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Richard J. Trivia

 Sex, Liquor, and Gambling with the Nation’s Youth

In the late 1960s, I was a high school student in Port Perry, a small Southern Ontario town just north of Oshawa.  My buddies and I liked to think we were soaked in the sixties culture; we soaked up the new rock music on the radio; and some sucked up the fumes from burning marijuana leaves.   
But for the most part, we regarded the other features of the times, the protest movements, the student activism, peace marches, civil rights demonstrations, and sit-ins, as remote grainy TV images, weird and unrelated to our semi-rural, sort-of-bucolic Canadian life.
For this reason, we were all amused in late April 1967 by the news that students had staged a protest and sit-in at Henry Street High School just down the road in Whitby.  The specific reason for the protest was vague.  Something about disciplinary action against a student or unfair tests.
My friends and I all thought “oh, wow ... cool.”  That was about it.  The whole thing passed without too much fuss.  We turned back to our other interests: cars, girls, avoiding homework, fixing cars, and avoiding awkward interactions with girls.    
Maybe the Henry Street sit-in was not a big deal in the battle for student rights, but I have now learned that it was a bigger deal for adults in our area than I realized at the time. This is because the key instigator of the protest was identified as Toronto Globe and Mail columnist and then newly anointed Leacock Medal winner Richard J. Needham.[i]
Needham had been invited to the school to address the students at an event launching “School Spirit Week.”  Three hundred fresh-faced Henry Street students were herded into the auditorium to listen to the esteemed newspaperman speak.   I imagine most of them were like me and would not have known much if anything about Needham and the Globe back then.  But I wish I was in that auditorium.  Those there no doubt remember his words to this day.
In reporting on the speech, the Oshawa Times, the local daily, said that Needham was awe-inspiring in a rant that “advocated freedom of drink, freedom of sex, voluntary education and the abolishment of all laws except those restraining murder and property damage.”[ii]
Other tidbits from his address to the young forming minds included:
  • "Sex, liquor and gambling laws are not worth observing
  • and I break them every chance I get.”
  • “Stupid crutty laws ... are subjecting people to stupid persecution.”
  •  “The only way to change them is to refuse to obey them.”


He reportedly told the students that they should be allowed to stay away from classes at will - because it was their loss if they did and they should not be there if they did not want to be.
The Henry Street student protest took place the very next day.
It not only startled the country cousins up in my school.  It also agitated teachers, partners, and Christian groups.  Needham was denounced by all.   I am sure he loved it.
The protest and the freedom for everything speech were not inconsistent with Needham’s newspaper rants and well known Libertarian position on social and political issues.   But he may have been fired up with extra conviction and confidence that spring as the Henry Street “School Spirit Week” came just a few weeks after Needham was named the 1967 Leacock Medalist.   He may have been feeling his oats.  
A decade after the student protest, in 1977, Needham officially retired from the Globe and Mail.  He still wrote periodic columns though, sharing random thoughts on things like “cruddy laws” and “stupid” governments.
The son of a British army officer, Richard John Needham was born in Gibraltar on May 17, 1912 and lived with his family to India, Ireland, and Britain.
He immigrated to Canada from England when he was 16.  Like many British youths coming to this country during those years, the Needham worked a hired man on a farm.  But, unlike others with limited education, he landed a job a reporter with a major daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, while still a teenager.  He was fired from the Star in 1935 and floated around other papers before ending up at the Globe and Mail in the early 1950s.  He would spend the rest of his career there, working as the chief editorial writer from 1960 to 1964.  
He wrote the odd humour column during this period, and eventually the paper gave him the humorist assignment full time.

For many years after his 1977 retirement, Needham continued to drop by the Globe and pick up his mail.  He told people that his Obituary should state: "Richard Needham's tiresome and repetitious column will no longer appear because he is dead."   
When he passed away in 1992 leaving his wife Mavis, his daughter, two sons, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, the Globe and Mail printed that sentence at the end of its official Obit, giving him the last word forever.

[i] “Principal feels strike sparked by Needham,” Globe and Mail, Friday April 28, 1967, p. 51
[ii] The Youth’s Instructor (The Seventh Day Adventists) September 19, 1967, p.5, Trends by Walter T. Crandall