I don’t think I ever met anyone who had a bad word to say about David Onley.
The Citytv television journalist and former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario died January 15 in Toronto. He was 72.
Onley was stricken with Polio at the age of three, resulting in partial paralysis. Starting his on-camera career in 1984 as a weather specialist before becoming a news anchor, he was the first person I recall seeing on nightly newscasts with a physical disability. Credit former Citytv boss Moses Znaimer with that enlightened bit of casting.
I spoke with Onley several times over the years and he was always friendly and gracious. Our most recent chat was about ten years ago in 2013. Onley, while Lieutenant Governor, guest starred in an episode of the long-running CBC series Murdoch Mysteries.
The gig was apparently his idea. A fan of the series and of his gothic surroundings at the Ontario legislature at Queen’s Park, Onley reached out to Murdoch’s executive producer and Shaftesbury head Christina Jennings. His pitch: given that Murdoch takes place at the turn of the 20th century, why not shoot an episode at a landmark building built in 1893?
Onley, a history buff, suggested his place of work was perfect for a mystery series. There are ghosts, creaky floors and lots of old furniture. He even volunteered to go before the cameras as Sir Oliver Mowat, one of the provinces most famous and successful politicians.
“I was fishing,” admitted Onley, who was emboldened to take the part given the fact that former prime minister Stephen Harper had already played a desk sergeant on the series.
Onley had some acting chops. He was active in school plays growing up in Scarborough, often cast in older parts because of his reliance on a cane. “I kept getting typecast as an old man,” he said. He got a kick out of getting dudded up as Mowat. “They had to glue mutton chops on and get me into wardrobe.”
Years earlier, when I worked at the Toronto Sun and Onley was a news anchor at CP24, I had the good fortune to occasionally talk to him on camera. The Sun had several cameras set up in various corners of the newsroom and from time to time one of us would be dragged over to address some entertainment headline. I always looked forward to those few minutes with Onley. He knew his stuff, had a sense of humour and was ready to take the conversation in any direction.
The Midland native remained very active in removing barriers to all Ontarians with disabilities as well as promoting educational reforms in aboriginal communities. As vice-regal, he was an inspiration to the provinces 1.5 million residents with disabilities. He stood tall in life and in politics. Just ask anyone who ever met him.