MONTREAL — Even though Joe King was just one month past his 90th birthday when he died Oct. 26 of a heart attack, there were few who did not express surprise at the news.
That’s because King – who achieved close to legendary local status for his 65-year career as a journalist, author, art print collector, Jewish community professional and defender of Israel – never stopped working.
Up to his dying day, King remained a ubiquitous presence and seemed to defy his years by remaining remarkably productive. He continued to write and promote his books, pursue his other interests, and accept frequent speaking engagements to the end.
On Nov. 12, he was due to address Beth Ora Seniors.
At his passing, friends and family said no one seemed to know the history of the Montreal Jewish community better than King. King wrote three books on the subject – From the Ghetto to the Main, Baron Byng to Bagels, and Fabled City – and never stopped regaling anyone within earshot with historical anecdotes and trivia that no one else knew, but which he could retrieve instantly from memory.
King wrote all the books after he turned 75.
“I speak of an icon,” eulogizer and decades-long friend Thomas Hecht remarked at King’s Oct. 28 funeral at Paperman and Sons. King’s other closest friends over the years included such community stalwarts as Lawrence Bessner, Monty Berger, Gordon Brown, and Manny Spinner – all now deceased.
King’s younger brother, David, said: “We both saw Jewish civilization as a catalyst for the world.”
Within the Jewish community, King earned his first professional stripes as director of communications at Allied Jewish Community Services (AJCS), a forerunner of Federation CJA, from 1969 until his 1989 “retirement.”
“He brought professionalism to AJCS” another longtime friend, veteran retired CJAD newsman Sidney Margles, told The CJN. “He created a department they never had.” King spoke periodically at the Cote St. Luc Men’s Club, where Margles is president.
But King’s professional credentials came from his years of working as a journalist and broadcaster for Canadian news organizations in Halifax and Montreal.
During his career, King interviewed or covered some of the 20th century’s most notable historical figures, including Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, French president Charles de Gaulle, Canadian prime ministers Lester B. Pearson and John Diefenbaker, former Soviet “prisoner of conscience” Natan Sharansky, and Israeli icons Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion.
After Sharansky was released from the Soviet Union and came to Montreal during the 1980s, it was King who escorted him to the IGA grocery store at Cavendish Mall. “Is this only for the elites?” Sharansky asked him.
King’s first trip to Israel in 1967 as a journalist in the aftermath of the Six Day War was the first of 19 he would make in the years to come.
A native of Toronto, King, one of four sons of a Shakespearian actor, mastered reading by age three. He served as a pilot officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and began his career in journalism at the Canadian Press news agency in Halifax. In 1960, he helped found CJCH-TV there, becoming vice-president of news and public affairs and winning several awards.
In 1966, King continued to work in broadcast news and public affairs at CFCF TV and radio and at CFQR FM until joining AJCS in 1969. In both Halifax and Montreal, he produced more than 100 documentaries and series, some garnering awards. King had also worked for the establishment of a Canadian branch of the American Newspaper Guild to improve working conditions for journalists.
At AJCS, King produced many videos and documentaries, including on Samuel Bronfman, the federation’s 70th anniversary and the Hillel students society.
After leaving AJCS in 1989, King worked for six years as Montreal executive director of Canadian Friends of Tel-Aviv University, and in 1998, he helped form the Montreal Jewish Publications Society. In the decades prior to that, he also served as a leader in the Montreal Print Collectors Society, which became the largest art study group in Canada, an interest that began during King’s first visit to Israel after he entered an art print store in Jerusalem.
In recent years, King continued working on other publications, such as The Jewish Contribution to the Modern World, utilizing his vast collection of Jewish humour he had compiled, and other endeavours, such as establishing a “Corridor of Montreal Jewish History” at Maimonides Geriatric Centre.
Just last May, the Jewish Publications Society established a mini-reference library containing King’s book trilogy at the city council chamber of Cote St. Luc.
King is survived by his wife of 65 years, Shaindel (Lipkus), children Howard, Barbara and Norman, brother David, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. He was pre-deceased by siblings Harry and Cyril.