Remarkable Teachers

Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor

David Onley

traces his success to outstanding teachers

Thirty years to the day he crafted a 21-page outline for his novel, David Onley received a call from the Prime Minister asking him to become Ontario’s 28th Lieutenant-Governor.

Serendipitous for sure, Onley knows.

The events – occurring on July 4, 1977 and July 4, 2007 respectively – were life shaping. Unexpected. Fortuitous. Rockets’ red glare momentous.

Writing Shuttle shaped his life for the next three decades. And the PM’s call? Onley, the career journalist and broadcaster, said he felt his stomach do a “barrel roll – physiologically not possible, but that’s what happened.” His inner voice said, “Everything changes right now.”

Some 220-plus official events later, the Queen’s viceregal representative in Ontario laughs in reflection. Dressed in a blue suit and red tie, seated on his motorized scooter, Onley, 57, brings regal honesty to a royal position, one he never imagined having.

“Nobody ever wakes up and says, ‘Gee Honey, I’d really like to be Lieutenant-Governor,’” he says from his vast yet sparsely decorated office. The pale yellow walls soak up the light streaming through the windows of the Queen’s Park legislature building’s west wing.

The position, however, is one he long respected, having covered various events, such as the Lieutenant-Governor’s Games at Variety Village, initiated by John Black Aird.

When the call came, he was ready.

Preparedness is one of several traits the current Lieutenant-Governor can trace to the important teachers in his life: his parents, Sunday-school teacher Ernie Attenborough, cub pack leader Mr. Wooley, and Mr. Henson, who ran the Friday night boys’ club.

At school, elementary teacher Mary Chapman modelled caring. Biology teacher Ross Benns demonstrated dogged tenacity and encouragement. Principal Jim Wade had foresight.

It was Wade who, as principal of the now-defunct Midland Avenue Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, first pulled Onley, the school’s student-council president, aside to assess his strengths and weaknesses. “You’re an ideas man,” Wade told him. “Your skills in organization and administration aren’t as strong as your ideas capability. You can end up being Prime Minister some day. If you do, and wherever you go, make sure you have good people in organization and administration. Your job is to come up with the ideas.”

“Those are conversations you never forget,” Onley says. “I am an ideas man and always have been.”

Midland-born and Scarborough raised, Onley moved to Toronto in late 1957. He contracted polio when he was three-and-a-half and his family knew he’d need the kind of medical treatment a small town couldn’t provide. While his condition kept him out of school for long stretches in his early years, he could not escape the care and attention of Mary Chapman.

Chapman taught for 25 years at Heron Park Public School. Onley had her in Grades 4 and 6. He remembers the school as a single-story, post-war structure, flat to the street with nary a step in it. In other words, accessible. Surgery kept him out of the classroom for part of his Grade 6 year but Chapman made sure he stayed on top of what was going on.

“He was a very lovely little boy,” Chapman, now 92, recalls. “He was interested in everything. He always wanted to be like the others and stand up to answer questions.”

In turn, Onley says Chapman was “everyone’s idealized version of who Mom should be if she were allowed to run a classroom.” Loving yet demanding.

“She really cared about what was happening in your life. She said, ‘If you got 11 out of 20 it wasn’t because I was being mean, it was because you earned it.’ She always encouraged us to do better.”

The Honourable David Onley with Mary Chapman, honouring her 25 years as a teacher during Heron Park Public School’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 1999.

“Chapman was everyone’s idealized version of who Mom should be if she were allowed to run a classroom.”

Chapman says the caring-but-no-pushover assessment by her former pupil is fair.

“In those days you were more like a part of the family than you are now,” she says. Onley’s mother invited Chapman and other teachers to dinner. Chapman encouraged the class to write notes to cheer David up when he was in the hospital.

Onley’s gratitude to teachers – those who shaped his development and those he meets in Ontario schools and classrooms now – runs deep.

“I was a good student, well served by the system. I had some excellent teachers. Virtually every single one of us who’ve succeeded can think of one teacher who did or said one thing that irreversibly changed our lives for the better.”

The late Ross Benns taught Grade 10 biology. Onley recalls Benns’s first-day introduction. “I expect everyone to get 100 per cent in this class,” the teacher said. And he promised a silver dollar – “back when a silver dollar meant something” – to every student who had perfect marks.

