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May-June 2011

This45: Mel Watkins on Straight Goods founder Ish Thielheimer

Mel Watkins

Once upon a time, there was born in Brooklyn a boy named Fred Theilheimer. When he started high school, asked his name by some young women in the schoolyard—and fearing that “Fred” would not sufficiently impress—in an act of spontaneous imagination, and with Moby Dick in his American DNA, he said, “Call me Ish.” And Ish is what he is still called.

It was his first act of reinventing himself. He’s been doing it ever since, to the benefit of us all.

A college student in 1967, he participated in a mass resistance to the draft in the Vietnam War, and fled to Canada like so many other good Americans did. It wasn’t easy to be a teenager alone in a new country, but he never regretted what he’d done. A few years later, when he could have returned to the U.S., he didn’t. He moved to the Ottawa Valley and reinvented himself as a Canadian.

Faithful to his anti-war roots, he was president of Operation Dismantle, with the awesome task of dismantling the nuclear arms machine. Good Canadian that he became, he won the prize for sheer progressive persistence by running four times as an NDP candidate in the barren ground of rural eastern Ontario.

He plays the fiddle like he was Valley-born and, a non-stop learner, he is currently studying jazz piano. He started writing musical plays and that is how he was to find his two present-day vocations, as a summer theatre director and as a writer and publisher. He is a left entrepreneur par excellence.

Theilheimer is a self-taught journalist with an easy style. He became a stringer for the Ottawa Citizen. He was the editor of the Ontario New Democratic newspaper.

A decade ago, at the turn of the millennium, he founded Straight Goods, the alternative online news source. (Full disclosure: I’ve been involved myself from the outset, on the board of directors and as a columnist.) A good name: the key to good writing, the great Gabriel García Márquez says somewhere, is to tell it straight—the way country folk do.

Straight Goods is a meat-and-potatoes, trade-union–sponsored venture. A for-profit business that has yet to make a real profit but has had and is having a real impact on left activism.

In a parallel universe, there’s Stone Fence Theatre, dedicated to the heritage of the Valley, where he writes lyrics, composes, and runs the business. The long and the short of it is that Ish Theilheimer is a person of the people. In everything he writes and creates, he tells us about the lives of those extraordinary ordinary Canadians who did, and do, the heavy lifting in this country he chose.

Mel Watkins Then: This Magazine editorial board member, 1979–1995. Now: Editor emeritus, This Magazine, professor emeritus of politics and economics, University of Toronto.
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