A Lasting Legacy

InFocus Magazine looks back at 24 years of providing an in-depth look at the Comox Valley

“I believe we have produced a very real chronicle of life in the Comox Valley for almost a quarter of a century,” says InFocus Magazine publisher Tyra Lewis (left), with her mom and InFocus Advertising Manager Nancy Newsom, and son Colten at Lewis’ Merville farm.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In June of 1993, fresh out of college and journalism school and driven by a dream, 22-year-old Tyra Lewis (then Newsom) began InFocus Magazine in a spare room in her parent’s home in Courtenay.  Her main objective was to craft feature-length articles not usually found in newspapers—positive stories to showcase local people, places, events and hot topics with a local, unbiased perspective. At the time, the only print media in circulation was two newspapers reporting the news, which by nature, generally focused on the negative aspects and dark underbelly of the local community.

She decided on a name and a simple tagline—‘An in-depth look at the Comox Valley.’ “I wanted to cover real people and real issues,” says Lewis. “We opted for an in-depth format that would really allow readers to feel they could grasp the whole story. Our goal was always to be balanced and objective.”

Her brother’s old vacant room became the magazine office and a darkroom was installed downstairs for developing photos. Nancy Newsom, Lewis’ mom, agreed to sell advertising despite having no experience. Lewis placed ads in the local paper for writers and photographers and started interviewing suitable applicants. Boomer Jerritt, a carpenter with photography aspirations and a diploma from the Western Academy of Photography, applied and was hired as staff photographer.

“I thought InFocus was a great opportunity,” he says, looking back. “I thought it would be a wonderful way to get my name into the community.”

Francis Penny, an experienced wordsmith whose writing style set the tone for the next two and half decades of stories, and Dianne Hawkins, somewhat of a protégé, were added to the InFocus roster as freelance writers, along with a few others.

Hawkins says she feels honored to have been part of InFocus’ history. “I met Tyra when Francis was a student in one of my desktop design classes. He suggested the class take a field trip to Tyra’s magazine to see what was being created in the Valley’s backyard. I was instantly intrigued by her heart and dream for the magazine and wanted to somehow find a way to be part of the vision,” she says.

As print deadlines loomed, Hawkins recalls, “Tyra was—and is—a stickler for accuracy and putting out a polished and professional product. Many times Nancy would feed us all, and then after a fabulous meal we’d continue working late into the night—writing, re-writing stories, proofreading, editing, proofreading and more proofreading. A deep sense of team and camaraderie was launched.”

From the outset, Lewis was meticulous about the quality of the publication. Despite tight deadlines and the constant rigors of multitasking, she never took shortcuts. “She has an absolute attention to detail,” says Nancy. “Nothing was finalized until it was perfect in her eyes.” When the first issue came back from the printers she was proud but also nervous. Looking at that first black and white issue now, this many years on, she cringes—design styles, fonts and graphic design practices have altered quite dramatically over time.

Lewis and her parents hand delivered 8,000 copies of the inaugural issue to Comox Valley homes and business. The new magazine was very well received. “It’s a format that has worked for us over a long period of time,” Lewis says. “The local focus was an important thing and I am sure a key to our success. People liked to read a bit more in-depth about the issues and we’d cover a different angle than the newspapers.”

The magazine was a full time job. “In the beginning, I thought we were going to run out of story ideas, but we never did,” Lewis adds. “The way the Valley continued to grow meant there were always new people coming here. There was always a huge bank of issues, people, events and businesses to consider.”

For 24 years, InFocus has delivered well-researched, emotive, relevant and sometimes contentious stories to a growing community in the midst of profound change. Despite the altering environs—or perhaps because of it?—InFocus became a “must read” for locals, and a great tourist treasure-trove for visitors.  It captured a loyal following.

“I know people collect the issues, like National Geographic magazines,” says Hawkins, who is now the CEO of the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce.  “It’s really quite heartening to see the strong community ownership of this magazine that has existed for a long time.”

