Wednesday, January 18, 2023

David Onley's Triumphed In His Space

It was just another municipal staff Christmas party that I poked into one evening on the hunt for anything that might interest a Sun reader. My daily marathon for 40 years and thousands of columns and editorials. Nodded to friendly aldermen and dodged the roasted. Mel Lastman glared and I retreated to a nook where Charles Onley waited to go home.

We chatted carefully about issues, because after all, he was one of the top municipal lawyers in the country and his fief of North York was a giant suburb even if Toronto did look down at it. Then popped a transportation subject even stranger than Santa's sleigh, magnetic levitation. I had been a leading critic of the Tory experiment to build a costly test track at the Ex, aided by info from Grit critics including an earnest crippled researcher named David Onley.

Then it all came together even for a tired journalist on the hunt for something, anything, for tomorrow's paper. This was the father, and he didn't want to talk about wheel-less streetcars floating on magnets but that researcher.

I had never really talked to this borough solicitor but it didn't matter because he went on and on about how happy he was that "his" boy  had survived his rough start to marriage to a gospel singer and a family. Then he paused. And then he cried.

Just two men at the edge of a party that was limping along in a mandatory office-party way. Two crying men, because I was crying too. Any father would.

It had got better later for "his" boy. There had been braces, crutches, wheelchairs, but then from the seat of a motorized scooter David had soared into space. He loved to write about space.  He loved to talk about space. And so he became a broadcaster and wrote a best seller and became a familiar role model and TV personality.

The last time I saw David after half a century of watching his cheerful diplomacy as a champion on accessible issues was at last fall's 29th induction luncheon for the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame. I have been on its selection committee since it began when former senator Vim Kochhar inspired its start as the Terry Fox Hall of Fame.

 It has prospered with famous recipients but the title has changed since the Fox family created problems that we couldn't work out even when such populist giants as former mayor David Crombie and Onley were involved. Just another example that accessibility to all may appear a universal wish but its real achievements are a nuanced dance through mine fields of politics, pride, costs and stupidity.

I have never missed the annual presentation but that has become a challenge since the grand Royal York Hotel - where I have been in and out for 70 years - might as well be a fortress with drawbridges down when you are in a wheelchair as I have been for several years. My son Mark is a formidable help but even so Onley in his motorized scooter and I in my wheelchair were the stragglers later at the eastern entrance with its small special elevator.

Plenty of time to chat and smile at the hassles, but then David was 72 when he died, a lifetime of overcoming hurdles from legs that don't work like those on the people who flash by. I am just a newbie with canes, walkers and wheelchairs. But still, the casual insolence of the dumb who don't recognize the  hurdles they so carelessly leave around is astounding.

I recall a lunch at the Underground Railroad when David and I chatted into the early afternoon with John Henry Jackson, the owner who had been an Argo quarterback. What a pleasant time. I walked happily back to the Sun, which had not yet been mangled. Onley left after me to find that his car with hand controls and the warning sign had been towed. It didn't matter that with no police offering to help, he had been marooned by a stupid cop. It was now up to him to get from Sherbourne and King to the foot of Yonge when he can't walk. I wrote about it later and yelled at the chief but to David it was just another day.

Ontario has been blessed with the men and women like David who have been our lieutenant-governors. (I would not say the same about the GGs)  In Ontario, they may have often looked like kings and queens from the Establishment but most have never lacked the commoner touch.

For example, John Black Aird was as elegant as his name. A baron of Bay Street. Yet even when his back was killing him. he was playing floor hockey with the kids at Variety Village. He was whipsawed by a crisis in 1985 when the Tories and Grits were in a virtual tie after an election and it was up to him who was to rule. So he chose to go with David Peterson and his deal and the Tories' long reign ended. He gave me the scoop about that in a few common sense observations one noon at the Press Club when I hosted him as president.

As Sun Editor I lambasted him in the editorial about a Grit bagman coming through for the party.  He laughed that off as "just politics," and kept a column I later wrote about him encased in plastic on his law office desk. Our lieutenant-governors have always had an understanding appreciation about how politics is played. 

 Lincoln Alexander was a prime example of that. He had started as the humble son of a railway porter but moved comfortably in the halls of power after he used his RCAF war pay to become a lawyer. As a Tory MP, he heckled Pierre Trudeau so savagely one day that PET yelled "fuck off" which Hansard after much soul-searching made "fuddle duddle."

Because you couldn't have the millionaire PM curse the only working class black in the Commons.

As CNE president, I stood with Linc reviewing the veterans march past on Warriors' Day at the great fair. An elderly woman, sagging in the heat, the sweat staining her uniform, marched determinedly past.  Linc was so moved that he yelled encouragement and leaned out waving to her and would have fallen if I hadn't grabbed him by the belt of his RCAF uniform. There I was, once the lowest rank in the reserve,  holding a very very senior officer so he didn't fall 10 feet off a reviewing stand.

I told Onley that anecdote one day and he gave the same gentle broad smile with which he greeted the good and the bad of life. If only all of us could take the bad hands that fate deals us and perservere too, no matter what the hurdles.