Sebastian Vettel and Boris Spremo: Birds of a feather

Last weekend, I wrote a story in Toronto Star Wheels about Boris Spremo, a retired Toronto Star photographer who will be inducted tonight (Wednesday) into the Canadian News Hall of Fame.

  • Sebastian Vettel

I will warn you right now that this column is not about auto racing, or motorsport of any kind.

It is, however, about fighting for what you believe in, which I think is typical of most successful motorsport participants.

Last weekend, I wrote a story in Toronto Star Wheels about Boris Spremo, a retired Toronto Star photographer who will be inducted tonight (Wednesday) into the Canadian News Hall of Fame. (If you missed that article, click here.) Spremo is one of only two photographers I’ve known during my career in newspapers who was always on the job, even when he wasn’t. As was likely the case with the other photographer, Jack Chiang, whose amazing pictures entertained readers of the Kingston Whig-Standard for decades, I’m convinced that Spremo wore his cameras in the shower.

And just like Sebastian Vettel, who knew he had the better car and wouldn’t stay behind his teammate at the Grand Prix of Malaysia earlier this year despite being ordered to do so by his team, Spremo was never content to take no for an answer when his pictures were rejected for publication.

Here are two stories I hope they tell at that induction ceremony tonight.

In 1977, Spremo was in the Bahamas and happened upon former prime minister John Diefenbaker, who was relaxing on a lounge chair. Always ready to shoot when a photograph was there for the taking, Spremo asked permission and snapped the old Chief in silhouette.

Back in Toronto, he offered up the picture to editors at the Star and, according to Spremo, there was an argument. “One editor said no one would recognize the man in the chair,” Spremo said when we were chatting last week, “while another editor said everybody would recognize the man as Diefenbaker. The first guy won and the picture didn’t go in the paper.

“Awhile later, I was complaining about this to Peter Marucci, who was editor of the letters page. I asked if he could use the photo and he said only if there was a letter about Diefenbaker to go with it and there weren’t that many sent to the Star about him, as he was a Tory.

“So I asked my lawyer, who I knew was a PC, if he would write a letter to the Star about Diefenbaker and he did and he talked about our dear old Chief relaxing after a great career and he’s working on his memoirs and so-on and so-forth.

“When Marucci got that letter, he put it on the letters page and he put that picture in the paper. It won the National Newspaper Award that year for best feature photo.”

It never would have happened if Spremo hadn’t fought for it.

But this one’s the capper – a photo that won first prize in the world that never saw the light of day in Canada till just a few years ago.

It was in 1966 and Spremo was working for another paper, the original national newspaper that is sometimes referred to, in literary circles, as the Mope and Wail.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had come to town and, as circuses did in those days, they paraded the animals up Church St. from Union Station to Maple Leaf Gardens where the shows would go on.

“I was behind the Gardens, on Church St.,” said Spremo, “and they had the elephants there. All the elephants had a pail of water in front of them to either drink from or cool themselves off, whatever.

“So I’m looking at the elephants and this dog comes along and starts to sniff the pails. I knew what was going to happen; that stupid dog was going to piss on one of the pails and so I was ready and sure enough, one elephant has his trunk in the pail and the dog lifts its leg and I got a great picture.

“I’m very pleased with myself and I go back to the paper and the editors say it’s a great picture but they won’t put it in the paper because they don’t want to get people upset first thing in the morning. They (the readers) are drinking coffee and eating their cereal and they don’t want to see a picture of a dog pissing on a pail that an elephant is drinking from.

“So I entered the picture in the World Press Photo Competition in the Hague and the picture won the First Prize Gold Medal. I was the first Canadian to win that award and to this day I am the only Canadian to win it.

“The people at the Globe were very proud of me and they put a nice story in the paper about me winning the award but they still wouldn’t put the picture in the paper, for the same reasons that people would get upset. So I put the picture in my drawer and it stayed there for 40 years.

“Six years ago or so, I’m playing tennis and I meet Edward Greenspon, who was the editor of the Globe at the time (he is now vice president, business development, for Star Media Group, a divison of Torstar Corp.). I tell him the story.

“He says, ‘Boris, do me a favour. Email me a copy of that photo.’ So I did that and two days later, in the Globe, Eddie Greenspon wrote a column about me taking that picture and he finally put the picture in the paper.”

Boris Spremo met Edward Greenspon on a tennis court and, always prepared, took the opportunity presented to him to yet again fight for what he believed in: the excellence of his work.

Just like Sebastian Vettel.

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