Tim Horton ► Throwback Thursday

Not celebrating his birthday today is Miles Gilbert “Tim” Horton, who died tragically in 1974.

My followers on the facebookery have seen me exclaim, “This is a sports story I can understand” (or the opposite). The day I realized how little I really cared about sports was while sitting in a Tim Horton’s Donut Shop on Trafalgar Road just north of Lakeshore (no longer there, like so much of my past) in Oakville, Ontario, in the early ’70s. I had only recently moved to Canada from Detroit and was enrolled at Sheridan College. Me and a few of my fellow students were hanging out at our local Timmy’s. There were far fewer of them back then.

I can’t remember exactly how it came up, but everyone at the table was shocked that I didn’t know that Tim Horton had a career outside of mediocre coffee and wonderfully delicious glazed donuts.

“BUT YOU’RE FROM ONE OF THE ORIGINAL 6!!!”

I didn’t know what that mean either. I learned that at one time there were only 6 hockey teams in the entire NFL. The Detroit Red Wings was one of them. My entire knowledge of hockey consisted of: 1). The local team was called The Red Wings for some obscure reason; they played at Olympia Arena, where I went to see rock shows in the ’60s; people threw octopuses onto the ice.

Horton was a hockey hero. He played for the Toronto Maple Leafs from the year of my birth (1952) to 1970. I learned far more about Tim Horton after he died in a spectacular car crash on the QEW, on February 21, 1974, not that far from where I was caught out for my ignorance. At the time of his accident he was into his 2nd season for the Buffalo Sabres, after bouncing from the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Horton was returning from a game in Toronto when he was clocked at a high rate of speed by a police officer who had been alerted by a citizen. The officer lost him, he was going so fast, but came upon the crash scene soon afterward.

Horton’s tragic death stunned all Canadians. While there were rumours that Horton was drunk when he died, that had not been confirmed — in fact, denied — until 2005, when Glen McGregor (formerly of The Ottawa Citizen) obtained the autopsy report with a simple Freedom of Information request.

It took more than a year before I finally got the file sent to me via the Archives of Ontario. I wrote a story  based on the autopsy in 2005 (Citizen links expire after three months, so this will have to do).

To date, this remains the most interesting document I have ever received through the open-records law.

The detail is clinical and vivid — the description of what Horton was wearing, what was in his car, the grim catalogue of his massive injuries. The pictures show the wrecked Ford Pantera and the responding police officer’s diagram and notes explain how Horton was tossed from the car at high speed.

And, the autopsy reveals, not only was Horton quite drunk — twice the legal limit, the post-mortem blood alcohol test showed — but it also appears he had been taking an amphetamine. He was found with Dexamyl pills on his body.

Dexamyl combined dextroamphetamine with amobarbital, a barbiturate, to take the edge off. It was a popular party drug in the 60s (Andy Warhol popped them) that had also been marketed to harried housewives before it was sensibly outlawed.

Horton was likely taking these to stay competitive in the NHL. He was still playing at age 45 44 and probably felt he needed an edge to keep up with players 20 years younger.

Apparently Horton’s car had rolled several times in the crash. That’s why when, in 1976, Tim Hortons introduced Timbits, some people thought it was in very poor taste.

Years later, while living in Hamilton, Ontario, I spent far more time than was practical researching a freelance article for the Hamilton Spectator. For a couple of days I traveled across town to hang out at Tim Hortons #1 all day and all night. I wanted to absorb its atmosphere before I started writing the article I had already sold. In the final essay, as printed, very little of that immersive research made it into print as my editor changed the focus during the editing process.

TANGENTIALLY: I’m glad they did because I have always believed that collaboration with editors makes for better articles. One of the things I miss in the Not Now Silly Newsroom is having an editor I can kick stuff around with in order to give articles a better shape. Working with a perceptive editor had always been one of the joys of my freelance writing career.

At any rate, because I don’t thrown anything away, here is my final draft right before I turned it over to my Spec editor for a final massage, which included the headline. This became LEARNING TO LOVE THE HAMMER:

The Mighty Donut

I moved to Hamilton three years ago and only have the United States Army to blame. More about that later.

Prior to moving to Hamilton, like so many others before me, my only impressions of Hamilton were formed as I was flying over the Burlington Skyway Bridge on my way Elsewhere. The landscape, especially at night, looked like something out of Bladerunner. Flames shooting up to light the sky. All those smokestacks belting out non-stop pollution. All that industrial wasteland stretched below, spoiling what would have been a beautiful vista if not for the factories.

Before becoming a resident, I had only ever set foot in The Hammer on two previous occasions. Back in the ‘70s, the Ontario government invited me to put on my award-winning slide show at a conference on post-secondary education somewhere on King Street. My second Hamilton trip was to hang out backstage at a Pink Floyd concert at Ivor Wynne Stadium, apparently the last time the city allowed an outdoor concert there.

In neither case did I actually see any of the city I was visiting, only the small areas surrounding my final destination. I still couldn’t say I knew Hamilton.

