Arthur’s Rixon Rafter first blind editor in Canada

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A couple of days after Christmas, my friend Jack Klein dropped around for a cup of coffee. He had a few things to show me. Among them was a photograph showing a gathering of weekly editors from this district at Elora in 1948. Wellington County was lucky to have some outstanding weekly editors during the period spanning roughly 1910 to 1960.

Of this group, Rixon Rafter was certainly the most remarkable. He edited and published the Arthur Enterprise News for more than 45 years. And he was totally blind.

The youngest of a family of nine, Rixon Rafter was born in 1885 in Maryborough Township, not too far from Arthur. At the age of five he lost his sight as the result of an accident. Young Rixon was using a fork to loosen a knot, and it slipped, piercing him in the eye. The injury affected both his eyes, probably as a result of infection, and he was never able to see again.

His parents enrolled him at the Ontario School for the Blind at Brantford. Rixon proved to be a very bright boy, excelling in his studies. He acquired skills at reading Braille, and also learned to type. Most important, he developed his skills of memory that became vital to his life’s work.

With feelings combining excitement and fear, Rixon Rafter enrolled at Queen’s University in 1903. He signed up for the more difficult four-year honours course, rather than the standard three-year degree program. Although he left no record of his study techniques, his remarkable memory allowed him to absorb lecture material thoroughly. Other students may well have read to him from library materials. In any case, he graduated with an honours B.A. in English and History in 1907.

In the Aug. 27, 1908 issue of the Arthur Enterprise News, publisher H.E. Bywater announced the sale of the paper to Rixon Rafter, “Who has been specially trained for journalism.” There was no such thing as journalism school then, and a combined English and History degree was considered the best academic preparation for a newspaperman.

Bywater did not refer specifically to his 23-year-old successor’s blindness, but remarked that, “with commendable ambition he has phoenix-like risen above calamity and by the greatest perseverance and industry succeeded in taking the degree of B.A. at Queen’s University, and has in the most creditable manner equipped himself for life’s battle.” He was the first blind person in Canada to attempt to edit and publish a newspaper.

More than other editors, Rixon Rafter had to rely on the staff in the shop to assemble the paper and make it presentable to the public. His first shop foreman, A. Chisholm, came from the Toronto Mail and Empire, and was thoroughly familiar with the mechanical part of the operation, which at that time still involved hand-set type at the Arthur paper.

In his first editorial, the new editor declaimed his ideals of “developing and sustaining those principles of civil and religious liberty which are the very bulwarks of our national greatness …”

He could not spend much time mulling over ideals. The Arthur paper was not a prosperous one. The circulation had dipped to slightly more than 700, and it had suffered a succession of various owners and editors over the years. Rafter spent much of his time outside the office, soliciting advertising during the day, and covering meetings in the evenings. He also had to keep track of job printing that came over the counter in the office, and compose editorials.

When reporting an event, Rafter would listen intently: handwritten notes were useless to him, and tape recorders were decades in the future. He liked to attend events personally, rather than rely on accounts given by others. Many people remarked on his ability to convey into words scenes which he could not see himself.

Arthur residents out for a late walk on the main street grew accustomed to noises emanating from the dark offices of the Enterprise News. It was Rixon Rafter, tapping away methodically at his typewriter, composing the account of a meeting or event while it was still fresh in his mind.

He inspired at least one writer and editor. H. Gordon Green, the famous Arthur native, recalled going into the office as a schoolboy in February 1921 to get some red cardboard for Valentines cards. More than 30 years later, Green recalled that the “first impression of awesome admiration has never left me.”

Like most editors of his time, Rafter soon became involved in public affairs and projects for the betterment of the community. He served terms on the Arthur High School Board, the Arthur Board of Trade, and later, the Arthur Public Utilities Commission.

In his first editorial in 1908, Rafter announced that his paper would be neutral in politics. It was a hard policy for him to follow.

Within a couple of years he became active in provincial and federal Conservative riding associations, and would serve for 11 years as president of the North Wellington Conservatives. On at least four occasions, local Conservatives tried to persuade him to accept the party’s nomination, but he declined each time.

