Orillia has lost a ‘bright light.’
Mike Dodd, whose name was synonymous with local sports and writing the stories of his beloved Orillia, died on the weekend after a life-long battle with health issues. He was 62.
“Mike did not have an easy life,” says one of Dodd’s mentors and long-time friends, Steve Milton.
Dodd’s mother died when he was just 21 months old. While his dad was a fixture in his life to the day he died, Dodd credited his grandmother for teaching him to be honest, to stand up for what he believed in and to treat people with respect - virtues he always exhibited.
Health issues were also a constant companion in his life.
“He had major afflictions from his youth," said Milton, who was sports editor at The Orillia Packet & Times from 1979 to 1986. "He was hydrocephalic and had serious kidney issues - problems that would have turned most people negative.”
But while his health woes shaped him, they did not define him. He was an overcomer.
From his earliest days as a goalie playing house league hockey or hanging around the old Lions Oval baseball diamond, he met life’s challenges with determination.
That same determination fuelled his career. When he was taking his first tentative steps at The Wednesday Nighter (the forerunner to OrilliaToday), Dodd’s photography was not quite up to par.
His editor, Jeff Day, pushed him to be better - as did Milton when Dodd tried to photograph sports for The Packet.
“Frankly, Mike was not a great sports photographer when he started,” said Milton. “Myself and other editors would be hard on him and tell him where he was going wrong, and he just kept working and working and working.
“In the days before digital, he took miles of film (and developed those rolls in the old Packet darkroom). And he kept getting better and better and better.”
Over time, he became a “very trusted photographer,” Milton says of images that, for years, chronicled the life and times of Orillia and its people in print.
That was a microcosm of Dodd’s life.
“Like his photography, he persevered and persevered, pushing through the (health) obstacles to be the best he could. Jeff Day - who was his boss (at the Packet) and is my boss now (at the Hamilton Spectator) - and I often say that Mike Dodd did more with what he had than just about anyone we know.”
Dodd, who was a popular DJ before becoming a journalist, had other passions - golf, his feline companions, and his community of friends and family.
He regularly met with friends at the bar at Kelseys - though he rarely had an alcoholic drink - and was also part of the Orillia Fire Department family back in the day when he would regularly stop in to the fire hall on West Street, which was a home away from home for Dodd.
During his career, which started in 1976, he met and interviewed the legends of our time: Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Arnold Palmer, Bobby Orr, Johnny Bower and a host of others.
He captured - for The Packet - a jubilant Joe Carter as he celebrated while rounding third base after the outfielder’s walk-off homer gave the Blue Jays a World Series crown.
He took multiple stitches after getting stepped on by a skate during a brawl between the Orillia Travelways and Newmarket when tempers boiled over in the dressing room area in the basement of the old Community Centre.
He was also there later to chronicle the moment when that Travelways team captured a national title on a muggy May day in 1985 in that same fabled arena.
Adam Lewis, a star player from that team, said Dodd was one of the first people he met when he came to Orillia in 1983.
“He was a fantastic writer and a better person," Lewis told OrilliaMatters.
Despite rubbing elbows with the world's elite athletes, his fondest memories were telling the stories of everyday Orillians: from those who played minor hockey to those who used their time in Orillia as a stepping stone to success on the world stage - like Brian Orser, whom Dodd followed to Ohio to write about the skater’s ascent to a world title.
He also had a soft spot for pets. In print, he often regaled readers with columns about his much-loved tabbys, Chip and Dale - and those that followed.
He had a life-long love affair with golf and, whenever he could, he would grab his clubs and go to Couchiching Golf & Country Club, Lake St. George, Hawk Ridge … swinging with all he had. He also often travelled with his friends to far-flung places to follow his passion in warmer climes.
Ken ‘Jiggs’ McDonald, who got to know Dodd when he was an on-air personality at Orillia’s CFOR - long before his Hockey Hall of Fame career as an NHL play-by-play legend took flight - often golfed with Dodd.
Several years ago, McDonald joined long-time Dodd comrades Thom McGill and Gary Kennedy on a golfing trip to P.E.I.
He has fond memories of golfing, of Dodd quietly enduring a lobster dinner that he wouldn’t eat, and legendary snoring that sent McGill to a downstairs couch for some peace and quiet.
For McDonald, it will be Dodd’s spirit that will be remembered above all else.
“Mike had a huge heart and was one of the most caring individuals I’ve ever known,” said McDonald. “He loved his hometown and provided wonderfully written accolades to those who put the community on the map either in sports or politics.”
His long-time friend Deborah Wagner concurred. The two enjoyed a decades-long friendship.
“His compassion, sense of humour, and sincerity will be what I remember most,” said Wagner, who has fond memories of Dodd’s coverage of the Casino Rama World Series of Fastball in 1999, which aided the Community Foundation of Orillia & Area for which Wagner worked.
“He wrote a very funny piece in one of the articles about me hitting six fastballs off Darren Zack, Mike Crawford and Todd Martin in a blue dress and high heels,” quipped Wagner.
“Over the years, we revisited the memory of that media conference with love and laughter. Mike had one of the biggest hearts I think I have ever seen,” she said.
“He often contacted me just to check in and make sure life was good. We had several phone conversations over the past couple of years regarding his own dire health conditions, but he always wanted to know how I was doing. He would want to know all the latest shenanigans of my daughter Chelsea, to whom he had a genuine fondness,” said Wagner.
Wagner said Dodd will be long remembered for his writing.
“He could strike emotion, empathy and compassion in every article he wrote. In the last few years he wrote many beautiful memorials on social media for those that passed before him,” said Wagner.
“He will continue to touch our hearts with his written word for years to come. I think it’s fair to say the world, and particularly Orillia, has lost a bright light today.”
Like Wagner, Milton said even though Dodd was always beset with health issues, Dodd’s death is heart-breaking for him, his family, the community and those who knew him - both up close and from afar.
“I’m devastated,” said Milton. “We were in each other’s lives for four decades. He was a constant. Despite all his health problems, you always felt he’d be there because he always had been.”
Dodd almost always attended the Milton family’s corn roast at their Port Sydney cottage that, with just a few exceptions, has occurred yearly since 1985.
He often hung out with Milton and his kids, Jess and Toby, when they lived on West Street.
“He was there all the time and often after I’d put the kids to bed, we’d whip over to Couchiching Golf, get Ken Varty, the pro, to let us on for free and play a quick nine as the sun set,” realled Milton, saying they often finished the final few holes as darkness descended.
“We both knew the course, and our games, so well we rarely lost a ball. Golf was Mike’s sporting passion,” said Milton.
When Milton became one of Canada’s foremost authors about figure skating, Dodd often went with Milton to competitions and handled photography to illustrate Milton’s work.
“He was unfailingly loyal - to me, to all his friends, to all his acquaintances, and to Orillia. Few people knew as much about that city as Mike did,” said Milton.
“He learned to turn a good phrase and was an expert at remembering the impact, dates and details of events, and people’s accomplishments,” said Milton.
“In his writing and in his life, Mike always saw the best in people,” said Milton.