CBC's Joe Schlesinger remembered for compassionate reporting, esteemed career

TORONTO — Longtime CBC foreign correspondent Joe Schlesinger, who spent decades covering war zones and global events that shaped history, has died after a lengthy illness.

A spokesman for the public broadcaster says Schlesinger died peacefully in his home at age 90 with his wife, Judith Levene, by his side.

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Retired CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge said even through his health struggles Schlesinger maintained his journalistic fire, criticizing the current coverage of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.

"It was a difficult time but at the same time he didn't lose his spirit," said Mansbridge. "He was the kind you always looked up to as one of the top foreign correspondents in the world."

Schlesinger was born in Vienna in 1928 and raised in former Czechoslovakia. He and his younger brother fled to England in 1939 after Hitler occupied the country. When he returned home in 1945, Schlesinger discovered that his parents had been killed in the Holocaust.

Mansbridge said Schlesinger's own experience drove him to write about the Syrian refugee crisis, even after his official retirement from the CBC.

"He had a passion for journalism, strongly believed as we all do that it's one of the important pillars of democracy," he said. "But he also had a compassion for those he covered. And he showed it right to the end."

Schlesinger began his journalism career in 1948 with The Associated Press in Prague. When the Communists began arresting journalists in Czechoslovakia two years later, he moved to Canada, attending the University of British Columbia and working at the student newspaper.

The love of a good story, and the thrill of the hunt took him to London and then to Paris, where he eventually began working at the International Herald Tribune.

The Order of Canada member joined the CBC in 1966, becoming executive producer of "The National," but was drawn back to reporting as a correspondent in Hong Kong, Paris, Washington and Berlin.

Ian Hanomansing, the Vancouver-based co-anchor of "The National," remembers being intimidated by Schlesinger's distinguished resume when they started working together on CBC News Network's "Foreign Assignment" in the late 1990s, but said he was soon disarmed by his co-host's gentle demeanour.

"It wasn't like there was ever a moment I worked with him where I wasn't aware of his wealth of experience," Hanomansing said in a phone interview. "He was a window not just into the world he saw, but also into the world of the foreign correspondent that I don't know quite exists in Canada now the way it was then."

Hanomansing said Schlesinger's penchant for listening propelled him on global assignments, racking up first-hand accounts of history as he covered the Vietnam War, guerrilla wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the Iranian Revolution and the first Persian Gulf War.

While he never lost his hunger for getting stories on the air, Schlesinger brought the same humility to his interactions in the newsroom that he demonstrated abroad, Hanomansing said, refraining from pulling rank on junior colleagues.

In the wake of Schlesinger's death, Hanomansing hopes some of those qualities have rubbed off on the now-experienced journalists who learned from him, so they can be passed on to the next generation of reporters.

"Even if he wasn't the person telling the story, the life he lived was extraordinary," he said. "When you add all the stories that he told about other people's lives, I hope younger people get a chance to see some of that work."

Speaking by phone while reporting in Caracas, Venezuela, senior CBC correspondent and "The National" co-anchor Adrienne Arsenault said she can hear Schlesinger's advice ringing in her ears, prodding her to find "the thing" about the story that will have Canadians talking the next day.

"I keep thinking I better pull up my bootstraps, because Joe would insist upon it," Arsenault said with a wistful laugh. "He never stopped being completely curious about the world, really full of this wild wonder, and all sorts of things amazed him."

Schlesinger retired in 1994 but continued to work for the public broadcaster as a correspondent and online columnist until 2015.

Ahead of receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Journalism Foundation in 2009, Schlesinger reflected on his long career as a globe-trotting journalist in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"I have a career of wandering around the world, watching the universe unfold and actually getting paid for it. It's like a little boy's dream."

—With files from Cassandra Szklarski

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