Manitoba History: J. W. Chafe: Winnipeg’s Renaissance Man
by Warren Chafe
James Warren Chafe went by many names. To his team mates on Winnipeg’s Shamrock Baseball Club in the 1920s, he was “Chick” Chafe—a pitcher with an astonishing “roundhouse” curve. To young CJRC radio listeners from 1942 until 1947, he was “Uncle Jim” who read the funnies. To CBC listeners of the Canadian and International Services through the 1940s and 1950s he was “J. W. Chafe” the broadcaster; he was also J. W. Chafe, the educator, to his colleagues in the Winnipeg public school system. As an actor with traveling companies, he was “Jas. Chafe”, “Chick Chafe”, “Mr. Warren Chafe”, or “James Chafe.” He was “Duck” to his grandchildren and to me, he was “Dad.”
His parents were Newfoundlanders who arrived in Manitoba by train in 1892. He was born in the Rural Municipality of Springfield in 1900 where his father had begun to farm. By 1903 the family had moved into Winnipeg, where Dad attended school. He was left-handed but teachers in those days forced him to change to the other hand. Being forced to write right-handed was traumatic and he believed that it put him at great disadvantage at school and at times throughout his life. Also notable in those years was the imposition of his parents’ fundamentalist religion. His Pentecostal mother, sometimes-Pentecostal father, and their strange “holy-roller” comrades infused his mind with a skepticism of religion that lasted throughout his life.
In high school Dad began to be involved with school plays as an actor and musician. This evolved into a life-long love affair with acting, drama and playing musical instruments. In November 1919 he was a member of the cast for Macbeth staged at the Winnipeg Collegiate Institute. Graduating from high school (the only one of his family to do so), he launched into a varied career. He became, often at the same time and spanning several decades, an actor, athlete, author, broadcaster, educator, musician, and playwright. These categories broadly describe his avocations and help to focus on the depth and range of his achievements.
Chafe the Athlete
Dad often spoke and wrote of his love for the type of hockey that was played when Winnipeg and he were young. His hockey rink—an outdoor one, of course—was just west of the Winnipeg General Hospital near his home on Bannatyne Avenue. He spent many fun-filled hours there—his stories of early Winnipeg are full of names of local hockey greats and their accomplishments.  He revered their talents because, as a skinny teenager himself, he admired athletic skill over brawn. Later in life he developed strong views about the loss of skill in hockey as a result, he felt, of decades of dominance by the NHL. Lacrosse was also a favourite sport in his early years as was speed skating. One of his feats was jumping over wooden barrels on speed skates at Sherbourne Rink. Dad said he was “pretty fair” at it but not as good as the fellow who set a record by jumping over thirty-five barrels. Dad also played competitive tennis and badminton in his thirties and both became social sports later in his life.
During his late teens Dad became a pitcher for several teams around Winnipeg and in June 1921 he pitched in the Winnipeg Senior Men’s Amateur baseball league. His team was the “Granites” with whom he set a pitching record that would stand for decades. Most batters were right-handed and were uncomfortable facing a southpaw pitcher who could float a slow ball with a massive breaking inside curve just before the plate. The Free Press reported, after a 1921 game, that:
So memorable was this record that, thirty years later, the same paper reported on an experiment designed to show whether a pitcher’s slow curve ball really drops away quickly as it approaches the plate—or whether the drop is merely an optical illusion. The results showed that there was indeed a deviation from the normal trajectory of the missile. Dad was described as:
Much later, about 1948, Dad pursued golf with a zeal bordering on obsession. As a beginner he struggled with lessons, but as with everything else he took up, the struggle was part of the higher ground to be gained. His ability grew in leaps through self-study and prolonged practice so that later, with some talent acquired, he was gratified with a profound sense of achievement. He then played at every possible opportunity over the next thirty years. His wife became a “golf widow” and I was a “golf orphan.” Dad enjoyed the social side of the 19th hole but without the drinking, no doubt as a result of his religious upbringing.
