Citizen at 35: Roulstons' history embedded in the community
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
As The Citizen marks the 35th anniversary of its first-ever issue this month, it’s impossible not to take a look back at Keith and Jill Roulston, the founders of the community-owned newspaper.
In 1985, the late Sheila Richards, a community pillar, approached the Roulstons about starting a community newspaper that would serve Blyth, Brussels and their surrounding communities. After the Roulstons agreed to be involved, they began selling $100 shares to local community members and business owners and a newspaper was born.
The Roulstons’ story, however, begins years earlier, leading to the establishment of well-known community institutions we know and love today, like The Citizen and the Blyth Festival.
Keith was born on a Lucknow-area farm as one of three children. He also thought he would pursue a career flying planes in the Royal Canadian Air Force. As an attendee of Lucknow High School, however, the programs he would have needed to take to prepare for such a career were only being offered in Wingham, so he shifted his focus and began to think of a new career path.
Once Keith began considering something new, his father told him he always wondered if he’d be a good fit for the air force, as a World War II veteran himself, and they began discussing the esteemed journalism program at Ryerson Institute of Technology (now Ryerson University), which was regarded as the best in the country.
Keith was interested in writing, so he decided to apply for the program. He was accepted and would spend the next years of his life in the heart of downtown Toronto during a very interesting time for the city: the mid-1960s.
At the time, Keith said, the school’s dorms were essentially nearby houses Ryerson owned. He was one of five young men in one room.
While Toronto’s music scene was exploding with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and others who would were years away from becoming generational talents, Keith said he and his friends, all of whom were from rural communities, would simply walk Yonge Street and absorb the city’s culture for fun.
Walking along Yonge Street from Front Street in the south to Bloor Street in the north, Keith said it was eye-opening to see the people of Toronto.
Another activity the students adopted for fun were some of the school’s dances, which is where Keith met Jill, the woman he would marry.
Jill was born in Toronto as one of four children in her family.
She attended one year of nursing school in Toronto, but soon realized it wasn’t for her. Jill jokes that she didn’t really like being around sick people, but really she said she just didn’t feel being a nurse was what she wanted to do with her life.
Jill began working with Bell Canada and soon enough she and Keith began their life together, marrying in December of 1968, just 11 months after they had met in January.
With Jill unsure of her future path, she said she was game to support Keith’s vision in those early years of marriage, which included moving to rural Ontario.
“I was all for it; gung-ho,” Jill said, adding that she felt she was very adaptable in those days.
Keith continued on his educational journey at Ryerson, learning more and more about the newspaper business. He credits many of his teachers with his success.
His big takeaways from school, Keith said, were a lot of the fundamentals, like how to write a structured news story, as well as a more rounded education due to the university-life atmosphere at Ryerson. In addition to all of his journalism courses, Keith also studied psychology, English, history and other subjects while there.
When he began working on the school’s daily newspaper, he was an assistant sports editor, but would eventually be promoted to be the editor of the editorial page, a crucial piece of any newspaper.
However, it was one of the earliest and most simple tasks in his journalism education that has stuck with him after all these years. It was when Keith and his fellow students were charged with heading out onto campus and interviewing a random stranger, another student at the school. Being a shy young man from rural Ontario, Keith said that was one of the hardest things for him to do.
After graduating, Keith brought another thing home with him, a feeling of confidence instilled in him by Ryerson. Aside from learning the fundamentals at the school, he said he left with a tremendous amount of confidence that was drilled into students’ heads as graduates of the country’s foremost journalism school.
Filled with that confidence, Keith returned to the Lucknow area with Jill and he set out to create a regional sports newspaper. Though Keith had returned to the area and worked a summer at The Huron Expositor in 1967, he admits he was rather naive about the inner workings of founding a publication from the ground up and the project didn’t go so well.
Keith said he felt alien to Toronto and hadn’t really considered staying there for the rest of his life, always factoring in a return to the area into his plans.
