Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Fitting Home

 They are honouring David Onley at the Withrow Common Gallery at the CNE for championing employment for the disabled. There  could not have been a better place or subject.

They will talk about his fine work as an agreeable lieutenant governor and how he made you forget that he was not just a figurehead but had turned his wheelchair into a seat of power and inspiration. Forgotten by too many will be his years at CITY as a workhorse in a struggling TV station where he did everything from the weather to talking about space.

But I go back even further to his research for the provincial Liberals when the latest hot idea in transportation was maglev. It seemed so magical, this European scheme to move urbanites in small cabins running not on wheels but suspended thanks to powerful magnets forcing a gap of air between the car and the track.

There were many unknowns but the stout provincial Tory government calculated that the future lay in cancelling expressways like the Spadina and building a system with Krauss-Maffei that could solve the traffic hassles of Toronto and also produce technology that could be sold to the world. Oh yes, also win elections for Conservatives.

Exhibition Place was selected in 1974 as the location for a test track that the world would watch. And the digging began on construction of the elevated concrete track that would girdle the Ex for more than two miles. Onley was just a fresh U of T grad but he and other researchers for the Liberals leaked me details of what would be more massive and isolating than graceful and unobtrusive. Physics said it needed big supporting pillars, like the later Gardiner, some of which were built and lingered for years after Krauss Maffei cancelled the whole project because the first maglev train in Germany had trouble going around curves in the snow.

The pressure on any critic was enormous as the experiment turned into the Urban Transportation Development Corp before it flamed out.  The wiz-kid boss, Kirk Foley, called on Sun publisher Doug Creighton asking that I be fired - and the chair of our board, a former Tory minister, thought that was a good idea. After the wreckage of crashed transit dreams, the Tories found other uses for UTDC plans, the Liberals offered me a job, and Onley went on to write about space and star on CITY which had just been known for racy movies.

But he also worked tirelessly for the disabled when just surviving an ordinary day could be a challenge. One noon, I bought him lunch at the Underground Railroad and we emerged to find that his car with his special hand controls had been towed from King St. despite the special disabled card in the windshield. I blasted the police chief, yet no effort was made to help him get to the pound. Still, David kept smiling.

I like the location of David being honoured by the Ontario Disability Employment Network because the Withrow Common is a modern celebration of a glorious CNE past when it helped art grow in a young city. The CNE art gallery was torn down because of the Gardiner but for decades before the Ex stimulated the artists of Toronto by buying and promoting their work.

When the gallery was demolished, the CNE gave 340 works of art to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Unfortunately, the AGO treated the donation with the same careless indifference it showed the art it got from the provincial gallery at Ryerson University (which has had that vanilla renaming triggered by woke jerks.) For example, it sold off an A.J. Casson.

 A careless survey years ago for the Ex claimed that several paintings from the Ex ended up in the press gallery of old city hall (a fib because as a reporter there for several years I can testify there was no art at all) and that the mayor's office at the old hall, and the hall itself, got at least 20 paintings (which would be news to the people who worked there.) The Reference Library and Market Gallery also got some art but Group of Seven paintings, like from Frank Carmichael, have wandered in and out of accounts of their fate. Some just vanished into homes.

Now art from the community and not just exotic masters has returned to the Ex with the Withrow Gallery. So that is a plus. And the Common honours good guys. Another plus! Now if only we can promote the CNE past where there were province-wide contests for the essays, hand writing and art from elementary pupils.(I helped judge essays.) I have always had a warm feeling for the Ex my entire life because my Grade 5 charcoal sketch of McLure's millpond in tiny Chesley was displayed there nearly 80 years ago.

Just remembering makes me almost feel 60 again. The long summer afternoons of rafting there like Huckleberry Finn on the Rocky Saugeen with a chum who died years ago. Warm memories in an age where the woke say that Mark Twain and other treasures of the past were racist.

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