The first issue of InFocus featured articles on issues that still resonate today—amalgamation of the Comox Valley, the future of education, the battle to save a stand of old growth forest on Denman Island, impaired driving and tips for preventing break and enters. It captured the history of the former Old House Restaurant, profiled a local kayak shop still in business today, and offered recipes—still a regular InFocus feature—and the column, From the Volcano. This long running candid and witty column was written for teens, about teens by Vanier teacher and councillor Fred Johnson, who died in 2008.

Now, 24 years and 195 issues later, the team behind InFocus is switching gears. In your hands is the final issue of the magazine that has chronicled the happenings of this growing community for close to a quarter of a century. Nancy is retiring, and Tyra is focusing on her graphic design work—she has operated another business, InFocus Design, since 1998—raising her three-year-old son, Colten, and tending to her Merville farm with her husband, John.

Two and a half decades is a substantial chunk of time in the life of both a grassroots publication and a small community. It covers a time of unprecedented growth in technology, and in the Comox Valley it is the difference between 55,000 and more than 70,000 people; a new airport and hospital, two malls and a downtown and big box stores in every direction. Today, the Comox Valley ranks in the top five fastest growing rural regional districts in BC.

Throughout this period of growth, InFocus Magazine zealously stuck to its overriding vision of providing long-form features about unique aspects of the local area. The publication morphed from black and white to full color, changed its logo over the years as the digital age bit, and went from monthly to bi-monthly, then quarterly the last three years after Lewis’ son was born.

InFocus embraced changes to the Valley not only because it had to, but because it wanted to—economic expansion, political ambitions, municipal hearsay, environmental concerns, First Nations perspectives, new businesses and young entrepreneurs making their mark, all the while giving voice to the old custodians such as Ruth Masters and many more.

According to Hawkins, whose kids graced the cover and pages of InFocus on more than one occasion, “The magazine became a fixture in the Valley; necessary, essential, a true depiction of Valley life. People are going to miss it, especially its loyal following.  I know first-hand it has a loyal following, because every month locals stop by the Chamber to pick up the magazine or inquire when the next issue is going to be out.

“Having the opportunity to meet and interview incredibly interesting people, write their stories and bring their ambitions and dreams to life was inspiring,” remembers Hawkins. “I met so many diverse characters through the magazine.  I remember when Francis wrote an article about local artist George Sawchuck, and told the story of George’s magical forest, the ‘Wacky Woods’.  I was so intrigued by the story, Francis took me to meet George and his wife Pat.  For a few years we would attend their July 1st celebrations and my kids would play in the forest. My kids still talk about that forest.

“So many great connections were made through the magazine, especially my friendship with Francis—he the seasoned writer and me the novice.  He would vet my stories, add comments or re-work my headlines.  I remember him quoting Ernest Hemmingway to me one day as I stared at my notebook attempting to write a story: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The pressure of writing was worth it—writing introduced me to people I wouldn’t have necessarily had the opportunity or privilege to meet otherwise.

“The focus on local people, businesses and events brought real pride to our community—we were introduced to another world outside of our day-to-day lives in the Valley,” Hawkins adds. “We were invited to share and embrace the richness of these people, their lives and crafts.  We were graced with learning the depth of engagement, creativity and kind-heartedness of our community, spanning from raising miniature donkeys, to taking sauces and jams to market, to one woman’s devotion and creation of Boomer’s Legacy.  This was the heart and soul of the magazine—to celebrate the Valley.”

One of staff photographer Boomer Jerritt’s favorite photo shoots for InFocus was flying with the Snowbirds.

Boomer Jerritt—the aspiring young photographer who essentially traded hammer and nails for his camera back in 1993—managed to turn his art form into a successful full-time career. His skills behind the lens have since taken him to some of the most awe-inspiring pockets of the planet and his iconic shots, both mesmerising and thought-provoking, have been featured in countless publications and public spaces. “InFocus basically launched my career here in the Valley,” he says, “allowing my images to be seen within the business community and the public en masse.”

