Mel and Me
Longtime readers know that when this magazine began life in 1988 as the Downhomer, I was working as a police officer in downtown Toronto. Editing the magazine consumed almost every minute of my spare time. Our readers back then were mainly Newfoundlanders living away from the province, and the magazine's purpose, as the slogan proclaimed, was "Serving Newfoundlanders Wherever They May Be."
But in August 1989, an "outlander" dropped by my home office in Brampton, Ontario, and offered his services as an illustrator. He and his wife had just returned from their first trip to Newfoundland, and he was so captivated by the island's scenic beauty and the friendliness of the people that he wanted to get more involved with "Newfoundland things." That individual was Mel D'Souza.
Before Mel took over as our graphic artist, the illustrations in the Downhomer were products of my limited artistic imagination. With Mel on board we launched the popular puzzle, "Different Strokes," for which he created the characters Ern and Coal Bin and incorporated scenes from Newfoundland and Labrador. Also, his annual trips to various parts of the province enabled Mel to accumulate a vast library of photographs that have been featured in the magazine over the years.
Meanwhile the Downhomer was becoming known by other mainlanders, and we regularly received letters from them requesting more information about Newfoundland.
One Saturday afternoon in August 1994, I called Mel and suggested that we should devote a page in the Downhomer to letters received from non-Newfoundlanders. Mel agreed, but also suggested a column written by a non-Newfoundlander about experiences of Newfoundland should anchor the page. I thought it was a good idea and, naturally, asked Mel to write it. Mel confessed he was not a writer and had never written a column, but agreed to give it a try.
Then he suggested forming a fraternity of people who love Newfoundland and who would promote the province in their respective provinces, states or countries. We formed the CFA (Come-From-Away) Club on the spot, with Mel as the coordinator. Within a few years, the number of card-carrying CFA Club members had grown to more than 300 people in Canada and the United States, and a few in the UK, Germany and Australia. Not long after, I changed the Downhomer slogan to "A Little Part of Newfoundland for People Everywhere."
In 1995, my son Grant suggested we publish a Newfoundland cookbook. Having never tackled such a project before, we didn't know what to expect. But once I got started, the book took on a life of its own and turned into much more than a cookbook. The Downhomer Almanac and Cookbook I compiled a slew of excellent recipes submitted by our readers, plus a section of home remedies and a fair sprinkling of poems, words of wisdom, helpful hints, tidbits and trivia. When the almanac was ready to go to press, I showed the manuscript to Mel. He looked it over and pointed out that without illustrations, the pages looked somewhat bare. So I asked him to come up with a few illustrations. Mel put pen to paper and in six months he designed 500 cartoons and thumbnail sketches. The book became a national bestseller in less than a year, and almost 100,000 copies later it is still selling well.
Since then, Mel has illustrated nearly every book put out by Downhome Publishing and his drawings have graced books by other Newfoundland authors. A popular title is 12 Years, 12 Differences - a compilation of "Different Strokes" puzzles from the first 12 years of Downhome magazine. Mel has also written a new book, Feasts, Feni and Firecrackers, about his school days in a village in Goa, India, between 1947 and 1952 - when Goa was Portuguese territory. "Feni" is the Goan equivalent of Screech rum, and the illustrated short stories paint a rural scene that explains Mel's infatuation with Newfoundland, which he calls "my little Goa."
The CFA Club was disbanded in September 2003 and Mel's columns turned to promoting the southwest coast of Newfoundland - then known as the "Forgotten Coast." He bought a summer home in Francois and began working with the community to promote local tourism. Francois has made great strides in attracting more visitors, and Mel credits its success to the drive and foresight of its mayor, Kim Courtney, and the involvement of the community in general.
Nineteen years after he first walked into my office back in Brampton, Mel, now 70, is still actively involved with Downhome. He takes his one-week winter break to visit Lila and me in St. John's every January, when he meets with all his friends on the Avalon Peninsula and enjoys the best of Newfoundland's winter. And every summer he heads for the friendly shores of Francois, to absorb its ambience and write about its isolated beauty.