Napanee Guide


Jim Barber, Friday, May 14, 2010 - From the age of seven, Sally Barnes knew she wanted to be in the newspaper business.

An interest in current events, as well as perhaps a little role modelling from the fictitious Lois Lane, meant that the precocious Napanee youngster was reading every periodical she could get her hands on.

With the encouragement of teachers at Napanee District Collegiate Institute (now NDSS) she became a journalist, eventually working for The Kingston Whig-Standard, Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Telegram, Toronto Star, before crossing into the realm of politics as the press secretary for then Progressive Conservative Premier Bill Davis, before moving on to public policy work and a career in communications.

For her achievements in journalism and public policy, Barnes has been named to the 2010 Napanee District Secondary School Hall of Achievement, and will be enshrined Friday afternoon.

It all began when she was 13, and just starting her high school days.

"There were two newspapers in town at the time, of course the Napanee Beaver, and the Post-Express. And Hank Whiteman was the editor of the Post-Express, and a dear man. He hired me to write the high school column. And, at 15, I was given a week off school to cover a murder trial, and that was pretty exciting for a kid that age. And principal Charlie Froud agreed. There was no question," Barnes told The Napanee Guide from her home just outside of Kingston, where she lives with husband Fred Ross. (The couple met while bother worked at The Whig, she as a reporter, he as a photographer.)

"And there was Ralph Dale, my English teacher, who always forgave me for not always being that crazy about Shakespeare, because he knew I was reading every newspaper and magazine that I could get my hands on ... and Ralph just encouraged me, and he knew I had interests that were a bit different than most."

The murder story involved a farm hand who allegedly killed his abusive employer, heady stuff for a teenager, but it was also an auspicious blossoming of a career that would see Barnes become one of the most respected journalists of her era.

"You know, I don't know if I would have achieved as much. I would like to think I would have, if I was from a big city. I credit that high school and that town, the community, for any success that I have had in life. There's my parents of course, but it's wonderful to grow up in a small town where everyone knows you and cares about you, and I had support from just about everybody that I knew - the neighbours, the shop keepers, the editor of the little paper," she said, adding that there was a real glamour and lustre to the newspaper business in the 1960s.

"The business was so exciting and thriving, but I don't need to remind you, it breaks my heart what's happening to the business today. If I were in this generation, I don't know whether I would go into it."

Barnes said she has always considered herself to be a social activist, and felt that she could make a difference as a journalist by covering public policy and politics - things that impact the lives of everyone.

It was while she was the president of the Queen's Park press gallery in 1975, that she was asked to join the government as press secretary and communications advisor for Davis, one of most-respected premiers on Ontario history.

"The Queen's Park job was like going to heaven without dying, because it was a political thing, but I still had my foot in the media. Seven years with Premier Davis was just an unforgettable experience ... It was offered to me and I thought, 'well, what a great opportunity. I have been criticizing these guys for all these years in the press gallery, now here's a chance to get on the inside and see what it's really like, and maybe have some influence.' And that's what I did," she said.

Davis was premier from 1971 to 1984, and was the influential Minister of Education before that. It was an era of social and political upheaval that Davis was able to navigate through with a calm, steady hand, and personal mantra that 'bland works,' eschewing the sort of demonstrative histrionics that make up most political debate in Canada these days.

"I just had the greatest admiration for Bill Davis, and I still do. He has been a personal friend and mentor ... I think he would do as well today. He's wise. He's cautious, and he's very personable and has great integrity. I think it's the flamboyant people, the terribly candid people who are getting in trouble today. I think bland works better than ever, probably."

After leaving government, Barnes was named president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women, which she described as a difficult time, because she wasn't seen as radical enough of a feminist for many in the organization, although many on the right saw her as too radical.

"It was a very uncomfortable position for me. But I think we got some good things done when I was there."

In 1987, she and some former colleagues started up the communications firm, Enterprise Canada, which still exists today. Barnes stepped away about a decade ago, but is still involved in some communications consulting work, some paid, some volunteer, and has worked on every election campaign over the last couple of decades, including one for Kingston mayor Harvey Rosen.

"We just moved, we're out in the country. We're east of Kingston, on the St. Lawrence and I am, at the age of 68, just trying to find as much time as I can to spend time with my family and friends. We have nine grandchildren and wonderful friends. I meet every month with about a dozen Napanee colleagues. We all went to high school together and many of us have known each other since we left the womb. We gather the first Saturday of every month for lunch at Aunt Lucy's," Barnes said, reiterating the point about the importance of where she grew up.

"If it hadn't been for the town and the school, I don't know where I would be today, but I somehow don't think I would have done as well."