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Observations: We’ll miss you, David Wilson

After 30 years at The United Church Observer and 11 as editor, the magazine says goodbye to an old friend and mentor

By Jocelyn Bell

Last fall, soon after learning that I would be the new Observer editor, outgoing editor David Wilson began working on a news brief to announce my appointment. He emailed a draft, asking me to write a few words into a space marked “Short JB quote here.” I wrote, “David Wilson has been an incredible mentor to me, and I’m tremendously proud of the magazine we produce.” It went on for another sentence or two.

Moments later, he was in my office. “Thanks for the boost, but I cut the part about me. It didn’t flow.”

Didn’t flow. Right.

I should have known I couldn’t sneak a compliment past him. He’s rebuffed almost every attempt we’ve made to honour his 30 years at the magazine and 11 years at its helm. A final interview in the magazine? Too self-serving. A “best of David Wilson” package? Eye roll. A retirement party? I don’t need one. “There’s no bloody way you’re leaving here without a party!” (That’s Sharon Doran, our promotion manager, talking. She’s got some Belfast in her bones.)

So, my first official act as the new editor of this magazine is to right a wrong. Allow me to start that “Short JB quote” again.

David Wilson has been an incredible mentor to me. He’s demonstrated that true leadership is not about making all the decisions, but about enabling the staff to apply their own intellect and creativity to the task.

David is a journalist’s journalist, devoted to bringing truth to light for our readers. In his first two decades here, he tackled major stories like British Columbia’s Highway of Tears and the rise of the Christian right in the United States. He even flew to India on a few hours’ notice to cover Mother Teresa’s funeral.

He carried that commitment to journalism into his role as editor. His vision has always been to create a publication that can hold its own against any other magazine in Canada.

Unlike most denominational magazine editors, David has never required that every article pertain directly to the church. Instead, he measured a story’s merits by different benchmarks: Is it interesting? Is it timely? And, most importantly, is the journalism of a high calibre? It’s a strategy that has created the robust and award-winning publication you’re reading today, and an approach that I intend to continue.

David worked hard to get The Observer noticed outside of United Church circles. In 2016, we partnered with The Walrus for a Walrus Talks event on spirituality in a secular age. Over 500 people showed up to hear the speakers, and at least 1,000 more watched online, many of them gathered at United churches. Coming away from that evening, I felt we’d stood on a national stage and exceeded Canadians’ expectations of a church magazine.

For all of these accomplishments, it’s David himself that I’ll miss the most. Weekday mornings for the past 11 years have typically started with a friendly chat over a cup of coffee: tales from the previous evening, the news of the day, work troubles brewing on the horizon.

I asked my colleague Evelyn Roque, who handles circulation, what she will miss most about David. “Everything,” she said. “He’s really a nice guy.”

What a perfect short quote. I couldn’t agree more. 

This story originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of The Observer with the title "Observations."

To read more of The United Church Observer's award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today. 

Author's photo
Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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