Over 60 Years Of Telling Edmonton’s Stories

Tony Cashman, veteran storyteller, keeps our history alive and helps define our present

I recognize that Edmontonians can get really grumpy about Edmonton, especially when we’ve had a winter as long as this last one. People whine about how Edmonton is a leap-frogging nightmare and architecturally lazy; has terrible transit, too many potholes and too few bike lanes. But, when some outsider decides to take a crap on our fair city, the civic pride comes out in full force. We are Festival City! Fringers! River Valley walkers! Punk rockers! Recyclers! Edmonton is awesome! Really! But wouldn’t it be nice if we stayed on the Edmonton bandwagon all of the time and not just when we’ve been insulted?

That’s why my pick for Best Edmontonian is Tony Cashman. This veteran storyteller who’s authored more than 15 books is a cheerleader all year-round — not just for the playoffs. Cashman loves Edmonton, and after 60 years of writing about the everyday folks, the heroes, the characters and the wingnuts that define our city, he’s pretty much the authority on why Alberta’s capital is actually a pretty awesome place to live, love and play.

As a total local history nerd, I’ve been reading Cashman’s stories for-seeming-ever. There just isn’t a more knowledgeable, approachable, filled-to-the-brim with stories kind of person around town. He knows everything there is to know about the people of Edmonton. The 88-year-old had told and re-told stories about Edmonton’s most important and influential people and he’s brought back to life some of our city’s more colourful ones from years past. But perhaps most importantly, he’s an expert on Edmonton’s character — because we have character, you know.

“Very few people realize that Edmonton’s character is based on participation,” said Cashman. “Just look at Heritage Days in August. All these people from all these countries come together are all participants. They participate with their music and their food ... I’ve been in L.A., San Francisco, Spokane, Indiana, Chicago — no place else do you find this kind of community participation.”

According to Cashman, Edmonton was founded on participation. His own favourite Edmontonian is Fighting Joe Clarke, mayor of Edmonton in the 1920s and 1930s.  “I first saw Joe when I was 10 years old,” says Cashman. “He came to St. Andrew’s parish dinner. After dinner, he amused the kids by eating Jello with his knife. He wound around a slab and threw it in the air and caught it in his mouth … Some saw Joe as a roughneck. But people turned to him during the worst of the Depression. He was a rough and tumble man, but he was someone who got things done. He was a real participator.”

Cashman began his career as a journalist in the 1950s. After he’d been working as a news writer at CJCA, Cashman was given the reins of the 10 p.m. news show in 1951. Local news with local flavour became his speciality. When Gainers paid for 13 radio programs to promote ham as an alternative to turkey, Cashman used it as an opportunity to find out more about the people of Edmonton. Following the initial 13 episodes, people kept coming forward with more and more interesting stories, Cashman says, so every year for 10 years they continued the series. These ham stories eventually led Cashman to write Edmonton Stories and then More Edmonton Stories. He’s now written 15 books and authored several one-man plays, including a Fringe play entitled Our Man Tommy Douglas.

“Most of the history I write isn’t deadly serious,” says Cashman. “Purist historians don’t consider it serious because the stories I write are the stories that helped people survive the frontier days, the Depression and the wars and all the tension,” he says.

Cashman says that even though Edmonton has grown in size, we’re still a participating city — and we’ll continue to be. He still has stories to tell, and there are plenty of Edmontonians who have a story worth sharing. “As long as the wheels are turning around in your head, you can keep on doing it,” he says. “You want to feel worthwhile, write about things that are worthwhile. Humans are creatures that can think and laugh, so laughing must be important. If you could only think and not laugh, then life really wouldn’t be special.”

You can listen to Cashman’s radio broadcasts — well, 73 of them — on the Edmonton Public Library site (http://www.epl.ca/edmonton-history/edmonton-a-city-called-home/cashman-radio-broadcast).


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