November/December 2007 Issue
From Newsman to Lieutenant-Governor
By Ben Volman
David Onley, Ontario’s new lieutenant-governor, is an evangelical Christian and an activist on disability issues
He was only three years old but David Onley vividly recalls waking up with polio. “I had a tremendous fever and headache and was unable to move. I was paralyzed from the neck down.
“I’ve seen films of me at five years old, walking around with crutches and braces,” he says with the insight of a senior newsman. “My immediate reaction was, ‘That kid looks as if he survived a plane crash. There was still shock on my face.’ ”
With a ready smile, the newly installed 28th lieutenant-governor of Ontario is clearly at peace with that part of his past. As his wife Ruth Ann points out, his mind so completely transcends his physical limits Onley compels others to do the same.
Ann Rohmer is a news anchor colleague who first envisioned Onley as lieutenant-governor. “I didn’t see him for his disability but for his many abilities. He’s the most caring, talented and very generous person you could know.”
Neither Rohmer nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who made the final decision, could have foreseen the widespread support that has greeted Onley’s appointment as the Queen’s representative in Ontario. For the next five years he will carry out constitutional and ceremonial duties in the provincial legislature and at hundreds of formal and informal events around the province. He will also act as a patron for many charities.
A FAITH OF HIS OWN
Onley was born in Midland, Ont., into a family with five children. His parents, Charles and Gwen, committed Baptists of “bedrock faith,” raised him “to be just one of the kids.” Charles was an RCAF veteran who became solicitor for the City of North York. Gwen was a strong advocate for young David, foreseeing that he would achieve his life’s purpose.
With therapy, Onley became active despite having only partial use of his arms and legs. He remembers a happy, accepted childhood.
Onley’s spiritual grounding came early. At age nine he began a series of difficult surgeries. One last surgery on his knee was scheduled at age 13 but it failed. It had to be repeated 48 hours later. He calls it “the lowest point of my life.”
Father Belanger, a Roman Catholic hospital chaplain, and Rev. Gordon Allen, his pastor at Heron Park Baptist Church, gave him hope. They instilled a certainty that God was with him and a larger purpose was at work in his life. The result was a firm trust in God. “That’s what faith is all about,” he says. “It’s not having the full answer but pressing on.” He was baptized at age 16.
Being discipled by a Roman Catholic priest and a Baptist pastor also gave him a unique perspective. His viewpoint tends to be inclusive and tolerant, never partisan or one-sided.
During high school his friends helped kindle in Onley a new passion reflecting the turbulent 1960s: Onley became consumed with politics, inspired by visionary leaders of that era. In Grade 13 he was elected student council president. While studying political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough College he was twice elected student council president. Onley also took part in local politics but remained non-partisan. He worked with every party and made friends across the political spectrum.
With his political interests, law school seemed a natural step. At the University of Windsor Law School, Onley was pushed to his limits. “It taught me how to work and how to think,” he says. Despite his best efforts, he didn’t get past the first year.
Back at home, Onley couldn’t find a job and was living on a meagre disability allowance. “But I had this idea for a book,” he says. The subject was an old passion – space travel. By 1977 interest in NASA had cooled. Onley had a one-year plan to write a novel about the shuttle program due to be launched in 1979.
His father’s network brought him in contact with a literary agent, Beverley Slopen. She liked his idea. “David’s enthusiasm and passion for the space program was infectious,” she recalls, “and he charmed NASA officials to help him with his research.”
But he found the writing “excruciating.” Discouragement grew as the one-year plan stretched into three. Meanwhile friends got married and bought their first homes.
Shuttle: A Shattering Novel of Disaster was sold to publishers in Canada and the United Kingdom with great timing. NASA’s shuttle program, delayed until 1981, caught the public interest. The book, released that fall, became a bestseller.
“It was more than a success,” says Slopen. “It launched his career. Onley used the novel and his contacts at NASA as a calling card to become a TV and radio commentator on the space program and other science topics.” It changed his life in other ways as well.
A DOOR OPENS
One evening when Onley went to visit his publicist, the door was opened by her cousin, Ruth Ann. “He was nice looking but kind of geeky,” says Ruth Ann, recalling the first sight of Onley with his cane and glasses.
