Remembering Russell Kelly
August 07th, 2012
Few writers were more universally well-liked than photographer and researcher Russell Kelly, there who worked at B.C. BookWorld from 1991 to 1994. He was born in Toronto on September 20, price 1949 and died in Vancouver on November 9, 1997 after a three-and-a-half year struggle against cancer.
All his life Russell was fighting against troubles not of his own making. He didn’t know his father; his mother was an alcoholic; he was initially raised in a foster home. These hurdles heightened Russell’s resolve to be compassionate with others, highly attuned to social injustice and a loving parent.
Raised by a foster family in Ontario until he was twelve, he then went to live with his grandmother near Bristol for five years. Returning to Canada in 1967, he worked for CBC Radio in Halifax for three years, then as a Toronto-based writer and producer for CBC’s The World at Six and The World at Eight newscasts. After heading to the CBC newsroom in Edmonton, he travelled in France. In Alberta he married Joan McMahon who encouraged Russell to participate in her feminist concerns. Moving to Vancouver, they worked to prevent violence against women and children while raising their two children.
Published concurrently with the opening of Expo in 1986, Russell Kelly’s only book, Pattison: Portrait of a Capitalist Superstar, sold 23,000 copies within two years of its publication and remains one of the bestselling New Star Press titles of all time. It was prompted, in part, by the apparent contradiction between Jim Pattison’s public image as a church-attending family-values affirming citizen and the fact that one of Pattison’s companies, Mainland Magazine, handled magazines which could easily be considered pornographic. Kelly’s biography of Pattison as an entrepreneur was hailed by the Vancouver Sun as “business writing at its best.” The release of Pattison eroded Jim Pattison’s reputation as a “dollar-a-year-man” at a time when Social Credit was searching for a viable replacement for Bill Bennett. Bill Vander Zalm succeeded Bill Bennett later that same year. In 1987 Pattison countered with an autobiography called Jimmy, written with Paul Grescoe. Most of the 23,000 copies of Russell Kelly’s Pattison were sold by VanMag, Mainland Magazine’s chief competitor. Although the two companies were roughly equal in size, with overlapping territories, the Pattison-owned company sold less than 100
Copies. In the late 1980s, Mainland Magazine bought out VanMag to form a new merged company, Great Pacific News.
“Pattison never sold another copy through a Pattison-owned company,” says New Star publisher Rolf Maurer. “In fact, the merged company never again bought any books from New Star, choosing to write off a credit of over $600 from the returned Pattison covers.”
During his illness Russell Kelly travelled to Ireland and rekindled his passion for photography, having studied under Freeman Patterson in 1977. A public exhibit of his photography was presented in 1996.
His contributions to BC BookWorld and the BC Book Prizes will not be forgotten.
Even those who only met Russell in passing have been deeply moved by the valour of his struggle with cancer and by his consistently hopeful and friendly outlook.
Essay Date: 1998