“He showed us how to study,” Onley says. Every Friday Benns reviewed the week’s work. Reviews followed at the end of every month and every term. Kids showed up for tests and exams prepared and expecting to do well. Most of the kids really tried to get 100 per cent, Onley says. A third of the class did. All but one scored better than 80 per cent.

Before he’s asked where he keeps his silver dollar, the Lieutenant-Governor says he finished the year with a 96 per cent average. If he’s pressed, he can tell you where he missed the marks. But, he says, it was a “tremendously positive” example of inspirational teaching.

Benns also captured students’ imaginations, talking to them in 1964–65 about what Onley says was then a new concept and a breathtaking revolution for science – DNA. It was university material at the time, but Benns found a way to integrate it into the curriculum and into the students’ minds.

In Grade 13 Onley had Benns again. And once more the teacher repeated his you-can-be-perfect refrain. “He was a really great teacher,” Onley says.

“Teachers have a staggering role to play in the lives of our kids.”

Onley graduated from Midland Avenue Collegiate Institute in 1970 after being “cordially invited” to repeat Grade 12. He jokingly refers to being part of a “secret Ministry of Education experiment to determine how many extracurricular activities you could be involved with before irreversibly damaging your marks.

“About 20,” he says with a smile.

“My parents, to their credit, felt it was far more important for me to be involved socially in high school than to simply crack the books,” he says.

The Midland Avenue high school was outside his catchment area and he had to take a taxi to school, but the school had a wheelchair and an elevator that enabled Onley to travel between levels.

Upward was the direction he was headed.

The 22-year veteran broadcaster – Canada’s first disabled weatherman – says he fell into journalism “almost by accident.” He earned a university degree in political science before attending law school for a year. His father Charles was the solicitor for the former City of North York under its mayor Mel Lastman. But young Onley knew within days that he’d never practise law. Nonetheless, the boot-camp mentality of law school gave him an appreciation for his own mettle.

“It taught me how to work and what I was capable of doing,” he says. “I never worked as hard that first year of law school and, frankly, haven’t worked as hard since.”

With five years of university education behind him, as well as some YMCA career counselling advice and a notion of working in media, Onley wanted to enrol in a journalism program. However, the institution he applied to wasn’t prepared to give him credit for any of his postsecondary courses and he wasn’t prepared to start over and put in another four years before he found a job.

Instead, he moved back home and wrote a novel about the space program. Shuttle took three years to write and another year to publish – the same time he would have spent in a journalism program.

But writing the book had a dual purpose. It established Onley as a media expert on Canada’s space program and it brought him to the attention of Moses Znaimer. The new media guru offered Onley a job as weather broadcaster with upstart CITY-TV and told him he could do as many space-related stories as he liked and could manage. Onley laughs. “It was Moses’s way of getting me to do two jobs for the price of one.”

Again, he has no regrets. It was all part of his education.

Education today, he realizes, is a very different scenario.

“Teachers have a staggering role to play in the lives of our kids,” he says.

He sees education and accessibility as issues that intertwine. Education is access. What is needed to promote access is education.

Enabling people to reach their full potential is as much an economic imperative as it is a moral one, Onley argues. People who can take care of themselves, feel good about themselves, contribute to the economy and to the welfare of the entire community.

“When we’re talking about accessibility in terms of job opportunities, enlightened approaches by employers, curb cuts and a better Wheel-Trans system, accessibility is that which enables people to achieve their full potential,” the Lieutenant-Governor says.

Accordingly, he’s promised to continue his predecessor James Bartleman’s efforts to put more books in the hands of Ontario’s Aboriginal students.

“And we will be getting these kids into the computer age, one way or the other, in conjunction with the chiefs,” Onley says.

“If teachers can keep the message of inclusion going forward, if they can look at accessibility as being that which enables people to achieve their full potential, they can apply that across the board – to higher learning and accessibility to skill sets,” he says.

Asked where he feels we are on the continuum of achieving full access, Onley points out that one of the objectives of the Ontario Disabilities Act is to have a fully functional, integrated society by 2025.

“I think it can be done in less than seven years and I think we’re already past the first year or two.”

He smiles, adding, “Is it a coincidence that my term of office runs for the next five years? No.”

It may just be serendipitous.

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