Long-time staffers, and former colleagues at Peace Arch News and other Black Press publications, were saddened to learn of the passing of Jim Chmelyk on Jan. 2.
Until he retired in 2018, Jim had been with the paper for some four decades, primarily as production foreman – combining capable, solid professionalism with a likable nature in a way that kept the wheels turning smoothly week after week; making a significant if often unsung contribution to an award-winning product.
So hale and hearty had he always appeared, it was a shock for many to learn that he had succumbed to cancer, at Langley Hospice, at the age of only 68.
He is survived by Yolanda – his wife of 48 years and a fellow Black Press veteran – their two sons and a daughter, and numerous grandchildren, as well as a brother and a sister and other relations and extended family.
A genial, good-natured bear of a man, the overwhelming impression he left with his colleagues was one of good humour, particularly at company events that went a long way to help build the PAN team.
“Jim was the best first boss a guy could ask for and a mentor in every sense of the word,” Matt Blair, former PAN graphic designer, and current publisher of the North Shore News, said in a Facebook post.
“He was a great guy to work for,” former PAN graphic designer Kerry Farrell told me. “He was always very fair to me.”
Many past colleagues also posted tributes on Facebook posts, including former PAN sales reps Suzanne Mihaly and Jolene Bose (who described him as “a gem”) and former PAN reporters Andrea Johnson and Melissa Smalley (who called him “truly one of a kind”).
Somehow losing Jim was all the more keenly felt coming, as it did, so shortly after the holidays. For many of us at PAN (including myself in pre-vegetarian days) it didn’t seem like Christmas until Jim appeared, plate in hand, to offer slices of authentic kolbassa as a seasonal treat. And who better to don the red suit and false beard to play Santa in the days of annual in-office Christmas parties?
A few long-serving PAN staffers might also recall Jim’s uncharacteristically muscular appearance in the infamous ‘Boys of Peace Arch News’ calendar distributed to staffers as a fundraiser one Christmas – a triumph of paste-up skills in an era long before Photoshop.
Generally easy-going and unruffled, Jim always managed to take everything in stride – possibly because, as co-workers learned late in his tenure, he had apparently adopted a deliberate policy of moving up production deadlines ahead of the time the paper was actually expected at the presses.
No doubt he had learned early on in his career the chronic capacity of advertising reps and fussy journalists to tinker with ads and stories until the last minute.
He could sometimes be grumpy on deadline, particularly in the pre-virtual days when pages were physically put together from heavy paper print-outs of ads, pictures, story copy and headlines; cut out laboriously with X-acto knives and hot-waxed to adhere to the page flats on the sloping benches of the production department.
But nobody can recall Jim losing his composure as he moved at an even pace among the benches, methodically wielding his X-acto as he placed ads and followed the pale blue marker trims to stories that had exceeded the allotted space and needed to be cut “on the page.”
“Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom knows the kind of high intensity at which things can run, especially on deadline, Smalley remembered. “Jim’s running commentary… would always ease the tension and make everyone laugh.”
“He was always patient with the newsroom on deadline as we completed the final few pages,” former sports reporter Johnson recalled.
What people recall most, however is his smile, his sense of humour, and his ability to engage people in conversation on an impressively wide range of topics.
His obituary mentions that in his later years he had a passion for gardening that he shared with his grandchildren. Not many of us saw that, but we were all aware of his passion for his beloved motorcycle.
His ritual donning of protective coat and helmet was a signal the workday had ended, and I can still recall the far-off look he got in his eye when he talked about road trips across B.C. and the Yukon and informal gatherings of bikers in the U.S. – and the camaraderie they shared.
At one point in the early ’90s, Jim made the mistake of revealing to the newsroom his expertise in using the X-Acto to cut around the outline of the subject of a photo – ‘zeke-ing’ he called it – to remove extraneous background. It was fun for a while, as competing section fronts were overrun with a plethora of arty feature layouts, pictures intruding willy-nilly into and around headlines – until Jim, laden down with increasingly wheedling requests, put a stop to it.
And his secret deadline policy seemed to keep things running smoothly for decades – except for those times it didn’t.
Colleague Nick Greenizan still recalls a day an extension had to be sought for a late-breaking story.
“Since he was always the one to begrudgingly call the press, he did,” he remembered.
“The person at the press asked him why we needed an extra hour and he said, growly and through gritted teeth, ‘they found more news.’
“It’s one of my favourite memories from my time here.”