Before my move to Steel Town, it had always been a place of derision. In fact, during my College Days in Oakville we had an off-colour joke we would tell about Hamilton. Maybe you know it. It’s the one that ends,”Quick as I could I drove her to Hamilton.”

From what little I had seen, and everything I had heard, Hamilton was not a place to which I would ever want to move. However, life’s a funny ol’ dog and is apt to play tricks on us. Who could have predicted that the American Military Complex would create the Internet, allowing uninterrupted communication in case a nuclear attack? Who knew that I would be a very early convert to cyberspace, spending much of my free time online?

So, there I am, minding my own business, and living my quiet life in Toronto. It’s a full life, too, consisting of a job, an ex-wife, growing children, and friends, not to mention a whole support system of neighbours and local merchants.

Then one fateful day, while in an Internet chat room, I found myself in conversation with a Hamilton woman, close to my own age. As we typed our short, staccato sentences back and forth, there appeared to be an attraction of ideas and personalities. Much to my surprise, she eventually asked me whether I would be willing to meet her for coffee.

Meet we did, only to discover the attraction was even more powerful in person than over cyberspace. It wasn’t long before I found myself moving lock, stock and record collection to Hamilton, Ontario after many years in a quiet, Polish neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end.

For me it was Culture Shock on a grand scale. For starters, in my initial explorations of my new hometown, all I was able to see were the boarded-up buildings in the core.  Toronto didn’t seem to have that problem. Retail space in Toronto never stayed empty for long.  Seeing all the plywood in Hamilton made me wonder what I had gotten myself into. It saddened me to see a downtown so economically depressed. Sadder still because I grew up in Detroit, where buildings that were shuttered when I left more than 30 years ago, are still empty or, worse, burned out hulks or simply torn down. I had to ask myself, “Had I moved to another Detroit?”

Transit was another one of those things that made me feel out-of-place. I don’t own a car and when I first arrived in Hamilton, I felt lost. Not that I couldn’t find my way around, although all the one-way streets made that difficult enough. I felt lost because the transit system certainly wasn’t anything like what I was used to in The Big Smoke. From my apartment near lower High Park, I could be downtown by streetcar in 20 minutes, 15 if the lights were kind. Uptown? Add another 5 minutes. In Hamilton, I seemed to wait at least that long for the bus to simply arrive.

Another transit anomaly that drove me crazy: In Hamilton no matter where I am, I have to go downtown to get home. I learned quickly that I had moved into a bus near-black hole. Buses come to this neighbourhood from downtown, and go from here to downtown, but, if I wish to go west – or return home from the west – first I have to go downtown. This is almost always in the opposite direction from where I really need to go. For the first time in my life the expression “You can’t get there from here” had real meaning.

Another thing that gave me trouble was finding a good magazine rack. In Toronto they are all good magazine racks. Even the smallest convenience store has shelves groaning with obscure publications. It took me a while to find that kind of selection in Hamilton. However, someone recommended Book Villa on King Street, which I now frequent. I have to use the dreaded bus system to get there, but at least it’s downtown, where the bus actually goes. [In an odd coincidence: I discovered just two days ago that Book Villa had been owned for 25 years by the parents of someone I have known for years – someone who I knew from Toronto who I never associated with Hamilton.]

One of the biggest challenges I had when I moved to Hamilton was finding the type of ethnic cuisine I liked — cheap, spicy hot and tasty. In Toronto, you can’t swing a chopstick without a hitting a restaurant fitting that description. It took a bit longer to find the type of eats I like than it did magazines, but once I discovered The Roti Hut on Main East, I felt as if this dream might be realized. Now that I can have a damn fine roti, I’m still sampling in my search for the best gyro in the city. Suggestions are welcome.

When I first moved here locals told me that I would have to see the sites before I could make an informed decision on Hamilton. The closest two sites to where I live – and those that I visited almost immediately – are Dundurn Castle and The Mountain, since I live off Dundurn almost halfway in-between.

I looked around Dundurn Castle and decided it was a beautiful mansion, but I simply didn’t get “castle.” Now Casa Loma is a castle!

Then I looked at The Mountain and pronounced it boring. It was pretty much the same suburbia one can see on the outskirts of any North American city. I always studiously avoided places like this when in Toronto, referring to its environs as Scarberia no matter where it actually might actually be located.

After my first few weeks of exploration, I decided that Hamilton had an inferiority complex masquerading as Delusions of Grandeur. Hamilton is a city that would make a castle out of a very big house and a mountain out of a molehill.

I’ll bet you dollars to donuts I’m not the first to have said that.

I have seen a few more of the local sights since I arrived: The Farmer’s Market, Cootes Paradise, Bayfront Park, Gage Park, Esterbrook’s, Dundas, and the RBG among them. However, none of that made me feel any more comfortable with my decision to move to Hamilton. It still felt wrong somehow and after 2 years here, I still felt like a stranger in a strange land.

During this time I had decided to kick-start my writing career. I had freelanced as a writer in Toronto for what seemed like a lifetime and spent 10 years in the CityPulse newsroom as a ventriloquist, putting the words in the mouths of the dummies. One day I made what seemed like a momentous decision: I would find something to write about and submit the article to the very newspaper you are now reading.