During the First World War, he headed the publicity committee for Victory Bond sales in Waterloo and Wellington Counties, and served in a similar capacity in the Second World War. In the 1920s Rafter became interested in the Boy Scout movement. He served as a local leader, and eventually became the vice president of the Maitland Division. When a Lions Club organized in Arthur, Rafter was there as a charter member. And there was church work for him as well, at Grace Anglican Church in Arthur.

Though not a vocal crusader, Rafter took a continuing interest in improving opportunities for other blind people. He served on the board of governors of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and became a director of his alma mater, the School for the Blind at Brantford.

All the while, he turned out a paper, week in and week out. Rafter never took a holiday. He did not write an editorial every week, but when he did they were thoughtful pieces. He argued continually in favour of the responsiveness and efficiency of local government, believing the provincial and county governments were undermining municipalities by usurping their power.

The quality of his newspaper and his thoughtful editorials, which were sometimes reprinted by larger papers, boosted circulation, eventually pushing it past the 1,400 mark.

Although a card-carrying Conservative, he did not hesitate to take issue with his party. In the 1930s he lamented the wage-cutting techniques of employers, and urged all governments to put fair-wage clauses in any work they tendered. He was also a strong advocate of public ownership of utilities. Rafter led the fight to have a water system constructed in Arthur during the worst of the Depression – the village “will get good value at the present time,” he argued as he sarcastically denounced those who were more interested in a tax cut.

During the 1930s and 1940s Rafter crossed editorial swords more than once with Hugh Templin of the Fergus News Record. Once it was over historical interpretation of Wellington’s history.

Rafter believed that transportation was the key in determining which settlements became successful ones. Templin, a fellow graduate in history, argued that many other factors were of more importance.

A longer running argument involved flood control on the Grand River. Rafter was upset that all of Wellington County was paying some of the cost, while the downstream municipalities of Preston, Galt, Paris and Brantford would be the beneficiaries. He also had doubts that a string of large dams would provide a permanent solution to water problems.

Templin was the champion of large dams, and perhaps the key person in the eventual construction of the Shand Dam.

Rixon Rafter remained a bachelor gentleman all his life. One of his sisters spent a lot of time with him, reading to him and keeping his busy life in order.

In many respects, he was a very private man, his personal thoughts and feelings never expressed to others. He did enjoy bridge and euchre, which he played with special decks of cards with tiny holes in their edges. In his younger days he liked to be challenged to a game of checkers. His vanquished opponents considered him one of the best players anywhere.

For most of his career as an editor he employed an office boy to look after routine matters and read to him as much as possible.

He followed national and international affairs in three dailies, and “read” another 15 or 20 weeklies, plus various magazines.

His knowledge and understanding of public affairs made him a popular speaker across the north of Wellington County and beyond. He also followed the stock market, making some very wise and prudent investments.

At the end of November 1953, at the age of 68, Rixon Rafter sold the Arthur Enterprise News to Clive Williams Sr., who had been with the Cornwall Standard Freeholder.

He had been slowing down for a few years, seldom writing editorials. Putting out a paper became difficult when Rafter’s shop foreman left to pursue other opportunities. He was unable to find a suitable replacement.

Rafter spent a month or so visiting the office as the new owner found his feet. He enjoyed a retirement of some nine years. Rixon Rafter died on Jan. 29, 1963, after a short illness. Extra chairs had to be brought into Grace Church for the funeral on Jan. 31. Fittingly, it was a Thursday afternoon, the traditional time for printing the Enterprise News.

Dozens of editors, from H. Gordon Green of the Family Herald to his colleagues in neighbouring towns, paid tributes in print. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker sent a personal note, remarking that “his influence for good was widespread in community affairs.”

The most eloquent words, though, came from Arthur writer Jim Hamilton, who had worked for Rixon Rafter in the 1930s: “We were impressed with his ability, integrity, and resourcefulness; in spite of a handicap that would have brought discouragement and defeat to any man of lesser moral stature. Mr. Rafter was an inspiration to all who knew him.”

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Dec. 24, 1999.

Thorning Revisited