FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Frank Dabbs
February 9, 2016
A writer. And a story teller.
His first writing – a picture story he created when he was four. At 14 his mother got him a portable Underwood typewriter, and he’s been writing every day since …
I met Frank Dabbs nearly 13 years ago. He was a veteran Calgary Herald oil & gas columnist and very accomplished author with a number of books to his credit [Calgary Chinatown A History, Ralph Klein A Maverick Life, Preston Manning Roots of Reform, Branded By The Wind The Life and Times of Bill Herron] as well as editor/researcher and consultant for others [Peter Newman’s Titans and Continental Reach, Preston Manning’s Think Big and Arne Nielsen’s We Gambled Everything]. And he befriended me, encouraged me and mentored me in my writing – suggesting, ‘we should talk about you doing a book’. Much water has flowed over Niagara since then and we recently caught up:
Frank retired along with his wife Florence Murphy to an idyllic life in Georgian Bay country, Ontario where they enjoyed a monster flower garden and old brick house (a former manse) with plenty of time for Frank to keep writing every day (he has since he was 14). He had a stroke, recovered and carried on. Florence got cancer and didn’t survive. Last summer Frank returned to Alberta, and took up residence in Didsbury where he is editor of the Didsbury Review. If you wonder where Frank’s heart was, and still is, read this. We met over lunch – his spirits are good, but clearly his grieving isn’t over. I found a sharp contrast from the last time we’d had lunch a couple of years ago after his stroke. He’s resumed his belly shape – to which I easily relate and seems far less tentative about life, seems to have rekindled the fire in his belly and is setting about impacting Didsbury and area.
Let’s go back to the beginning of Frank’s journey – born in Bolivia. His parents – both Toronto area natives – were Baptist missionaries in Bolivia until his dad (Frank was two) and several others were murdered by drunken miners. His mom, her children in tow (Frank is #3 of 4), retreated to Toronto for a breather and then settled in Collingwood, then later moved to Orillia. He recalls being good at history, writing short-stories and poetry, editing the yearbook – playing hockey, football and basketball but doesn’t recall being distinguished at any of them. A 10th grade teacher said, “I think you can be a writer” and worked with him for four years (grades 10-13).
On the day Frank finished high school in Orillia he began hitchhiking to Calgary at the invitation of his uncle who connected him to a job at Hudson Bay Oil and Gas (later, BP). Life on a seismic crew was fun, but not his future. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from University of Calgary – majored in playwriting.
While still in university Frank worked for CBC radio, met and married his first wife (two grown daughters) and then divorced when she ran off with a fisherman (apparently a good catch). Frank was a seven-day a week journalist, freelancing and jobs took him to the Calgary Herald, the Albertan, Oilweek, more freelancing and then was recruited to join the Calgary Sun by Ken King, back to freelancing and some assignments for Gerry Maier, then CEO at TransCanada Corporation [during which time he met and began occasionally hanging out with Florence – obliviously for a long time!]. His association with Peter Newman doing research on his books produced the advice “you should soon write a book”. That led to introductions to publishers, involvement with Greystone Books and the Ralph Klein book. [apparently Ralph never endorsed it, but after reading it, Ralph passed it along to his staff …].
His story of going from co-worker with Florence was entertaining – and his description of ‘when the penny dropped’ was a bit sappy, but so sincere – an evening walk in Toronto where they both were on assignments, a tour of the U of T campus and downtown buildings. Hard to tell if it was romance or if Frank was slightly lost, but the walk took nearly all night. I guess it was love. A nice result considering it began with a suggestion by someone they both worked with at Polar Gas that, “since you are both in Toronto, you should get together for coffee”. The actual ‘dating phase’ was short. They were married 20 years.
Why are you successful? “the common denominator in everything I’ve done is that I put in the work, every day. I don’t consider what I do as work. [so many successful oil patch CEO’s I witnessed never took holidays]. And what I did, to get you writing every day … ”.
What has held you back? “there are only 24 hours in a day. There have been times I lacked the confidence to follow through …”.
And he’s won lots of writing awards, founded writing competitions … and it seems he’s got lots of tread left on his tires, and many more stories to tell/write.
How do you see your business – small town community newspaper – right now, and going forward over the next quarter?
… terrible! But we’re ahead of the curve. Advertisers have fewer dollars to spend. Our role, as I see it, is to develop the community.
And over the next five years?
… the papers that do well will be the ones that benefit their community editorially – it’s niche journalism and we’ll customize to deliver. My niche is my town. We’re online, but the print version is what gets read and passed along – we’ll still be killing trees!
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… relationships. Do I trust that person? Or people recommended by someone I trust. Does the price have integrity?
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Frank Dabbs, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… in Myers-Briggs type tests I’m a ‘random abstract’. A country newspaper editor only has to manage himself.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… not about the price of oil. About Donald Trump. About the divide between urban and rural Alberta – since the Lougheed years it has gotten worse, and now it’s as bad as it could be.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… Alistair Friesen, high school teacher/lapsed Mennonite influenced strongly by studying under Northrup Frye – and he mentored me. We always had something on the go. Florence, of course. While there were many times we were each working on things which required ‘the Chinese wall’, she always enthusiastically believed in my abilities – cheerleading and advising.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… do I care? … we did.
… I write. I read about four hours a day – I don’t have a TV or internet at home so that’s how I spend my evenings. I arrived back in Alberta in August, so my focus has been on work. In the spring there will be a little gardening …
What do you read?
… well, let's just say that half my moving bill for returning to Alberta was for my books – about 7-8,000 of them. Currently reading Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.
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