One of the few bright lights on the Canadian media landscape has gone out.

Larry Henderson passed away in his sleep at the age of 89 in London, Ont. Although remembered in the mainstream media mostly for being the first regular anchor of CBC TV’s national newscast from 1954 to 1959, he is regarded in Canada’s pro-life community as a pillar of what a journalist should be. While editor of the Catholic Register newspaper, for example, he ensured life issues occupied a prominent place in that publication’s coverage.

“He began giving lots of coverage to pro-life issues … and was interested in the background to those issues,” said Campaign Life Coalition president Jim Hughes, who recalled sitting in Henderson’s Catholic Register office as the editor went about composing pieces concerning life matters. Hughes would advise Henderson on the many complex “undercurrents and machinations” involved in accurate coverage of those questions and noted Henderson would attend CLC strategy meetings to gain even greater knowledge over time.

Henderson also was a featured speaker at a national pro-life conference, advising other pro-lifers on media matters.

Hughes credited Henderson for standing up for the teachings of the Catholic church, when many others within that church, even in positions of leadership, vacillated or failed to do the same. “At the Register, he wanted to ensure (the newspaper) was a voice for Catholicism and stood behind the Holy Father,” he said.

He added Henderson ran CLC ads in the run-up to the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which warned of the dangers the document posed to the future of the country, including more rampant abortion and attacks on the family. Although he didn’t speak to him as often following the journalist’s departure from the Register, Hughes said Henderson continued with his agenda of telling the truth of what was going on in the Catholic church through Challenge magazine.

David Dooley, professor emeritus of English at St. Michael’s College and associate editor ofCatholic Insight magazine, lauded Henderson as having “represented sanity in times which were often insane.” Like any good editor, Henderson could tell what would go down well in his publication and what wouldn’t, he said. During his tenure, Henderson took the Register from a circulation of 30,000 to 60,000; after he left in 1986, the paper’s circulation dropped back by half.

“He was a man with a very engaging personality – and yet, great depth,” Dooley wrote inCatholic Insight.

Patrick Bestall, a London, Ont.-based Christian broadcasting consultant, knew Henderson well for many years and described him as an influence in his life. “He was so fascinating,” he said. “He was very outspoken and pulled no punches … I went to Larry for all kinds of things to ask what was really going on.”

Bestall said Henderson was immediately supportive of efforts in the early 1990s to establish a Christian radio station in the southwestern Ontario area, which eventually succeeded and resulted in the Sound of Faith broadcasting initiative going on to serve three markets. Henderson was a vital link to the Catholic community’s backing for the drive.

Ottawa Citizen columnist David Warren remembers Henderson as “a teller and wonderful raconteur. He had the gift of getting into places you could not go and then getting out again.”

Born in Montreal in 1917, Henderson went on to study music on a scholarship at McGill University before trying his hand as a Shakespearian actor. During the Second World War, he was commissioned a lieutenant and saw active service in Italy and Holland. A year after marrying Joan Annand in 1949, he became the first Canadian broadcaster to cover the Korean War.

From 1954 to 1959, he was said to have owned “the most famous face in Canada” and became “arguably one of Canada’s best-known and loved citizens,” drawing gigantic audience numbers, as the first regular anchor of CBC’s five-minute national television news. “In Canada, the name Henderson means television news,” said Maclean’s magazine in 1957. While he was an anchor who saw himself as much a reporter as a newsreader, the CBC became nervous about allowing a television personality to develop. Nonetheless, his role grew, the newscast was expanded to 15 minutes and he became one of the CBC’s first correspondents to report from the field.

“People began to closely identify with him,” reported Broadcaster magazine. “He was endlessly stopped on the street by people who would pump his hand, always calling him by his first name.” According to the Globe and Mail, he was somewhat short-tempered by nature and became the enfant terrible of Canadian television. He once stormed off the set when a cued piece of footage failed to roll.

Still, University of Western Ontario professor and former broadcaster Michael Nolan credits Henderson with helping establish Canadian network newscasting as a national institution. “He had a knack for it,” Nolan told the London Free Press newspaper. “He could look at copy and memorize it well enough to deliver the news flawlessly while looking directly at the camera.”

In the early 1960s, he worked as a commentator on international affairs for the CTV National News and converted to the Catholic faith after being, essentially, an atheist. He became the author of several books on international affairs and founded the Larry Henderson School of Television in Toronto.

Henderson took over editorship of the Catholic Register in 1974 and went on to present an orthodox view of the faith when dissent and heresy were in fashion. He continued that mission after moving to Challenge magazine in the late 1980s, raising it to a respectable publication with a circulation of some 4,000. He retired from Challenge in 2002.

In recent years, Henderson battled both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. His funeral Mass was held at Holy Family Church in Toronto. He is survived by two sons, Graham and Ross.

– With files from David Dooley