In retrospect, Keith says it was “foolish” to work on that newspaper, missing several aspects of what makes a newspaper work and pay its bills. And though he and Jill had worked together on the project, it wasn’t going anywhere, so they abandoned it and looked for something else.
Though Keith had turned down a job as the editor of The Kincardine News while he was still working to get his sports newspaper off the ground, after he put the concept to rest, he took a position as the editor of The Clinton News Record, which would be his first proper job in the world of Huron County journalism.
After years in Toronto, Keith said the position was “totally practical” in its approach to covering local news and events. As a one-person editorial department, Keith says it was a lot of work, but he was determined to make a go of it.
Keith and Jill moved to Clinton and their family was set to grow very soon, with Jill being pregnant with their first child. In fact, Jill went into labour on a Tuesday following a holiday Monday, which made it Keith’s deadline, so, as a one-man operation at the newspaper, he had to drop Jill off at the hospital and return to the office so he could finish the week’s newspaper while she gave birth.
As they continued to grow their family – Keith and Jill would eventually have four children – they kept their eyes out for an opportunity to be their own bosses. So, when an opportunity to buy The Blyth Standard from the Whitmore family arose, they invited the Whitmores over for dinner to discuss it.
They borrowed money from the Bank of Montreal in Clinton to complete the sale, which, according to Keith, was a miracle of small town living in itself. He said there was no way the bank should have loaned him and Jill the money to buy the newspaper, but the manager knew Keith from his time with The News Record and trusted his vision with his new endeavour.
The Roulstons would officially purchase The Blyth Standard from the Whitmores in November of 1971. He said they worked on the newspaper week by week and saw success with the stories they were reporting.
However, the next few years would not only shape the Roulstons’ lives for decades to come, but they would also greatly shape the landscape of Huron County, specifically Blyth.
A week before producing their first issue of The Standard, Keith attended a concert being held by the Blyth Lions Club. One conversation led to another and soon Roulston was at the centre of a group that was working to bring Memorial Hall in Blyth up to code.
The hall had been built decades earlier, but had fallen into disrepair and could no longer safely house people.
After a meeting with the Blyth Board of Trade, the Blyth Fall Fair asked the board host its first-ever Queen of the Fair competition at the hall, so Roulston began working with Helen Gowing to lobby Blyth Village Council to improve the hall. The most notable improvements needed were the installation of a fire escape on the north side of the building, followed by new wiring and a new roof, as the original roof was visibly sagging. These repairs took years to be carried out.
Another chance meeting took place in the summer of 1972 when Keith connected with a group of actors who were in the Clinton area working on a unique project – living with local farmers and interviewing them with the hopes of creating a new kind of theatre show. Those actors would eventually be some of the most important figures in Canadian theatre, led by Paul Thompson, and the show they created was The Farm Show, a watershed moment for Canadian theatre. The impact of that show cannot be overstated.
Keith, Jill and their first daughter would attend the first-ever production of The Farm Show, which was staged in Ray Bird’s barn. While there, Keith, a lover of theatre, tried to convince Thompson to consider hosting a summer theatre festival in Blyth’s soon-to-be-renovated Memorial Hall, making it a rural satellite theatre for Thompson’s Theatre Passe Muraille.
That concept would not come to pass, with Thompson being snatched up by a theatre in Petrolia for a similar project (because of how long Blyth’s Memorial Hall renovations would eventually take), but when James Roy worked on a small show at Theatre Passe Muraille in the mid-1970s, he was looking for a similar project and Thompson steered him towards Blyth to connect with the Roulston family.
Keith received a letter from Roy in March of 1975 and by June Roy and a handful of actors were in Blyth working on an adaptation of Harry J. Boyle’s Mostly in Clover, which would serve as the foundation for the creation of the Blyth Festival, founded by Keith, Roy and Anne Chislett.
With the creation of the Blyth Festival, Keith and Jill looked to sell The Blyth Standard, which they did. Keith became the first year-round general manager of the Blyth Festival and served in that position for several years, writing plays for the Festival during that time as well, contributing productions in 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1981.
