In early 1928, two young reporters, over a cup of coffee in a Sparks Street hangout called Bowles Lunch, conceived of a place in town to meet after work, a place where they and fellow journalists could rendezvous and talk shop. What Ottawa needed, they felt, was a club for newspapermen.Taken with the idea, Francis Rowse of The Ottawa Journal and Guy Rhoades of The Evening Citizen posted notices in their newspaper offices, and at Le Droit and the Canadian Press office, inviting local editors and reporters to gather at the city police courtroom, where the National Arts Centre now stands, to discuss finding such a place and establishing such a club.

When that meeting took place, 20 newspapermen from the city’s three dailies — some seated at the barrister’s table and some in the prisoner’s box — attended. Rowse took the chair, and fellow Journal staff member Bryan L. White was persuaded to act as secretary. Vernon M. Kipp, city editor of the Journal, recently arrived from the West, spoke of the successful operation of press clubs out there.

The meeting endorsed the proposal to launch a club and a small committee was formed.

The Ottawa Press Club was born.

This was the genesis of what became the National Press Club of Canada, today known as the National Press Club of Canada Foundation.

The Ottawa Press Club

The club took off, and amid a flurry of social activities, a “First Annual Press Club Ball” was held in 1928, at the Sparks Street Tea Rooms of the Murphy Gamble department store. All members and 150 prominent Ottawans attended; in 1929, that figure reached 200. Afterwards, the ball moved to the Château Laurier, its production encouraged by the advent of the Depression.“The newspapermen of the Ottawa Press Club, of which I was then secretary-treasurer, figured the only way out of their troubles was to have a dance for two reasons — to cheer up people and also to let them contribute the profits towards the press club coffers,” wrote Evening Citizen journalist Marshall Yarrow on the eve of the 1947 ball, which was being revived following a slump during the Second World War.

By the next year, the press club’s membership had climbed to 250 and it sought to re-establish the ball as the opening event of the winter season. On Nov. 13, 1948, about 1,000 people attended the gala at the Château Laurier. As the ball was open to the public, many in attendance were not members, but came to rub shoulders with the members of the Fourth Estate and others of prominence.

Indeed, Yarrow also recalls in his 1947 article an earlier ball, at which he introduced his companion to the prime minister, Mackenzie King, which on the one hand enhanced his prestige with “the charming little redhead” who was his date, but on the other spoiled his night. “For the rest of the dance, I heard nothing but what a ‘divine’ dancer Mr. King was,” he wrote.

The 1954 edition was attended by half as many people as in 1948, but was no less prestigious because of that. The Citizen reported that “Ottawa’s top society joined in the fun,” with Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, The Hon. Louis O. Breithaupt and his wife, attending their first social event in the capital. The newspaper reported that he opened the proceedings, and that his wife “wore a gown of pale grey crêpe heavily beaded and ending in a small train.”

The newspaper report described the dress of many of the prominent women in attendance, including Ottawa mayor Charlotte Whitton (“a gown of triple chartreuse green chiffon”) and the wife of then secretary of state for external affairs, Lester B. Pearson (“a Suzanne Talbot model gown of pink peau de soi”). The report neglected to mention any of the men’s dress. Such was the event’s prestige that the entertainment act – Billy O’Connor, his trio and singer Juliette, making her Ottawa debut — was broadcast coast-to-coast by the CBC.

Tom vanDusen, a life member of the press club, recalled in his memoir that at a ball sometime in the ’50s, he won a shirt for a door prize. It was presented to him by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, “the greatest jazz trumpeter of all time.”

Despite its great success, however, for many years the press club had no official home, and meetings took place at the Ottawa House Hotel in Hull.

In 1953, Jack Snow, a businessman and public leader, offered the club temporary space above his Sparks Street jewelry store, rent-free.

On June 13 of that year, the governor-general, the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey officially opened the new quarters, in a ceremony attended by federal, provincial and civic officials and other dignitaries. The presidents of the press clubs of Winnipeg, Kitchener, Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal were also on hand for the ceremony.

Though the premises were meant to be temporary, the club stayed nine years before moving to new premises in two storeys above the Connaught Restaurant on Confederation Square.