Ruth Ann had a strong Christian upbringing in rural Ontario but she had set God aside to pursue the life of a professional singer. She was well on her way toward a promising recording career. Onley invited the publicist and her cousin to services at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church and something unexpected happened.
At the time, Ruth Ann remembers, “The music career appeared to look fulfilling and better things were coming along but inside I didn’t feel anything but emptiness.” At Yorkminster she heard a young woman speak about trust and letting go. Ruth Ann knew she had to decide whether or not to let God back into her life. She had become, she says, a “prodigal daughter.”
As their friendship and church connection continued, Ruth Ann was impressed by Onley’s articulate intelligence: “The geeky quality transformed when my heart was transformed.” Then one night she sat up in bed saying, “No! No! No!” In her sleep she had felt God calling her to marry Onley. How could she marry a man with a disability?
As their relationship slowly warmed up Onley also wondered, “How do I ask anyone to accept this burden?” With prayer he came to believe this was God’s direction. That fall, when Onley’s book came out and Ruth Ann’s career was thriving, he proposed. They were married in April 1982. A man of many passions finally had one to share.
Living with his disability has not been easy for Ruth Ann. Early on, they made a winter stop in Montreal. “David couldn’t walk long because of his disability. I remember kicking the curb. I was angry at the polio. I was just so angry I almost broke my toe.” She admits that since then there have been more than a few curbs kicked along the way.
The couple began travelling across Ontario promoting her album that had won a “Newcomer of the Year” award in Canadian country music. But when Ruth Ann became pregnant, her management dropped her contract and the couple returned to Toronto. She was devastated and again had to trust in God’s plan for her life. Today she enjoys the satisfaction of having raised three athletic young men: Jonathan, Robert and Michael.
As the provider of a growing family, Onley’s media experience opened doors into radio but he was barely making ends meet. His break came after he was noticed by Moses Znaimer, one of Canada’s media innovators. Citytv, which Znaimer headed, hired Onley in 1984 as a weather man and occasional space reporter.
All went well for about three months until Znaimer came into a staff meeting. He wanted Onley, who had been reporting from behind a desk, visibly in front of the cameras.
“I was aware of the symbolism,” says Znaimer. “I’m in the symbolism business. I created CityPulse as a moving active newsroom.” He didn’t want the usual news format around a glorified anchor. “I was more interested in genuineness,” he says.
Onley did not have the option to refuse. He appeared on camera with a cane and, starting in 1986, with a scooter. “That was when calls started coming in,” he says. “I started seeing people on the street in wheelchairs making eye contact and saying ‘Great’ and ‘Good job.’ ”
Within a few years Onley emerged as a public model for individuals with disabilities. During his long career at Citytv and its affiliate, CablePulse 24, he began travelling widely as a speaker addressing disability issues. He has also spoken about the later effects of polio or “post polio.” Onley is a valued supporter of several organizations focused on helping people with disabilities, including Variety Village, the Muki Baum Association and the Ontario March of Dimes.
He has also received numerous local and national awards. In 1997 he was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame. He received the 1996 Clarke Institute Courage to Come Back award from the effects of polio.
Has he been able to exercise his faith at work? “You bring the personal values of your life to work every day,” says Onley, “where they’re either manifest or not.”
He and Ruth Ann are also involved in their church, the Safe Haven Worship Centre in Pickering. She has renewed her singing career as a performer in local churches and on Christian TV. During Onley’s five-year term, she’ll focus on being at his side.
Onley looks forward to promoting the issues of accessibility, particularly in the area of employment. As our interview winds down, he becomes emotional describing the many gracious messages he has received from diverse communities and ethnic groups across the province. He then insists on walking his guest to the door and gives a firm handshake.
Ruth Ann later takes pains to explain that their message isn’t merely about accessibility or photo ops. “There has to be a heart element and this is what David emphasizes. There has to be a little more give and take. Won’t that be better for all of us? It comes back to the Christian values of love.”
Ben Volman is a freelance writer in Toronto.