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Oration honouring Edsel John Bonnell


A first romantic kiss.

Bliss. Savour the moment.

Then, the mood spoiling question: "How did that feel?"

A question that might signal boastful arrogance, but when posed to Anthea, the love of his life, Edsel Bonnell wanted a serious answer. Months earlier, polio not only stole his beautiful singing voice, but stripped him of his ability to play the euphonium by leaving his lips paralyzed and devoid of sensation.

He yearned to know the feeling of that passionate kiss. A lesser man may have been defeated by the ravages of such a cruel disease, but Edsel Bonnell always sees the positive in whatever life sends his way. He worked diligently for the next two years with a private therapist to regain a normal speaking voice.

Embarking on a new life post-polio, young Bonnell shed his earlier life as a 14-hour a-day wage slave and resolved to become his own boss. From that resolution emerged the province's first accredited "PR" person and first public relations firm followed by an impressive and decades-long stream of personal honours and accolades from his peers.

The Canadian Public Relations Society bestowed more honours upon Edsel Bonnell than any other person in Atlantic Canada. Perhaps for these reasons, Premier Clyde Wells, in 1989, selected the capable and widely respected Bonnell as his Chief of Staff and trusted policy advisor.

If, however, the distinguished public relations career were the silver lining to the sable cloud of polio, then the Gower Youth Band is its platinum coating.

On Hallowe'en night in 1973, Edsel Bonnell first took up the baton of the Gower Youth Band, a fledgling, but somewhat languishing group of youngsters that was in need of strong leadership and guidance. Only three young trumpeters comprised the 'band' that evening.

When he returned home that night, his wife, Anthea, was disappointed by the news of the meagre turn out, but Edsel Bonnell was beaming. Edsel Bonnell envisioned in these few band members three score more young musicians who could fill the room with beautiful music and reclaim the music stolen from him by polio.

He sagely predicted that by year's end, the Gower Youth Band would have a waiting list. He recognized that developing the band would take time. In this case, the time could only come from his business and his family. Fortunately, his business gave him the flexibility and his family gave him their support!

In accepting the band's directorship, Edsel Bonnell insisted on two conditions: that the band must be free for the students and that membership must be non-denominational. The leadership at Gower United Church agreed, and a new era of the Gower Youth Band was born.

Entry into the band depended on reaching the age of 10 and passing Mr. Bonnell's music theory test. For those who did not achieve the pass mark, he worked with them over the next several weeks until they understood the basic principles.

The ability to play an instrument before joining the band was an asset, but not a requirement. He gave free music lessons to any child who wanted to learn, and there were many.

Hundreds of musicians are proud to acknowledge Edsel Bonnell and the Gower Youth Band as guiding forces in their lives.

He treated children with respect and dignity, and held them to a high standard, to which they rose. Many youth from rather modest backgrounds stuck with the Gower Youth Band to become professional musicians, and they are not shy about giving Mr. Bonnell credit for their achievements and life successes.

The Gower Youth Band extended its sphere of influence to the provincial music scene through a number of initiatives. Edsel Bonnell worked with the Kiwanis organization to develop a community band category. In conjunction with Memorial's School of Music, the band established scholarships, and to nurture creativity, initiated the Terra Nova Program where composers submit original works and the winners have them performed by the Band.

Recently, the Gower Youth Band transitioned into the Gower Community Band, in which people of all generations are welcome. Despite the band's name change, those who know Edsel Bonnell and those fortunate enough to have studied with him in the Gower Youth Band know that his lasting legacy to our people continues to be his commitment to our youth and his indelible stamp on their musicianship and their lives.

Vice-chancellor, for his pioneering role in the public relations industry and for nearly four decades of devotion to the development of our youth and the profound influence on the instrumental music heritage of this province, I am indeed honoured to present Edsel John Bonnell for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa.

Donald W. McKay,
University orator