In the 1950s, Dad took up figure skating. He and his family belonged to a local social club that had a large rink. He had always been a good skater but as a hockey player and speed skater. Now he rose to the challenge of learning to do waltzes and foxtrots on the ice. His love of music and his athletic sense of timing were a help in learning to ice dance. There was a synergy in this sport that appealed to him and he persisted at a beginner level for several years.
After finding himself exhausted from touring exhibits at Expo 67 in Montreal, Dad realized that he was in poor physical shape. Back home he pored over the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Five Basic Exercises and took up jogging. After “sticking with it” (his memorable words used in many uphill battles) at age 68 he found he could, at first, run short and eventually longer distances. He worked up to three miles, three times a week until he was about 78. When winter made running outside treacherous he worked out on a stationary cycle or he jogged back and forth across the basement floor of his home clad only in his underwear. With gusto Dad would recite poetry and Shakespearean soliloquies aloud as he ran. This annoyed my mother no end.
Chafe the Actor
After a year or two of amateur acting in Winnipeg during the early 1920s, Dad got bitten by the professional acting bug. He saw a billboard in 1924 that advertised for actors to work in the USA and so, traveling first to North Dakota and later to New York, he followed his dream. Bit parts gradually grew into larger roles. In four years, he traveled over 50,000 miles and performed in over a hundred plays, moving progressively to better theatre companies and gaining experience. Toward the end of the ‘20s he began to feel a need to go home and do something “important”—to him this meant becoming a school teacher. Acting companies were about to be upstaged by “the talkies,” moving pictures with sound. His desire for a new career and the decline of traveling acting companies coincided.
The second phase of Dad’s acting career occurred in his 50s when he played a minor role and co-directed the musical South Pacific for the Manitoba Theatre Centre. In January 1961, he played a part in another MTC production The Biggest Thief in Town with Winnipeg’s Jim Duncan and Arnold Spohr. He also acted in local television plays through the next decade.
Chafe the Educator
Dad returned to Winnipeg in the spring of 1929. In evenings and on weekends he played baseball in Wesley Park (no records but laudable reports from the press about his pitching), he acted in plays at the Dominion Theatre, and he played the trombone in a local orchestra. After a brief stint selling shoes for the Hudson’s Bay Company, he entered “Normal School” (a one-year provincial teaching program) to become a teacher that fall. He taught for a year then, in 1930, became assistant principal at Norwood Collegiate. He moved the next year to Taché High School and on to General Wolfe and Norwood Collegiate. In his spare time, he dated fellow teacher Georgina Swanton, and they married in 1934. He continued to teach while completing his BA (1935) and BEd (1938) part time in the evening.
In 1938, after accepting a teaching exchange position in New Zealand, Dad sailed with my mother and two year-old sister across the Pacific Ocean. In true Chafe fashion, he kept a journal of life on board ship for the three-week journey. He wrote that he taught English to a number of Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany. In New Zealand he was assigned to schools in Christchurch and then Auckland. Ever the inquisitive writer, he was fascinated by the Maori culture and later wrote factual documentaries and a radio play about Maori life for Canadian and overseas radio. Returning to Winnipeg, in the early 1940s Dad started teaching Canadian history and English at Gordon Bell High School and, as a small part of the War effort, helped to organize the student Air Cadets. He also taught drama, directed school plays and, outside of school time, began to write plays for local radio stations CJRC and CBC. Over the next eleven years he produced more than 100 radio programs, many of which were broadcast on the CBC’s International Service. He, like others, was impressed by Gordon Bell’s outspoken and charismatic principal, O. V. Jewitt, about whom he wrote a newspaper article on Jewitt’s retirement in 1955. The article was later aired on an episode of the program Points West on CBC radio. In 1958, accompanied by my mother and me, Dad went to western Germany to teach high school at the Department of National Defense School of the Third Fighter Wing, Royal Canadian Air Force, in Zweibrücken. In his two years there he determinedly studied and practiced speaking German at every opportunity.
