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COLUMN: A passion for print - reflecting on the life of Wally Coombs

Veteran Western Canada production/publishing newspaper guru helped launch 'Cloverdale Reporter' in 1996

ADVENTURES — with Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

When Wally Coombs, veteran Western Canada production/publishing newspaper guru, telephoned me in 1996 to say, "Cloverdale needs a newspaper" and to suggest meeting at the Coombs' Langley home to discuss, I thought he was kidding.

Nevertheless, we met. He wasn't kidding. This newspaper is a testament to that kitchen table meeting with Wally and his wife, Yvonne. It was the beginning of our successful three-year partnership and years of rewarding friendship.

In his memoirs, Deadline Dad, Wally wrote: "I asked Ursula Lewis to work for me as editor, but she declined by saying she would come into partnership with me - not just work for me. This worked out to be a very good move as she was the main force for this publication with her many contacts in Cloverdale and it grew quickly."

But, exactly who was Saskatchewan-born Walter (Wally) A. Coombs, long-time member of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association (SWNA), master of the fine art of newspaper cut-and-paste? And, why his half century of publishing passion?

In Deadline Dad, Wally recalls his dad, Charles W. Coombs, working long hours at The Outlook and The Davidson Leader (Saskatchewan) newspapers. After his mother's untimely death, the family of six moved to Davidson. 

Eventually, having met and married Helen Finnegan, Charles purchased the Eston weekly newspaper and permanently relocated the family to the town. 

Wally, who started working for his dad at 15, recalled in Deadline Dad, "Your whole life became a deadline." For Wally this became a way of life.

While describing prairie print production, Saskatchewan winter weather newspaper delivery and power outages in the years 1945 to 1955, it became clear ingenuity, innovation, hard work, business ethics and neighbourliness were clearly family and local business cornerstones.

"I was helpful to the Kindersley Clarion, Rosetown Eagle, The Outlook newspaper and the Elrose Review," Wally recalled. Eventually Wally bought, and sold, both the Elrose Review and The Eston Press, inherited from his father.

"To print the newspaper, we used a Gordon 12" x 18" hand-fed press. From a feeder board on the right hand side the paper was fed into a platen bed where the position of the inserted sheer was determined by three placement pins to accept the sheet. With our right hand we placed the sheet into the placement pins, then the press - which was in motion - closed and printed the sheet pressed to the inked form on the press."

That was the only part of the process Wally described in detail to print the covers of 200 issues per week.

Detailed notes record hand setting type, one letter at a time, manual folding and so on. "My younger brothers, Jack and Bill Coombs, did this folding job weekly", Wally wrote.

Newspaper production changed with the invention of Linotypes. These vertical machines equipped with a keyboard for the Linotype operator to convert copy into lead for insertion into a series of metal forms inside which pages were set. Quoin Keys manually tightened the frames, a small "hammer" corrected spacing, wooden matches exacted spacing, and hot lead "shots and slugs" created what would eventually be ink-rolled and transferred to thundering paper-fed presses with automatic folding capabilities. 

This process, with various improvements, remained until 1955. "We produced up to twelve pages per week this way, depending on the amount of advertising and news that had come into us by the deadline time," Wally recalled.

In 1957 Wally and Yvonne (Owens) married. In 1958 they relocated to Swift Current to work for The Swift Current Sun with "a better and faster printing press" for twice weekly production and staffed by three shifts daily. This was followed by a move to The Calgary Sun and part-time work for another Canadian National Printing Trades Union paper, Calgary's North Hill News, before eventually returning to Eston after his father's death to take control of, and expand, the family newspaper. 

"Facing the age of fifty I found myself in a new and challenging position," Wally recalled as he contemplated retirement. This lead Wally and Yvonne to move to Langley in 1983 where Wally - naturally - continued to update and share his printing knowledge and skills. After setting up Valley Web Typesetters he added work with the Langley Times, The Western News, The Richmond News, The Airport News, The Advancing Years, and Seniors Choice. Later he and Yvonne took over the latter and relaunched it as Today's Senior Newsmagazine which they rebuilt and sold before finally retiring and continuing to indulge his passions for curling, softball, hockey, and other sports, plus, of course, the extended Coombs clan.

Where the Cloverdale Reporter was concerned, our successful partnership continued until, over a handshake and small cash payment in June 1999, I acquired full control of the Reporter. Initially we published 8,000 spot-colour copies distributed in bulk to local businesses, City of Surrey libraries, and associations.

We only seriously crossed swords once during our partnership. The recollection still makes me chuckle.

Circa 1997, during a deadline completion at his converted garage home production office, I criticized the outdated cover layout saying it had to be changed. Immediately defensive Wally refused, "No. It's an old country newspaper. That's the way it should be." Surprised, I retaliated. "Hey! Who gave you 51 per cent of this newspaper?!"

Glaring at each other across the light table he announced that, if I insisted, this would be the last Cloverdale Reporter.

Responding, "Really? We'll see about that!" I marched out. Defiance is cheap!

Returning at 10 a.m. the following day to collect the "flats" for delivery to Coastal Web, I opened the door. Wally had clearly been waiting for me. Lounging against a layout bench, arms akimbo, sporting a big grin, he wordlessly swept his left arm magnanimously towards the back wall storyboard.

A modernized Cloverdale Reporter with a full colour front-page layout was on display. Sardonically, I commented, "So, how did that happen?" Grin expanded, eyes twinkled. Wally chuckled: "Yvonne said you were right!"

I hope I thanked her.

As years passed, Wally, his old newspaper pals and I, continued to meet occasionally for coffee or lunch. He'd offer critiques of my changes, particularly as I continued to expand production and home deliveries. "You're going to kill yourself if you keep that up," he opined one day. "I'll kill myself if I don't," I retorted. As usual, his parting shot (accompanied by a cheeky grin) would be, "I taught you well!"

By the time I sold the Cloverdale Reporter to Black Press in 2009 and moved forward as managing editor, the circulation was 24,000 home-delivered by Canada Post, a comprehensive website and a standalone Old Fashioned Christmas Magazine. Doug Candy, Coastal Web Press manager, had always been our staunch ally. Gary Dunham, Mercury Graphics owner whose late dad was a Langley newspaper man, took over production. Meeting retired Sudbury Star advertising manager, Keith Sabourin, was a godsend and the new team continued to build Wally's (and, by now, my) Cloverdale community newspaper dream.

Walter (Wally) Albert Coombs passed away in Abbotsford late last year, Nov. 12, 2023. This month, Yvonne, his wife of 66 years, their six children, Brent (Marilyn), Brenda (Stuart) Gullen, Helen (Brian) Watson, Wade (Gayl), Joni, and Nicole (Daryl) Quiring and the extended Coombs clan of 17 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great grandchildren, will gather to celebrate his life and legacy.

(Wally - as you said every time we put the Cloverdale Reporter to bed, "I've tried to include 'all the news that fits' and I still watch the bottom line." Thanks, pal.)

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the former owner/managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at




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