DJ Cameron wordsmith who stood his ground

By Suzanne McFadden

Someone had to do it and veteran Herald sports writer did it the best.
DJ Cameron, on duty at the Basin Reserve, wrote about sport for the Herald for 47 years. Picture / Mark Mitchell
DJ Cameron, on duty at the Basin Reserve, wrote about sport for the Herald for 47 years. Picture / Mark Mitchell

DJ Cameron was rarely rattled by anyone. Not a riled-up cricket hero fuming over a story the candid Herald sportswriter had written, nor a thirsty, world-conquering mountaineer.

Cameron was renowned for calmly standing his ground, and being able to talk on equal terms with almost anyone.

Among the tales that have flowed since Cameron passed away this week - "run out" at 83 - was an illuminating one from Prime news presenter Eric Young, who, as a young sports reporter, worked alongside Cameron on numerous cricket tours.

In 1988, the New Zealand cricket team were touring India, and before the deciding third test in Hyderabad, Cameron - the patriarch of the New Zealand cricketing media - and Young, his Auckland Star rival, were sitting at a hotel bar after filing their stories.

"Then from behind us came an unmistakably famous Kiwi voice: 'What does a bloke have to do to get a drink around here?' And there was Ed Hillary," Young recalls.

While Young was gobsmacked, Cameron simply replied: "Well, the traditional way is to put your hand in your pocket."

That was quintessential Donald John Cameron. Part of the reason he was regarded as one of New Zealand's finest sports journalists for half a century was his ability to natter with a club rugby coach after training on a damp winter's evening, or to the "poohbahs" of world cricket at the hallowed ground of Lord's. And he would walk away with a colourful story or a pointed column every time.

He was one of the last old-school news gatherers. Without the luxury of television coverage when he began as a sports correspondent in the 1950s, Cameron travelled the length and breadth of the country - with a typewriter under one arm, and a suitcase under the other - to cover Ranfurly Shield matches or cricket board meetings.

Before fax machines and laptops, he relied on local post offices to telegraph his reports back to the Auckland office.

"He never sat around waiting for the phone to ring," says one of his sports editors, Bruce Morris.

"It also wasn't in his character to cruise to retirement, and right to his last days on the paper he would call into North Harbour rugby practice on a miserable Tuesday night to sniff out a story."

During a 48-year career in the New Zealand Herald sports newsroom, Cameron's tattered contact books spilled with the phone numbers of sports icons.

"His list of contacts was ridiculous," Young recalls. "I was phoned more than once by my bosses and asked why I'd missed a story that DJ had broken, and the reality was my contacts were 30 years behind," says Young.

"DJ had built those relationships over time - in the days before sports hid behind communications managers."

It was that dedication to the job which helped Cameron win the respect of fellow journalists and athletes.

Former All Black Sir John Graham, who also managed the New Zealand cricket team in the 1990s, recalls Cameron was "popular enough to be invited to travel on the team bus".

"His work was impeccable, and he had the ability to get on with anyone. Of course, you can't please everybody, but he could make his way with great politeness," Graham says.

At the same time, Graham says, Cameron was prepared to write what he felt needed to be said. "He took on some big challenges and never backed away from them."

He passed on that ethos to Wynne Gray, the Herald's main rugby writer for 27 years.

"He told me: 'You are employed as a journalist - not someone who is a stenographer to record the coach's thoughts on a game. Your job is to give the readers an opinion on what you've seen'. By and large, that was very sound advice," says Gray.

Cameron's printed opinion saw him sometimes cross swords with a player, coach or official. One was Richard Hadlee, who took legal action against the Herald over an article Cameron had written from a dinner speech in Adelaide. The two men eventually made peace with a handshake.

During Glenn Turner's turbulent career as coach of the New Zealand cricket side in 1995, he bawled Cameron out in front of his colleagues over a story he was unhappy about. "Don was, predictably, unimpressed, and reminded me that writers remained in their jobs much longer than coaches - and he certainly got that right," Turner wrote in the foreword to Cameron's 1998 autobiography Someone Had To Do It.

Cameron was also a master of the literary flourish. Of the many sports books he wrote, Caribbean Crusade, following New Zealand's maiden cricket tour of the West Indies in 1972, remains one of the great Kiwi sports chronicles.

"As much as we used to giggle at his sometimes flowery prose, every now and then you'd find it slipping into your own copy, almost by osmosis," Young recalls.

Many journalists have called Cameron a mentor.

I was one of them. As an impressionable teenager who had just discovered the joys of cricket, I was mesmerised by his vivid descriptions, and religiously snipped his stories from the Herald, pasting them in scrapbooks.

A decade later, I sat at a desk next to him, and was given the responsibility of posting his hundreds of Christmas cards while he was on tour.

Sportswriter and broadcaster Phil Gifford was another. With "DJ-like accuracy", he recalls first meeting Cameron on July 29, 1964 at the Cornwall Arms hotel in Thames, after the Auckland rugby team had beaten Thames Valley. Gifford was a 17-year-old forestry labourer, who desperately wanted to become a journalist.

"DJ put up with my callow ramblings and said something like 'Journalism is a wonderful way to make a living'. Thanks in no small part to his decency, I was lucky enough to be working with him a year later," says Gifford.

Dunedin-born, and the youngest of seven children, Cameron's own introduction to the Herald came almost by chance.

Days before he was to start a part-time job selling tickets to the 1950 Auckland Empire Games, he wandered down Queen St and decided to try his luck applying for a job at the Herald.

Within hours of filling in a form where he expressed an interest in sailing (having being a Sea Scout as a kid), he was employed as a copyholder. Mad about sport, he bided his time until the sports editor, doyen Sir TP McLean, found a role for him as the yachting reporter - a job Cameron loved. The esteemed rounds of cricket and rugby soon followed.

Generous with his time for young reporters and sportsmen, Cameron could also be a stickler for protocol. He saw the press box as a quiet, respectful place of work, and chatting journalists would sometimes get a glare with an ample eyebrow raised above his glasses.

"Don was great company over a beer, but could be awkward and gruff when things weren't going his way," Morris says. "But he was an absolutely top-class sportswriter with a critical edge - less florid than McLean but with the same huge commitment to the job and the paper."

When he covered his last cricket test for the Herald (150 in all) in 1998, Cameron admitted his full career had had its drawbacks.

With long tours (the West Indies spanning three months), he regretted missing out on time with his wife, Valmar, and their three children, Mark, Fiona and Adam.

And yet, his adult children remember him as a doting father. "He was not only a dad, he was mate. But we also knew he was something special," Adam Cameron says. "Instead of going to mass, I got to go to rugby trainings at Eden Park, and he'd get me a bottle of fizzy from the changing rooms."

He kept his contacts close right until the end. On most Thursdays he would go to "choir practice" " the code name for a weekly beer at the Auckland University rugby club with his old sports comrades.

In Cameronesque style, he deserves the last word. This is the way he fittingly ends his autobiography.

"So that is that. The captains and the kings of sport depart.

"Life as a travelling sports reporter is not all that bad, especially if you have a sense of humour. A hard life, perhaps.

"But someone had to do it."

- NZ Herald

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