Give or take a few issues when he was off on other photo shoots, Jerritt has taken the photos for almost every issue since its inception. “Boomer’s photos are a huge part of the success and attraction of the magazine over the years,” says Lewis. “His style of photography is unique and he has a great way of making people feel at ease in front of the camera, which shows in his photos.”

Regarding his most memorable, interesting, or difficult photo shoots, Jerritt says, “Riding in the Snowbirds was pretty cool, as I actually got to fly the plane!  On another occasion, hanging out off the back of the Search and Rescue Buffalo on its lowered ramp photographing the Snowbirds and F-18 flying in formation over the Glacier, not more than a couple hundred feet away. Riding along in the Labrador on a trip to Tofino where Search and Rescue was practicing water rescues—I was hanging out the door near the winch capturing images. That was fun.

“But the most challenging shoot hands-down,” he adds with a smile, “was, and still is, photographing Tyra.”

All joking aside, Jerritt says, “I think that the amount of information that we have collectively recorded both in words and images over the 24-year period with InFocus cover a very distinct time in the Valley before unprecedented growth occurred, certainly before Westjet began operation.  I remember photographing the old guard, the established families who lived here for generations—many of whom are not with us any more (George Hobson, Isabelle Stubbs, Tucky Schellinck, Bus Griffiths and more)—listening to their stories and experiences and how life in the Valley shaped their lives, lives that were much smaller in scope so to speak.

“It is very different now—more influences from people from a variety of places and backgrounds now make up the Valley and that has changed the area forever.”

Terri Perrin, who joined the InFocus team as a freelance writer when she moved to the Valley in 2009, has written more than 75 stories for the magazine. “Writing for InFocus has offered me the privilege of meeting and interviewing some pretty amazing people,” says Perrin. “I have laughed with some, cried with others, and been inspired by all. People opened up their homes and their hearts to me, knowing that InFocus had a reputation for story-telling that was authentic and pure.

“Writing gave me a chance to go whale watching, bottle feed a water buffalo calf, touch a bald eagle, and sip tea from a cooperative in Assam,” Perrin adds. “Two of the stories that I produced for this magazine were recognized as runners-up in the Professional Writers Association of Canada’s national writing awards, of which I am very proud.

“It has been a privilege and an honor to have been part of the InFocus team and I am really going to miss having this unique connection to my community.”

For Tyra Lewis, the young lady with a bold vision, the past 24 years stewarding InFocus have been rewarding beyond measure. “What stands out most are the relationships made over the years, for me and my mom both,” she says. “Writers, contributors, advertisers—many of these connections have turned into lasting friendships. This job has allowed me to be my own boss and all the freedom that comes with that.  It has afforded me a lifestyle I love, and one I am very grateful for.

“I am most proud of how the community and our readers embraced what we were trying to do with InFocus, and supported us wholeheartedly, right from the start,” Lewis adds.  “It was—and still is—always rewarding to see someone sitting in a coffee shop having a coffee and reading the magazine, or waiting for their copy as we drop the latest issue off at newsstands.”

For Lewis, the decision to bring InFocus Magazine to an end has been extremely onerous. “It has been incredibly difficult,” she says. “It has been my baby for a lot of years and it is never easy to let go of something you created and poured your heart and soul into for such a long time—more than half my life.

“I hope that the 195 issues we have produced will serve as a snapshot of life in the Comox Valley,” Lewis adds. “Wouldn’t it be cool if 100 years from now people will use our publication to research the history of this community?  Really, I believe we have produced a very real chronicle of life in the Comox Valley for almost a quarter of a century.  That is a solid chunk of time.  You can look through our issues and get the flavor and feel for how life was at any given time here, and also gain an understanding of what shapes this community—the characters and attributes that those fortunate enough to call the Comox Valley home love so much.