The National Press Club

On Sept. 11, 1961, the Province of Ontario granted the club a charter under its new name, The National Press Club of Canada, and the following January, His Excellency the Rt. Hon. Gov.-Gen. Georges P. Vanier presided over the opening ceremonies.In 1966, the club moved into the “Press Building” at 150 Wellington St., across from Parliament Hill, which also housed The National Press Gallery and an array of news services and other media, and by 1979 it had 800 members.

The club was very active in these years. From 1961 to 1970, it published a yearly anthology called “Dateline: Canada,” to coincide with the press club ball, where it was given out to all attending. A “composite Canadiana,” the glossy publication included often witty articles written in English and French by newsmen and politicians from across the country on subjects ranging from politics to poetry.

In the years before Canada’s centennial in 1967, the press club also undertook to publish a bilingual anthology of the best print and photographic journalism in the previous 100 years, “A Century of Reporting/Un siècle de reportage.”

Women Join the Club

The 800-strong membership of 1979 might be attributable at least in part to the decision in 1970 to allow women to join the club. Until that time, it had been open only to men.The door didn’t open easily, however. A January 1970 vote, cast in secret, had 58 against allowing women to join and 53 favouring the move. At the press club ball that year, 60 demonstrators, including liberal male colleagues of the women who wanted to join, NDP politicians, and women’s liberation activists, made their displeasure heard. At the annual general meeting in May, the vote was reversed. Susan Becker of the Canadian Press was the first woman to join the club.

In 1974, Betty Sarsfield became the first woman to be president of the National Press Club.

A Distinguished History

Over the years, the club has been the social home for distinguished journalists, such as Norman Depoe, Charles Lynch, Ben Dworkin and Don Newman It has also been the venue for historical events.It was at the press club that then Liberal MP Pierre Trudeau announced he would run for the party’s leadership; it was also at the press club, in 1969, that he made the much-quoted quip that living next to the U.S “… is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

The press club had cordial relations with other press clubs in those days, including the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and in 1988 an exchange was organized. Thirty-seven American club members came to Ottawa on the last weekend in May, and spent four days with Canadian club members as their guides, visiting Parliament and attending Question Period, touring the then newly constructed National Gallery, seeing the city by double-decker tour bus, and taking in Upper Canada Village and travelling to Montreal for a Montreal-Los Angeles ball game.

In April 1989, members of the Ottawa press club travelled to Washington so their American counterparts could reciprocate. They were treated to a classic Canadian dinner including Quebecoise pea soup, Muskox with Juniperberries and Maple Mousse au Chocolat, and the Canadian National Press Club and Allied Workers Jazz Band also made an appearance.

But just as Canada has changed, so did the club. After several months of renovations in 1990, the club was re-opened by the Governor General, His Excellency the Rt. Hon. Ramon John Hnatyshyn,and since them membership has been broadened to better reflect the media and communications industry.

In the mid-2000s, financial difficulties led the press club to shutter the historic premises at 150 Wellington it had occupied since 1966, and today its events operate out of another venerable Ottawa institution, The Rideau Club.

The Club Today

The press club was reborn as the National Press Club of Canada Foundation in 2007, and is today a more nimble institution, with a wider range of media and other members, all the better to reflect and support the media and communications industry in a 21st Century democracy.The National Press Club Foundation continues to offer its members a place to socialize, a place for professional development, a place to hear the day’s newsmakers, and a place to gather in person or otherwise, as a unique forum for the exchange and debate of ideas. The press club has also put academic excellence at the forefront of its mandate, and offers the National Press Club of Canada Foundation Scholarship to help support a student in a Canadian journalism program, funded by the proceeds of press club events.

In 2008, the club celebrated its 80th anniversary with the ambitious motto:
“Looking back on a rich history, while keeping a firm eye on the future.”

Former Yemeni Ambassador to Canada Dr. Abdullah Nasher, put his finger on perhaps one of the great legacies of the club in his farewell speech in 2008 in which he described what it was like to join such a club in a democratic country: “I felt that I had been handed a kaleidoscope through which I could peer into the multi-faceted structure upon which this country’s democracy, values and freedoms are built as well as a vehicle by which I could gain insight into the complex issues that determine how these ideals are evolving.”

For decades, the press club has offered its members a lens through which they could understand this country and its foundations, and it will continue to do so for many more.