In 1982, Brussels lost The Brussels Post and The Blyth Standard had since been shuttered as well, which led to Sheila Richards approaching Keith and Jill about returning to the newspaper business.
Jill says she was against the concept of The Citizen at first, saying she felt like they had “been there, done that” in regards to the Huron County newspaper landscape. However, after Keith had left the Festival, he was facing limited job options unless the family was willing to move and neither of them wanted to leave Huron County after buying their house north of Blyth in 1975. So, with that in mind, Keith and Jill were willing to hear Richards out and see what she had in mind.
Jill had been working at the Huron County Atlas offices just before they founded The Citizen, after years of having her hands full with parenthood and moved into parenting full-time before working on the atlas and then on The Citizen.
The trio began working on a model for The Citizen that involved shareholders purchasing $100 shares in order to provide The Citizen with the capital it needed to begin producing a newspaper.
The endeavour was a success and, in fact, they sold too many shares, which attracted the attention of the Ontario Securities Commission, which informed Keith that the company had sold too many shares and would have to give some of them back in order to avoid legal action.
The newspaper hit the ground running and has been serving the communities ever since (see page 12 for a comprehensive retrospective of The Citizen’s founding and legacy written by Keith), continually expanding.
In the years that would follow, Keith and Jill would also re-acquire The Rural Voice and found Stops Along The Way to add to the North Huron Publishing portfolio, which also included The Village Squire for a number of years. Keith also continued writing plays, co-authoring Another Season’s Promise (1986) and Another Season’s Harvest (2006) with Anne Chislett and writing Jobs, Jobs, Jobs (1998), McGillicuddy (2001) and Powers and Gloria (2005) on his own for the Festival.
Keith and Jill worked alongside each other for over 30 years with The Citizen. Jill says that in many ways they were the perfect match for one another in the professional realm, as well as with their marriage.
With Keith being the writer and taking on the journalistic duties, Jill said she was always organizationally minded and was happy to take on the administrative duties to keep The Citizen on track.
She said she enjoyed her time working on the newspaper, as it gave her a true opportunity to connect with the community that so embraced her family. She said she made some lifelong friends over the newspaper’s front desk and she felt a true sense of welcoming from the community over those years.
Just a few years ago, the Roulstons retired from The Citizen, making way for Deb Sholdice to take over as publisher. Jill said she wasn’t quite ready to retire at the time, but she has since settled into her new way of life.
Looking back, both Keith and Jill say their success with The Citizen can’t help but be connected to the consistent support of the community.
During his time with The Citizen, Keith said he met and connected with so many people whom he admired – someone like Simon Hallahan, for example – and that is a big part of the legacy of the newspaper for him.
“We were just accepted as part of the county, not as somebody from away,” Keith said.
Selling shares in The Citizen to people he’d known for over a decade and seeing their confidence in him is a feeling Keith says he’ll truly never forget. Having upstanding members of the community believe in his family and The Citizen will always hold a special place in his heart.
When The Citizen was producing its first issues, Keith said, it was a speck on the newspaper landscape, with locals looking to other local newspapers as sound investments, as they were being bought up by larger companies, while wondering if The Citizen would be around for years to come. The industry, at the time, Keith said, didn’t think there was hope for a small, independent newspaper. However, in the years that would follow, The Citizen has been awarded provincially and nationally, while continuing to grow and expand, which can’t be said for many other newspapers in the county. Now, he said, it’s not unusual to hear people talk about The Citizen as being the best newspaper in the county and seeing that progression has made him proud.
Support for The Citizen is now stronger than ever, he said, and that can’t be said for other publications. Much of that has to do with the trust that has been established between The Citizen and the members of its community. He said it doesn’t take long to lose it by cutting corners, but that hasn’t happened through its humble beginnings through the years with Bonnie Gropp as the editor and now with the current team in place.
Over the years, Keith said, so many have worked for The Citizen and helped it along and it’s been heartwarming to see all of these people buy into The Citizen’s simple, yet unique mandate of serving a community and being part of the community.