so David’s mood apparently darkened, to the point where the exasperated editor called Victor into his office. With deadline rapidly approaching, Victor had placed a metaphorical gun to David’s head: ‘If you want me to sub all this copy, there will be no more exclusives’.... There was only one winner and Victor quickly got back doing what he did best.
Victor told me this story with such regularity it surely amounted to a thinly veiled warning in my direction.
There were hilarious bouts of temper, most notably, I’m told, on the golf course, and it peaked on production day in Carn in the 1990s. No-one really remembers what the argument was about, probably just the usual editorial-advertising spat, but Victor suddenly had advertising manager Victor Kelly by the throat, editorial and production staff looking on open-mouthed. Thankfully, he let go just in time and the other Victor was decent enough not to report the matter upstairs. They joked about that episode for years to come.
Much has been written about Victor’s journalistic prowess, every line of it true. One comment stood out for me on Facebook from a leading council officer, who described Victor as the Robin Hood of journalism and admitted that “many decisions were considered and then reconsidered in the light of ‘What if Victor Gordon got to hear about it!’”
Rarely can an organisation have been subject to such scrutiny as the old Craigavon Borough Council. At times it seemed Victor knew more about the workings of the council that its own officials or councillors. He ruthlessly exposed injustice and was always scrupulously fair.
Never did you worry about having a noteworthy front-page splash, with Victor around a rabbit would invariably be pulled out the hat. What’s more he wrote beautifully and with flair, as adept as writing a heart-warming feature as a front-page hard-news story, a leader column or a Portadown football match report. This was a man who could have written for The Daily Mail, but Portadown was his passion.
Walking down Portadown main street you quickly realised the extent of his local knowledge.
Every second person stopped to gossip, blissfully ignoring the town’s newspaper editor. It’s as well I didn’t have an inferiority complex.
Away from the newsroom, he was compassionate, always willing to listen to other people’s problems. Even when I moved to the News Letter as editor in December 2015 we remained close.
He was walking the streets of Portadown on weeknights at the same time as I did in Lisburn, and one of us would ring the other. Damn I’m going to miss those heart to hearts.
I met him for the last time in the summer for coffee in Portadown town centre and it was clear that his health had deteriorated, even if the desperately sad diagnosis was still a few weeks away. But the feisty text messages continued, the spirit undimmed even if the body was failing, right up until the last.
Journalism has lost a true giant, and many of us have lost a true friend.