Gargamel, you will be missed

Ivan Fenech talked like he wrote, without wasted words. He only spoke up when he had something to say. But his presence filled a room, much like the scent of the pipe he smoked.

I called him ‘Gargamella’ — the Italian name for Gargamel, the evil wizard from The Smurfs cartoon. Not because he was evil, far from it. It was the way he hunched over his computer with his back to the newsroom, plotting his next political column.

Like Gargamel, his tools often failed him. All of us slammed our keyboards and swore at our screens, especially when the machine froze up on a tight deadline. But Ivan’s reaction was funnier somehow. He couldn’t talk to the thing to solve the problem, and I couldn’t help giggling as I watched him struggle. He had a way of making a person smile, even when things were going wrong.

When we crossed paths between our desks at The Times and the coffee machine, Ivan usually had his head bowed in thought. But when he got close, his hand would spring up, he’d mumble “Alright?” and move on.

When he approached my desk to ask for something, it was never with an editor’s abruptness. “Can you please take a look at your story again?” he’d ask, or “Sorry to bother you, but would you possibly be able to fill this space? A story fell through.”

Ivan was kind and deeply sensitive, but when it came to debate he was immovable. He always listened, sometimes patiently, and then delivered the next round in his argument. He never forced his opinion or tried to convince. He just flatly disagreed and chalked it up to wisdom. You couldn’t argue with him. You just smiled and walked away.

Despite his efforts to avoid the limelight, Ivan shone both as a writer and an editor. His columns were sharp, insightful and impeccably written, and he brought out the best in us as journalists.

When I was appointed News Editor of The Times of Malta, Ivan came to me and said, “I have your back”. “Go for it,” he said. I valued it so much because he really meant it.

But Ivan wasn’t all business. I often saw the best of him over a smoke. He’d take a walk around Valletta at lunchtime, stopping by Barrakka Gardens for a cold beer. And when he came back, he’d find the smokers — me among them — gathered in the doorway. I’d see him reaching for his pipe as he approached. But even when he was trying to quit the pipe, he always had time for a chat.

We ended our most recent conversations with, “Let’s meet soon”, but life and work got in the way and it never happened. Now I can never look forward to him popping up to let me know what he thinks. And maybe that’s a final lesson? A reminder from Ivan to get my priorities straight, just like my sentences and my ideas.

Journalism in Malta has lost one of its best. A man of integrity, principles and impeccable professionalism. And so many of us lost a mentor and a friend.

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