While looking for a suitable subject I discovered that the very first Tim Hortons donut shop was here and a light bulb went on. I had never been to that Temple of KREWLER Culture – a place where “dollars to donuts” is a meaningful phrase: Tim Hortons Store #1. I developed this conceit that I would make that pilgrimage, write an article, resume my freelance writing career and my fame would be ensured. Besides, donut shops are a great place for people-watching, which is one of my favourite pastimes.

It’s a funny thing about Tim Horton. I never knew who he was. People were amazed when I professed to not knowing about the hockey-playing Tim Horton. I’m certainly old enough and I did grow up in Detroit – one of the Original Six. However, I have never followed hockey (is this sacrilegious?), so the NHL right-shooting defenseman simply didn’t register on my radar. I thought he was merely some guy who started a successful chain of donut shops.

Ironically, I only first became aware of hockey’s Tim Horton at his end. His passing was big news when I lived in Oakville. When he died his name was on everyone’s lips and I didn’t know why. Soon, as is my want, I made a sardonic joke about Tim Bits. The looks that I received from my closest friends makes me realize I don’t dare repeat it in a town where he is revered.

To research my article, I spent 2 evenings at Tim Hortons Store Number One, which sits on a nondescript section of Ottawa Street, just north of Main, kitty-corner from the Canadian Cremation Services.

My first reaction was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. I had expected a time capsule, a Timmy’s that hadn’t changed since the ‘60s. What I received, however, was a Tim Hortons that looked like every other Tim Hortons. Had it not been for the huge plaque on the front and the special inlayed tile on the floor inside, I would have never known that this was original store. I later learned that in October 1999, after extensive renovations, it was reopened with grand ceremonies, which included MP Sheila Copps. One thing that I don’t understand is why they didn’t keep the name  “Tim Hortons Way,” which is what they renamed Ottawa Street temporarily.

Those two evenings at Timmys were a revelation to me.

I watched the customers. Mothers with their children. Old coots that smelled bad. Neighbourhood locals, who obviously came in daily to sit around and chat. A garage mechanic taking several coffees back to his coworkers.

I watch as the cashiers in a complicated dance, serving the customers and weaving in and out of each other’s way as they get donuts, pour coffees, take money in what looks like a complicated ballet. However, they never bumped into each other.

The Spectator never bought the article I sent, incidentally, telling me that had just printed a large feature story on the donut empire called Timmys and I was bringing nothing new to the table. However, the table brought something new to me. I sat at the same table those two nights at Tim Hortons Store #1 and as I watched, and took notes, I came to a better understanding of Hamilton.

People are pretty much the same everywhere, but the people in Hamilton are decidedly more working class than Toronto. The fashions aren’t quite as “houte.” Fingernails aren’t as clean. Hairdos aren’t “just so.” The buildings aren’t quite as tall. The streets aren’t as clean. The graffiti isn’t nearly as interesting. The nightlife isn’t as exciting. The selection of movies isn’t as great. The storefronts are not as glitzy.

That’s when I realized my mistake. I was comparing Hamilton to Toronto, only to find it wanting. However, once I stopped using Toronto as a yardstick I began to enjoy Hamilton in ways I had not previously.

I discovered that I liked the working-class mentality of the city and that people were down-to-earth, more honest, more open, and far more accepting. I found that I could look up into the night sky and see far more stars. I learned that a drive of less than 5 minutes would take me to the country. I marveled at the architecture of some of the older buildings that remain. I found that I loved being able to walk downtown in about 15 minutes and I even grew to tolerate the dreaded bus system.

In another ironic twist, I was recently hired by Hamilton Magazine to write the feature article for its Silver Anniversary issue. The thrust of the piece was to write about 25 things worth remembering and 25 things worth forgetting about Hamilton over the last 25 years. Although it seems an odd assignment to give a new Hamiltonian, I jumped into the research with alacrity, spending many hours at the Main Branch of the library, reading microfiche and rummaging through the scrapbooks in the Special Collections department.

I have to admit I was simply unaware of Hamilton’s rich history. I had no idea the Niagara Escarpment was created by the advance and recession of the Ice Age. I didn’t realize that skirmishes in the War of 1812 were fought along the shoreline. I had no idea there were vast and thriving native communities throughout the region long before Étienne Brûlé, thought to be the first European to see Hamilton, passed through. I was even unaware the Church of the Universe called Hamilton home.

Once I started taking Hamilton on its own terms, and certainly after all that research for my article, I knew I could never look at this city the same way again. And, I am glad because I wasn’t all that happy previously.

Now, after what seemed like a very long winter – with cabin fever rising by the day – I can’t wait for the warm weather so I can take long walks and continue to discover a Hamilton that is uniquely mine.


Headly Westerfield is a (Hamilton) free-lance writer who looks forward to exploring more of the interesting places in his new hometown. If he has said anything of offense about Hamilton, he asks that you remember where he’s originally from (Detroit) and pity him instead.


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Headly Westerfield
Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.