OTTAWA – A day after his 67th birthday, and eight days before he died, Peter Jennings found out he would be awarded the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest honour.
The nomination process began long before Mr. Jennings’ dramatic on-air announcement on ABC-TV on April 5 that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
The decision was made on June 29 at the last meeting of the advisory committee to the Order of Canada, chaired by the chief justice of Canada, which makes recommendations to the governor general. Mr. Jennings was already too ill to respond directly. His sister Sarah, who lives in Ottawa, communicated with Rideau Hall, and told her brother the news on July 30. He officially accepted the honour only days before his death.
“He was very tickled. He was surprised and modest about it,” Sarah Jennings said of their conversation. “He was very curious to know when it would be announced.” This year’s nominees have yet to be announced. However, in response to a call from the Citizen, Rideau Hall confirmed yesterday that Peter Jennings is a member of the Order of Canada, effective June 29.
The Order of Canada cannot be awarded posthumously. Mr. Jennings’ children, Elizabeth and Christopher, both Canadian citizens, will likely accept the award on his behalf at a future investiture ceremony.
“It was awarded just in the nick of time, and thank goodness for it,” said Ms. Jennings, as tears suddenly welled in her eyes. “He never got the pleasure of it, unfortunately. I think he knew he got it, he was happy he got it, but it would have been more fun if he had a few years more to enjoy it.”
Ms. Jennings, 63, was by her brother’s side when he died on Sunday night. She returned to her home in Ottawa on Tuesday, but will return to the New York area tomorrow morning for a private family ceremony.
ABC celebrated its anchorman’s life in a special two-hour prime-time show last night. During the broadcast, ABC aired interviews from celebrities such as Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite, who praised Mr. Jennings for his work ethic and passion for the news business. The special, shown commercial-free between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., detailed Mr. Jennings’ accomplishments, which included reporting conflicts in the Middle East and tensions between Pakistan and India from the embattled frontlines.
Mr. Jennings has been cremated, according to his sister, with his ashes to be split between his home in Long Island and his summer home in the Gatineau Hills.
Public memorials are being planned for late September in New York and Ottawa.
While he was the esteemed anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight — and many say the best in American broadcast news in general — his sister was his anchor to Canada and the link to his early years.
Yesterday, she spoke to the Citizen about their relationship with each other and with Canada.
“We were his Canadian roots and he was grounded in his Canadian roots,” she said.
“He was always my older brother, my big brother. I was always enormously proud of him. He was the star in our family and I was always the proud little sister and I think that relationship continued throughout our lives.”
She said it was a two-way street, though. He took a great interest in her life and was an enthusiastic supporter of her and her husband’s work as urban developers in Ottawa. Her husband, Ian Johns, designed Mr. Jennings’ home in Long Island, made entirely of Canadian materials. And Mr. Jennings partnered with them on some of the projects they were working on in Ottawa.
“He cared about the city. People in the city knew him and loved him and respected him,” she said. “The important thing about coming home to Ottawa was that everybody felt that it was a big brother coming home.”
No one imposed on him here, she said. In New York, or anywhere else for that matter, he couldn’t walk the streets without constantly being stopped.
“He never had any privacy in that world, and I think the privacy he had when he came home was absolutely precious to him and to his family.”
She said that, after three weeks in the Ottawa area, he would often be sad to go back to his high-powered, high-pressure world. But each time he would quickly readjust.
In news circles, Mr. Jennings was known as the ultimate workhorse. In recent years, he was working harder than ever, producing long-form documentaries in addition to his anchoring duties at ABC.
“I think he worked very, very hard, and that very high-pressured life is an exhausting life,” said Ms. Jennings, herself a writer and broadcaster.
“That’s why it was so important to have his children and to have a strong family life, and he had that in his marriage to Kayce.”
Kayce Freed was married to Mr. Jennings for seven years. She was his fourth wife. He often acknowledged that his frenetic professional life took a toll on his personal life. As a result, the longest-lasting significant relationship he had in his life was with his sister. It was something she cherished.
“I felt responsible for Peter. I felt an obligation when things were rough and tumble to speak honestly to him and lovingly to him,” she said. “I know I had a place in his life as somebody who knew him longest.”
She was also the only one who called him Pete, and said his legendary stamina ran back to his early days.
“He had an enormous amount of energy from the time that he was a little boy. He was considered a naughty and mischievous little boy but it was really that he was a high-spirited and energetic little boy,” she said. “He was able to sustain this pressured pace in part because he had this colossal energy.”
Ms. Jennings said there was no doubt that smoking killed her brother. He started smoking when he was 11 and was addicted from a very early age.
She said he “cured” her of the affliction by introducing her to cigarettes when she was just eight years old. “I was traumatized and I could never inhale again,” she said.
Ironically, one of the major projects he worked on was a documentary about the tobacco industry and how it had lied to Congress and the American public.
“It is very, very odd that he should end up a victim of those same circumstances,” his sister said.
“But he didn’t do the program as a proselytizer, but because he was a hell of a damn good reporter and he knew how important it was to enlighten the people about the facts about tobacco.”
Nonetheless, she added, “if there is any useful message that he would have wanted gotten out it’s: ‘don’t smoke.’ It’s as simple as that.”
He went after fighting the cancer just like he went after a breaking story.
“Anyone who knew Peter knew he was not to be defeated,” she said. “I always had this feeling, in the back of my head, that if it was doable, he would do it.”
She said even at his birthday on July 29 he was hopeful. And despite warning millions of viewers in his final broadcast that he might lose his hair, he never did.
She said he died peacefully and with honour, having accepted his fate. In their last conversation, they spoke about their parents already being on the other side, and how they would soon follow.
“I don’t think Peter knew he was going to die until a few days before he died and, when he realized it, he took it absolutely gracefully. He wasn’t worried. He wasn’t frightened.
“I think his insatiable curiosity came out and I’m sure he was curious about what was going to come next. I knew he was at peace and I’m so happy about that.”