There was only one “Cowboy”

The world lost a gem this week. Vern Traill passed away at the age of 92 in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. He lived a long and very colourful life and I’m sure had no regrets before he slipped away.

His nickname was The Cowboy for good reason. He was a cowboy.

He loved the farm and the ranch and horses and livestock and his very large family.

He was a great businessman who lived with a handicap.

When he was young, he was hit in the face with a baseball and the injury was so severe that he lost sight in his eye and had to have the damaged eye removed. That must have been tough you are thinking right? Not for Vern.

The cosmetic eye he was given would become famous in the decades to follow.

From showing up in some unsuspecting cocktail party attendee’s highball to various desk tops and drawers and even a few home plates…….Vern liked to take his prosthetic out to show it off……a lot.

He was a cowboy true, but was also a practical joker and a great people manager. We never knew if he was a radio expert but we did know he was the best at relating to people.

I wonder if he truly knew the influence he had on so many people over the years? Certainly, he made a mark on me and I’m forever grateful for having worked with him. Some of the stories associated with Vern may seem revisionist at each telling or even fictional, but they are not.

Where to begin?

I was well aware of the legend of Vern well before I met him. He was the longtime GM of CHAB in Moose Jaw before he was promoted to become the GM in Vancouver in 1977 or early 1978. I started at CHAB in September of 1978 and missed working with him there.

Duncan Cameron was the GM when I started and Pat Bohn was the PD. After constantly hearing about The Cowboy for my year there, I subsequently went to CHED in 1979.

Moffat was a great company for many things…….first and foremost it was a programming company believing if you got ratings, you would sell them. Some companies were sales driven, Moffat and CHUM were all about the product. And Moffat was filled with all kinds of characters, who were incredibly inspiring and fun to work for. Vern was one of those guys!!! Moffat really promoted from within and many of the GM’s, pd’s and announcers would move from market to market within the company.

When I went to Edmonton, I was lucky to work a few months with the CHED originator, Jerry Forbes. He was GM when I started and retired in the spring of 1980.

Speaking of leaders as a sidebar. I will never forget Jerry calling me at 6:00am on the hotline after he heard Randy Kilburn call me “the birthday boy” after his news on Boxing Day.

DK – “Hello” (Nervously)

JF – It’s Jerry”

DK – “Hi Jerry”

JF – “Is it your birthday?”

DK- ” Yes it is”

JF – How old are you” ”

DK – “I’m 21”

JF – “So you know what I was doing when I was 21? Freezing my ass off hiding from Germans in the North Atlantic…….look at you…….a DJ on CHED. You sound great. Happy birthday” click.

Vern Trail took over for Jerry. Big shoes to fill right? He filled them not by trying to be Jerry Forbes but by being himself, The Cowboy.

I always suspected that Vern and his family did not like Vancouver. That’s why he moved to Edmonton. His heart never left Saskatchewan. That’s for sure. I always remember Vern’s big boxey Lincoln Continental. The only one in Edmonton with a CHED sunspot on the back.

With Vern at the helm and Roy Hennesy and Pat Bohn as PD’s, all who worked at CHED in the 80’s were in for a good ride. These men and many others were huge thinkers and believed in doing everything big and to make noise.

Vern and Lois bought a big bungalow in West Edmonton. Well, it was west then, off 142 street and he’d have lots of parties. It would not be unusual to have 5 or 6 Oilers or Eskimos at his house. One night he ordered Chinese food and was munching on ribs or wings and he got a bone caught in his throat. Not his windpipe, his esophagus. He suffered through for a while and eventually, he had to go to the hospital to have it removed. Fortunately with forceps and not by surgery. He had to recover at home for a few days. To show the kind of minds working at CHED, Roy thought it would be fun to send a competitor’s mascot over to his house. The CFRN funky chicken took over a bucket of chicken for Vern. He was not impressed but always laughed things off.

Vern had Mohamed Ali in his backyard. Yup. And Ali even presented him with a saddle. It was all part of a big promotion regarding Ali fighting Dave Semenko for charity.

