Funny man (and former teacher) Gerry Dee pays tribute to the person who taught him how to stand up and deliver, one joke at a time.
By Bill Harris
Photos: Raina & Wilson
Although Gerry Dee jokes around for a living, one thing he’d like to be clear about is the difference between the teacher he once was and the one he portrays on TV. “I wasn’t the character you see on Mr. D,” says the creator and star of the CBC sitcom, in which he plays a teacher whose ego often gets in the way of his best intentions. “When I was teaching, I was, in many ways, trying to emulate a former teacher I admired."
Dee, whose career path has been unconventional but successful, was a teacher for nine years before shifting his energies toward his other passion, comedy.
From whom did he draw his approach to teaching? That would be Joseph Onorati, OCT, his Grade 8 teacher at St. Gabriel Catholic School in Toronto.
“With Joe, you think, ‘Wow, that person was really great,’ even if you didn’t notice it as a student,” recalls Dee, who went by his real last name (Donoghue) in those days. “Joe was the right balance of three things. First, he was someone we admired. Second, he had a sense of humour and knew when to use it. And, third, he was strict and simply got the job done. Embodying all of those things — as I learned when I was teaching — is rare.”
Dee recalls the respect he had for Onorati, regardless of how playful or serious his teacher had to be in the classroom — he navigated all situations in a fair and balanced manner.
“Joe was no softie, he ran a tight ship, but he was the kind of teacher you didn’t want to disappoint,” Dee says. “There were times when he had to discipline me but I still liked him. I knew he liked me but I also knew I could be a bit much.”
Onorati chuckles upon hearing those words. “When Gerry says I liked him, he’s absolutely correct,” says the retired teacher. “It’s great to be valued by someone like him.”
Having worked in education for more than 35 years, Onorati has encountered hundreds of students in the classroom, as well as when he was vice-principal and principal at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. During that time, he also had part-time positions at the York University faculty of education as a Principals’ Qualification Program facilitator (2005–10) and a practicum facilitator (2011–17), mentoring pre-service teacher candidates. And through all of that, Onorati still remembers Dee clearly, and for a particularly special reason.
Joe was someone who let me joke around but knew when to put an end to it... Once you got into class, it was all business.
“Gerry was in my very first class as a teacher; I don’t know if he’s aware of that. I even remember where he used to sit — he was very social, as you can imagine,” says Onorati, who admits that what he lacked in experience, he made up with enthusiasm. “I think I was humble enough and caring enough for them to know that I wanted them to learn.”
Dee recalls being a “pretty good student” but Onorati suggests Dee is selling himself short, saying, “Believe me, Gerry was a very, very good student.” In fact, he was named valedictorian of his Grade 8 class, something the comedian attributes more to his speaking skills than his academic prowess. Onorati, however, insists the teenager had a fine combination of both.
“Gerry wanted to do well,” his former teacher says. “He was extremely neat — I remember that about him — and his books were always so well organized. He used to underline things as he did them.” Having done quite a bit of coaching in those days, he also remembers Dee as a good athlete with great all-around skills.
Dee fully acknowledges, though, that whether he was in the classroom, on the playground or in the gym, he didn’t always know when to settle down. And it was for this reason, he remembers, that Onorati had to have a serious chat with him about being less disruptive.
This memory rings a bell with Onorati — he had a version of that conversation with a number of students throughout his career.
“Gerry was a fast learner,” Onorati says. “He used to be the first to finish assignments, and as often is the case, once you finish your work, you have a tendency to fool around. That is probably why I had to have that chat.
“Having said that, he had done the work, so maybe it was up to me to give him extra, or something more stimulating.”
Nevertheless, Onorati’s teaching methods clearly provided plenty of stimulation for Dee, in many ways and in many forms.
Neither Dee nor Onorati knew it at the time but even back then Dee was amassing information that would help him both as a teacher, and subsequently as a comic actor who plays a teacher.
As time passed, Onorati became aware that his former student had gone into education. Then, just as Dee was making his big switch into comedy, their paths crossed at a school athletics event. Unbeknownst to Onorati, Dee was the guest speaker. The two had a quick exchange before Dee went on stage. “Gerry kind of roasted me mercilessly; he talked about my discipline style, as a comedian would,” Onorati laughs.
“But I felt pride as a teacher, of a student’s success. And that doesn’t have to mean economic success; hearing that they’re happy, doing something that makes them feel fulfilled, and that they’re caring and good citizens,” explains Onorati. “I’m proud of Gerry, as I am of all my students. But, I think that night created even more of a bond.”
Dee admits that it was hard for him to pick a favourite teacher because he had so many great ones, both at St. Gabriel and then at De La Salle College, where he went to high school in Toronto. He considers himself fortunate to have attended two schools that he absolutely loved.
Still, among those great teachers, Joe Onorati was, and still remains, special to the TV star. “Joe was someone who let me joke around but also knew when to put an end to it,” Dee says. “He never mailed it in. Once you got into class, it was all business. He was strict, which I appreciated even as a 12- or 13-year-old; I understood why it was important. We [students] got better, we got smarter, we learned and he prepared us for high school, which really is the most important thing. “I remember always enjoying my classes with Joe. Strict at times, funny at times, always got the job done. That, to me, is the best teacher.”
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.