A former reporter examines Rod Sykes, a controversial mayor of Calgary who served from 1969 to 1977, in the unauthorized biography titled Thin Power.
Andy Marshall presented, with the help of his daughter Charlotte, his recently released book at Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary on Nov. 28.
“Rod believed that when you have your opponent down, you put your foot on their throat,” Marshall said of his controversial subject, who served as mayor of Calgary from 1969-77.
Sykes was known for being a “headline rustler” and not afraid to step on anyone’s toes, Marshall told an audience of about 25 at the book launch event.
He was also a champion of the underdog, fought hard to keep taxes reasonable and improved the city’s infrastructure in numerous ways, such as building a new airport and laying the groundwork for the LRT.
“He handled his formal duties with flair,” Marshall said.
“During his eight years in office, not a single day was lost to strike action by any of the city unions, this at a time when labour strikes were rampant across Canada.”
Sykes was born in Victoria, B.C. and moved to Alberta in 1962.
During the seven-year period between his arrival and his stint as mayor, he learned everything he could about Calgary.
He also had access to a wide range of people, which helped him become mayor of Calgary without any prior political experience.
“Newspaper people tell the best stories,” said Sarah Johnson, the literary events manager at Owl’s Nest Books.
Marshall twice left reporting to serve as a staffer under Sykes, both when Sykes was mayor and later when Sykes was the leader of the Alberta Social Credit Party.
Marshall said Sykes often jokingly referred to him as “the whore who left the whorehouse.”
In preparation of Thin Power, Marshall interviewed Sykes and searched through several archives.
Sykes was initially a willing participant, wanting the biography to be a “warts and all” biography.
However, Sykes seemed to change his mind when Marshall showed him a sample chapter.
“I just had the sense that this wasn’t going over well,” Marshall told the gathering.
Later, after reading the complete manuscript, Sykes criticized the book for being too personal.
“That was 2012,” Marshall said.
“We have not spoken since.”
The title of the book comes from a political cartoon by then Albertan cartoonist Vance Rodewalt, which depicted Sykes wearing a lapel pin that said, “thin power.”
Marshall said he also had the cover look like a political cartoon.
This was done because Sykes often said he was “God’s gift to cartoonists.”
While Sykes could get along with the elites, he treated the city council very harshly, constantly sniffing out corruption and saying council was a “cozy club.”
He sought transparency in all council dealings and a strict spending discipline.
“The fighting never stopped at City Hall.”
Sykes often made inflammatory comments and expressed a deep disdain for the media, which in turn depicted him unfavourably.
Marshall said while such actions do not inspire love, they allowed both Sykes to distinguish himself from typical politicians and come across as being more trustworthy. In that respect, his approach resembled the style of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
“Rod was a pioneer in that campaigning.”
But Marshall also said Sykes was far more empathetic and less narcissistic than Trump, and that this strategy of hitting people hard may have begun to wear thin towards the end of Sykes’ political career.
Sykes spent the early ‘80s acting as the leader of the Alberta Social Credit Party where he failed to enter provincial politics and faded into history.
He is currently 87 years old and still lives in the city.
The fighting never stopped at City Hall. – Andy Marshall
Despite his numerous contributions, Sykes is hardly remembered and has nothing in Calgary named after him.
Marshall said this might be due to Sykes’ provocative nature.
“When I see the degrees the university hands out, I’m shocked he receives no recognition,” Marshall said.
“I hope he emerges from this book as a fuller person.”
Thin Power, by Andy Marshall, is available in paperback at Calgary bookstores. It sells for $21.50.