Vern was part of the team that moved the CHED building from downtown to the South side in 1982. What a building it was. It belonged to a developer and they spared no expense in construction from a private tennis court, racquetball court, change rooms, fireplaces in most of the offices and tons and tons of solid oak with the masonry work inside. It was a spectacular place to build a radio station. And Moffat basically got it for a song. I think it was just over a million dollars. I recall seeing the cheque for the realtor.

Shortly after we moved in, we had to have a huge client opening. It was a doozy. The building came with literally 10,000 square feet or more of warehouse space and for the party, we converted it into a lovely decorated party room complete with valet parking by the staff all dressed in tuxedos, a buffet, Rob McConnel and the Boss Brass as the House the band, open bar and lots of prizes for attendees. We even gave away a Cadillac that night. True.

The highlight was Vern opening up one of the large warehouse doors and riding in on a horse.

Everyone cheered and clapped but unfortunately, that spooked the horse.

He became unstable with the metal horseshoes on a coated, painted warehouse floor.

Down goes the horse.

He crapped all over.

The cowboy Vern, calmed him down and got him back up and rode him out. It was something to see.

Truth is, that horse was in danger that night and only a rider with great skill could have done what Vern did to make sure the horse was uninjured. It was surreal.

I also learned that night that CHED had sponsored a barrel riding team in Saskatchewan. It was written on the horse trailer. I was the promotion director and had no idea.

The things that were done back then.

Needless to say the evening made an impression on all the clients and those that sent regrets. They regretted not being there.

OJ Simpson

Once we went on a trip to Los Angeles. We knew the regional manager for Air Canada back then and he was able to contra about 4 or 5 Business class seats. We were the only people in the front. We had the whole first class cabin to ourselves. Beverages flowed.

We first stayed at L’hermitage in Beverly Hills and then in Westwood at the Westwood Marquis. Ridiculous hotels.

We were there for business and that was the trip we met OJ Simpson in his office as he was a partner in something called “Concert Cinema”, or something like that. I’ll never forget shaking OJ’s hand. He was a robot. But the nicest guy really. He thought it was cool we were from Canada and can you image what he thought of Vern? Again. Crazy times. Not like today.

I think this was the same trip we went to San Diego to attend a conference. Not sure to be honest….my memory is a little foggy with those SoCal trips. Vern was close with George Johns from Fairwest consulting. He and his brother Reg had a great relationship with KVIL in Dallas. They were a pedestal station in the states. Ron Chapman in the morning and huge ratings. Fairwest hosted the conference for clients. We brought back a whole bunch of ideas from them. Prize catalogue included.

They also had a huge rate card and charged BIG for their spots. Vern wanted to adopt that attitude. Including bringing our rate card up to $800 for one spot in the morning show.

It was more the idea of premium pricing than actually getting that rate. But that was Vern.

Go big………”Here’s what were doing”. His mind always thought big……..

I think a few media buyers in Toronto made paper airplanes out of the rate card but that never phased the cowboy. He’d get them back with a boat race or that eye of his dropped into a cocktail.

Boat race?

That’s when Vern would get a bus pan or a potato tray of water in a hotel room and go to great lengths to have victims make paper boats for a race on the water. After much planning and preparation, both contestants would get low to the water and were preparing to blow their boat to the other side of the bus pan. “Lower” said Vern. “Ok, 1,2,3” and boom, both hands would slam down in the liquid and soak the contestants, and the carpet, and furniture. To much laughter. That was The Cowboy. He also had a modified water gun that would spray people thinking they were getting their photos taken. So much fun.

Moffat used to hold a Labour day slow pitch tournament in Moose Jaw for our stations. It started with just Edmonton, Calgary & Winnipeg but even Vancouver and Hamiilton would join in eventually. Imagine 100’s of intoxicated radio nuts all converging at the Harwood Inn for a wild weekend.

Yes, a complete and utter you know what show.

Drinking commenced on the bus at your city of origin and didn’t really stop until after the Saturday night banquet. And even then the party would continue. Vern loved it because that was his town. Moose Jaw rolled out the red carpet for us. It was another great morale booster in the company.