“I hope we have been able to shed light and bring attention to so many positive stories and people doing incredible and often unique things, and give them a voice they may not have otherwise had. That is something I am proud of, and a legacy I hope people remember.”

From that spare room in her parent’s home in Courtenay all those years ago, something magic unfolded. For two and a half decades, InFocus has been a fixture, both ‘necessary’ and ‘essential’, peering into the beating heart and breathing soul of the Comox Valley—objective, balanced and bold, proof of the absolute beauty and far-reaching power of words, good storytelling, and the generous actions of humankind.

For Dianne Hawkins, “Being welcomed and invited by Tyra to write for the magazine, regardless of my writing experience, and being mentored by Francis Penny were highlights in my career journey. Tyra and Nancy created an environment that felt more like a family than a job.  Little did I know, in 1993, that the opportunity to write for InFocus and work with Tyra would evolve into a life-long friendship that’s still going strong.

“On a personal note,” she adds. “I absolutely adore and celebrate Tyra. She created this magazine in her early 20s. She stewarded it, cared for it, kept the focus and shared her vision every month without fail.  She was the drive behind the magazine, the success, the team she built around her.  To have so many people love and enjoy the magazine over the years is a testament to her love of the Valley, and her heart for our community.”

A Historical Perspective

Perhaps there aren’t many local citizens better equipped to lend insight into the changes the Comox Valley experienced throughout the lifespan of InFocus Magazine than Lawrence Burns and Judy Hagen.
Burns is a former longstanding Fire Chief of the City of Courtenay and now Fire Department Chaplain and member of the local Heritage Committee. Profiled in InFocus in September, 1994, Burns has resided in the Comox Valley since his birth in 1929. Today, at 88 years of age, his language is wonderfully eloquent, his memory recall brilliant, and he manages to paint a replete picture of bygone days with graceful ease.

Having graduated from Courtenay High School in 1946, he then joined the Volunteer Fire Department in 1950, becoming the first full paid Fire Chief in 1969. Looking back over the years, working through the vast recesses of his memory to pinpoint the last 24 years since InFocus has been in operation, he acknowledges with equal parts excitement and caution that the area has experienced exponential growth in every regard imaginable. When pressed, he pinpoints several key amendments to the local landscape—the commencement of the Crown Isle development (1992), which had massive repercussions for land development and rising value, North Island College (construction began in 1990), Mark Isfeld School (1993), Superstore (1992-93), the Aquatic Centre (1999), the current Courtenay City Library (2001) and Art Gallery (2005), Comox Airport (2004), and numerous big box stores in the early 2000s.

“It’s true that as a small town person I perhaps preferred the area more when it was smaller because it was a friendlier atmosphere,” says Burns. “But,” he adds with consolation, “our Valley is still a beautiful place to live. We have all the amenities now, and I for one wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Judy Hagen is an evergreen local historian who has written countless articles for local publications—including the “Hunt for History” column for the Comox Valley Echo since 1992—and has authored books about the history of the Comox Valley and surrounds. So thorough is her knowledge and so engaging are her words that she received an award from the Canadian Museums Association for her book Comox Valley Memories, published by the Courtenay and District Museum in 1993. Hagen too has witnessed the changing landscape of the Valley, through the discerning eyes of a bona fide historian.

“Life was so much slower a few decades ago… but the Comox Valley is still a wonderful place to raise kids,” she says. In addition to the bolstered infrastructure, continual housing developments and big box stores mentioned by Lawrence Burns, Hagen highlights the artistic flair of the Valley, the fantastic work of the local Arts Council and theatres in promoting the arts, including First Nations artworks. She talks with fervor about the excellent work done by local museums in capturing moments in time and relaying those moments to younger generations. Hagen reiterates Burns’ praise of NIC—which has enabled many young adults to remain in the area for their tertiary studies, instead of being forced to leave the Valley—and adds the positive impact of the ongoing development of Mt. Washington Alpine Resort at a critical time when the area was in the midst of losing fishing, mining, and logging as mainstay economic providers.