Dad became the principal of Alexandria Elementary School in 1951 then moved to Norquay Elementary from 1955 until 1958. Near the end of his term at Norquay, he realized a golden opportunity for his pupils on the occasion of the last run of Winnipeg’s streetcars down Main Street on almost the same day as the closing of the old Norquay School building just off Main Street at Euclid. He gathered his pupils along Main Street to wave farewell to the last street car and, in a memo to teachers that morning, showed the similarities between Norquay School and the city street railway:
Dad remained in the Winnipeg public school system until his retirement as principal of Mulvey Elementary in June 1966. Interestingly, Mulvey was in the same building and facilities as Gordon Bell High School had been twenty years before where he had been a teacher there.
Chafe the Author
Dad was a prolific author of articles, scripts, and books produced in two periods: from the early 1940s to 1950, and from 1967 to 1973. Writing in evenings, on weekends and during holidays, his seven history books—all published— were as follows:
In his seventies, Dad wrote several books of historical fiction but none was published. Two were set in Assiniboia in the early 1800s. Another was located in the interior of British Columbia in the 1970s and crafted as a science fiction novel with a historical bent. For him, the fun and challenge was in the planning and word crafting, not in its ultimate commercial success or potential to make money. In the late 1970s, he began to write his autobiography. It was to be another history book, his eighth, entitled When We Were Young: Winnipeg and I covering the years 1900 to about 1919. Although he worked on it until almost the day he died, the manuscript was never published. Instead, excerpts were published in a local weekly Seniors Today. Over forty of these articles appeared from 16 June 1982 until 14 June 1984, after he had died. Each article was an intriguing vignette of Winnipeg life in the early twentieth century.
Dad was acutely aware of Canada’s growing independence from England and he had written extensively about it in his books. Canada’s membership in the League of Nations, her appointment of diplomats to foreign countries, the 1931 passage of the Statute of Westminster which allowed Canada to conduct its own affairs abroad, and the experience of the Second World War—all these and other smaller steps—had elevated Canada to new levels of independence. As an observant bystander, Dad was enormously proud of his country and believed he was fortunate to be able to write about this evolution. In 24 May 1955, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s birthday, he called the local press to his school office. He proceeded to repudiate the long-practiced celebration in Canada of her birthday. “Canadians should be celebrating Canada’s birthday, not the birthday of this long-dead English Queen,” he proclaimed with certitude. The press deemed his opinion newsworthy and had a small field day with it. Local reaction was swift. There were many calls to our home and few were supportive. Then came the knock on the door. A “burly ape,” in his words, had arrived to defend the honour of the Empire. Dad managed to dissuade him. Ten years later, the federal government adopted the distinctive new Canadian flag and in 1982 proclaimed Canada Day in celebration of the nation’s birthday. Dad felt vindicated and so pleased!
Chafe the Broadcaster
From 1942 to 1947 Dad read the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday comic strips over CJRC radio. This station called upon young Winnipeg listeners “to listen when ‘Uncle Jim Reads The Funnies’ while mother prepared the evening meal in peace.” He taped them every Saturday morning. Initially they aired on Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. and in the later years on Sunday mornings. In the late 1940s he produced and moderated “Junior Jury,” a live radio program on CJRC. The Jury comprised four bright young people, aged 11 and 12. They would listen to “Uncle Jim” read a letter from a young writer seeking social advice about a family or adolescent problem, then they would offer advice, opinions and solutions on the spot. It is possible that he wrote these letters himself. The show lasted one or two seasons. Between 1951 and 1954 he wrote and broadcast some fifteen pieces for the CBC International Service. These included forays into women’s history in the west for the program Pioneer Women of the West, and ten radio broadcasts for the CBC National Services on such topics as “Food - Canadian Food!”, “Prairie Landmarks”, and “Lower Fort Garry”. Three “Go West” pieces under the CBC’s Those Were the Days program and a large number of short talks under various program names were broadcast between 1951 and 1965. In 1957 and 1958, he interviewed a number of interesting characters for CBC’s Roving Reporter program, including the Warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary, a famous Canadian owner of racing pigeons, and Mrs. Daisy Gainsford, granddaughter of Sir John A. Macdonald. The interviews aired locally and sometimes internationally.
