The remarkable Meisner remembered

The life of longtime Prince George media personality Ben Meisner was much greater than one man's opinion.

Friends, relatives, dignitaries, and many others who spent time on both sides of the 76-year-old journalism figure's microphone gathered in the Civic Centre Saturday for a funeral that started with bagpipes and turned into a wide-ranging, tears- and guffaw-laden affair that bounced around like the jet-boat jaunts Meisner loved on the nearby Nechako River.

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From a succession of grieving men and their humourous, generous stories, mourners heard Meisner, who died on April 2 in Winnipeg after being diagnosed with cancer, counted as his chief passions his family, his dog, his boat, fishing, hunting and the people, places and causes of northern B.C. They also listened to memories and stories from a nearly six decades long career in talk radio, newspapers and on the Internet that brought to speakers' minds, throughout the day, a mix of Hemingway, Springsteen, Cervantes and Louis Armstrong.

"(He was) an interviewer, investigative journalist, and designated troubleshooter who people in the north went to when they had problems they couldn't seem to solve," said B.C. Supreme Court Justice Glen Parrett, who met Meisner as a young lawyer in the 1970s and served as a pallbearer. "He never forgot (his) roots... (But) after his sojourn in Kamloops, Ben settled in Prince George where he remained for the past 40 years. To me, Ben is, was, and will always remain the consummate northerner...

"One of his deep and abiding loves was the northern country... It is because of this love that he remained in this region and he fought so many battles for this area, its resources and the people who live here. To me, the picture of Ben I will always have in my mind is of him, happiest and at peace, sitting at the wheel of his boat on some river or lake in this beautiful region."

Peter Ewart, a regular contributor to the website Meisner founded, 250News.com, said the broadcaster had a hardscrabble existence early on. Born in Maryfield, Saskatchewan, his father was hospitalized and never recovered from trauma suffered during the Second World War.

"His mother, cheated out of a pension and flung into poverty, scrubbed floors to put food on the table for the family," said Ewart. "Herself illiterate, she insisted Ben go to school to learn how to read and write and, above all, to stand up for himself."

Meisner would work in Winnipeg, Toronto, Yorkton, Red Deer and Kamloops before settling in Prince George.

Throughout his time in this community he would write columns for the Prince George Citizen and the Prince George Free Press; host a talk show on the community radio station CFIS; and provide editorials for the CBC. Among the recognition for his work was a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Radio, Television Digital News Association.

But he is perhaps best known for his nearly 25 years working as a broadcaster for CKPG.

"We didn't become friends until 1974 when he moved from Kamloops to Prince George to open a business," said Gordon Leighton, a speaker and pallbearer. "I recognized Ben's no-nonsense straight talk, his curiousity, as a great fit for an open line radio show. Talk Back was born.

"Guests on the show soon learned that double-speak and political flim-flammery unleashed the tiger. High-profile public figures, spitting mad, threatening all manner of nasty legal things, appeared on my door, from time to time."

Parrett told the crowd that Meisner's work and notoriety even influenced the likes of Jack Webster, whose name adorns the awards given out annually to B.C.'s foremost journalists.

"A young man from Prince George some years ago walked into a pub in the southern reaches of the province," said Parrett. "He was introduced to legendary broadcaster Jack Webster, who was ensconced in his favourite booth. After learning the young man was from Prince George, Webster announced, 'I only know three things about Prince George: grizzly bears, blackflies, and Meisner - and they're all mean.'

"Ben was never mean, but he was gruff at times, dogged in pursuit of an interview or a story..."

Much of Meisner's career was marked by his involvement in the city's and the region's biggest issues: opposing the sale of B.C. Rail; fighting with Alcan over the Nechako River and the Kemano Completion project. One of his most important contributions, said Leighton, was his role in the movement to establish UNBC's Northern Medical Program.

"It was a sunny, sunny afternoon when Ben phoned me and asked if I could drop in for a chat with him and our friend the judge (Parrett)," said Leighton. "It was Glen who said, 'We've got to do something, we're losing specialists, we're losing GPs... What can we do? Ben proposed the idea for a rally."

"The name of the rally, Condition Critical, was born and wisely included in our committee was Dr. Charles Jago, who (would ask the crowd at rally), 'What if we could train our own doctors, right here.' And the rest is history."

For his work that day and other achievements, Meisner was recognized with the Queen's Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals. Among his other accolades, he was also given the status of lifetime bencher with the Law Society of British Columbia.

The honour, said Ken Walker, president of the organization that regulates and sets policy for lawyers in the province, stemmed from Meisner's work as a lay-bencher with the society after he was appointed in 2010.

"We found he was irreverent," said Walker. "Ben would have told me to say, 'Ken, when you say irreverent, put it plain.' Well, he was brave, he was courageous, he was in your face and, well, he was opinionated too. But in forming his opinions, he listened, and listened well.

"Although he was tough sounding, that was just a facade. He cared. He cared about people that were affected by lawyers.

"He cared about lawyers that cared about clients. He cared about the underprivileged and the disadvantaged. He came to care about law society."

Yet while, Leighton said, his friend was known for the weight and insight behind his familiar sayings, "I'm Meisner" as well as "And that's one man's opinion", a less well known side of him was as an adventurer, a "soldier of fun."

"Fuelled by the improbable combination of adrenaline and the serenity of nature, he loved running rivers... in his jet boat. He navigated whitewater with confidence, he sought out and found unexplored streams and hidden ocean coves.

"We've seen Ben equally at home on the hunt... (in Hawaii) for wild boar and turkeys, for pheasants in Fort St. James, for deer in the Chilcotin... Life is not waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain... and Ben has danced in the rain, literally, on a beach during a tropical rain storm in Fiji."

Many of the speakers struggled at times to contain their emotions.

"All northerners were part of the tribe," said Leighton. "And because we all felt so much a part of Ben's tribe we created an icon, we created the legend of the voice of the North... We're not wired to accept the fall of a legend, particularly when they're bigger than life, they're not supposed to be without life, which is why Ben's sudden passing was so hard for us to absorb."

Meisner is survived by his wife, Elaine Macdonald, who also helped him found the website then known as Opinion250, in May 2005.

According to the funeral program, Meisner told his wife before he died: "Write the piece Macdonald, tell the community how much I appreciate them and how much I loved Prince George."

He is also survived by his son Reg, daughters Kim Burns and Kelly Gair, grandson Derek and Wil Royrock, brothers Bill and Ron, sister Trudy Perkins, and several nieces and nephews.

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