Health and Safety committee…..not!

Once, when Roy Hennessy was away on vacation, Vern decided to dry wall his office door to make it disappear. Who knows why?

First day back, Roy walks in, sees it, drops his briefcase and leaves the building. We thought he was just really upset and had to leave before he said something he’d regret. Only to come back 30 minutes later (or even the next day) with goggles, overalls and a chainsaw and proceeds to cut into the door to make an opening. I witnessed this. There was drywall dust everywhere for months. Can you image doing this today? I don’t think so.

Vern was tough as nails. Really strong. He could do a handstand on the arm rests of a chair. And often did, if only to prove his male prowess. He challenged the kids to do it too. No takers.

I arm wrestled with him a lot at parties and he always won……..with the exception of once. I beat him and then retired.

He was also soft as a pussycat and would do anything for you.

I remember that we leased out the excess warehouse space at the station. That sucked because we used it for the Santas anonymous depot which was so convenient to have.

The first year without the space, we put up a big tent on the lot and it worked but nowhere near as well as the heated warehouse.

CHED Christmas parties were legendary.

One Saturday night, we were at the CHED Christmas party at the Hotel McDonald and we got word that high winds were blowing the tent sides off and bags of toys were all over the lot. I was really upset and didn’t know what to do. Vern said he would go see what the problem was. He came back about an hour later to the party and just said, “all fixed…..let’s have GD drink” What executive would go fix a tent during a storm so the staff could continue to party? Vern did.

We used to do yearbooks for parties. I was on the yearbook committee with Daryl Hooke and Ben Levant. We took some liberties with his message as ghostwriters.

The Mentor

I had many career chats with Vern. He had lots of lessons about dealing with people. One of the great lines he gave me once, after I was complaining about something with a promotion and the lack of help with it. Firstly he basically gave me the talking hand while I was whining.

“Ya ya…..eff them, eff that” and I started laughing because he was swearing at everyone like he’d been there and done that. He said to me, “it’s lonely in the middle huh, big Dan”. “Just get ‘er done tiger”. He called me Big Dan. I actually used that line “lonely in the middle” a few weeks ago. It stuck. It means don’t blame others. Get ‘er done.

Another great line he gave me at 3am in a hotel hallway in Moose Jaw after he banged on the door for me to get up and come drinking with the team. I said “Cowboy, I can’t, I’m done”. He then said, “what the eff happened to that good man that left Edmonton”? I was working in Winnipeg at that time but went back to Moose Jaw for the tournement. He had a way to make you go have a drink.

Tigers and Dears oh my!

He called all men tiger and women dear. Partly because he didn’t know their names but partly as a calling card. I loved it.

His vocabulary was pedestrian and he always used colourful language……always……in his stories. That means he swore like a farmer.

There are many more Vern stories but I’ve run out…………not really……

Here is Vern’s Obituary from Moose Jaw.

Thanks Vern for all you did for me, hundreds of others and the radio business.

Happy Trails.

5 thoughts on “There was only one “Cowboy”

  1. Excellent… a wonderful summation of a great character and better person. Thrilled and damn lucky I had a chance to pass through his universe for a while in Moose Jaw. Thanks Danny!

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  2. When I first “heard” of Vern after joining the Masons, he sounded like a larger-than-life cartoon character. After getting to know him. He and the stories were ALL REAL. I think just about has their own Cowboy story. I was fortunate enough to know him long enough to get my own. For that, I am honoured. A good man who I enjoyed visiting and being with. Anywhere, anytime

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  3. Danny – thank you so much for this tribute to the “Cowboy”. I did the eulogy and made reference to his false eye gags as well as the Mohamed Ali promotion. Also getting the finger point in the chest when driving home a point he wanted to make as well as other things. Everyone who knew him would have their own story.
    Your comment “I wonder if he truly knew the influence he had on so many people over the years” is a very good point.
    Thank you again.
    Brad Traill (Diane, Leslie and Gord)

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