Dad wrote six radio plays that aired, mostly on CBC local and International Services, between the early 1940s and the mid-1950s. He played the characters in some of the parts, learning the accents and dialects as he went along. One play was A Trapper’s Tale, a comic narrative set in the north featuring a French Canadian trapper, his Scottish buddy with a thick brogue, an attractive blue-eyed blonde, a Mountie and a … well, a pet skunk. It was a love story of sorts, written in rhyming verse reminiscent of Robert W. Service. The story was straightforward, ending happily, and was totally inoffensive. He played the part of the trapper. Another of his radio plays was The Amazing Adventures of Peter Radisson!, produced for CBC Radio in thirteen episodes. The story, set in the 1600s, was for ten year olds and focused on liberally-interpreted aspects of Peter’s capture by Iroquois, attacks by wild and hungry wolves and by equally wild and money-hungry Englishmen. The story aired in May to June 1950. The Adventures of John Tanner, White Indian was another historical play about a fourteen year old boy, John Tanner, born “near Lake Ontario” about 1800, who had adventures as an adopted Chippewa Indian in Lord Selkirk country, that is, in Manitoba. The boy’s almost unbelievable experiences were of the sort written in that era to capture the imagination of youngsters. The program aired in 1951. Small Town Teacher was a CBC radio play, possibly not produced, about a young teacher in fictitious Turnerville, Manitoba. Then he wrote Arctic Adventure in thirteen episodes in 1952, intended for six to ten year olds. A young Air Cadet survived an air crash in the Northwest Territories and was rescued by “white,” that is, blond Eskimos (Inuit). He lived with them as a family member, and had adventures with a walrus, polar bears, wolves, and icebergs. It was recorded in May to July 1951 but I do not know if it aired. New Zealand Adventures, also with thirteen episodes, was written in the early 1940s for CBC radio, after his exposure to aboriginal culture in New Zealand in 1938-39. It was a fictional work about two young boys, one Canadian and the other Maori, who experience incredible adventures in and on the South island of New Zealand.
Chafe the Musician
In his early high school days Dad learned to play the trombone in the orchestra. As a sixteen year-old he took up street-corner playing with Winnipeg’s Salvation Army Band, again with the trombone. There were stories in the family of his playing across from ale houses and the like on Logan and up and down Main Street. The Salvationists were seen as “do-gooders,” of course, and this perhaps appealed to him as he may well have been searching for approval from his Pentecostal parents. He could also chord on the piano and, at family gatherings, he would dig deeply into his sing-along repertoire and play a variety of pieces. One that I remember particularly was “Has Anybody Seen My Cat?” that he would spontaneously chord and make up silly rhyming verses as he went along.
Dad was always doing something—often things unfamiliar to him—but he took on challenges and mastered them. He continued to live this way until practically the day he died. In the winter of his 83rd year he was still writing daily to complete the manuscript of his autobiography. In it, he reflected on his life’s achievements:
A true “renaissance man,” my Dad, James Warren Chafe, died on 27 April 1984, at age 83.
1. Chafe cited such Manitoba “greats” as Goalie “Stonewall” Byron, defenseman Bobbie Benson (at 135 pounds), Connie Johanneson, Slim Halderson, Captain Frank Frederickson, and Mike Goodman. They were primarily second generation Icelanders from Gimli who had enlisted and went overseas with the 223rd Battalion. J. W. Chafe, “When Winnipeg Won the Hockey Olympics,” Winnipeg Free Press, 17 March 1964.
2. Winnipeg Free Press, 24 June 1921.
3. W. H. Metcalfe, “The Brain and Mr. Chafe,” Winnipeg Free Press, 30 May 1952.
Page revised: 21 January 2018