Tommy Banks, the star who helped others shine

Tommy Banks, at home anywhere, but mostly at his piano.

The show always started the same way. At the top of the clock – 7 p.m. on Wednesday – there was a jazz fanfare, a flourish of trumpets and saxes and a drum roll, as the title flashed across the screen. The audience in the studio began whistling and applauding, just as the CBC voice-over announcer, Larry Langley, introduced the show.

“From Edmonton,” he called out enthusiastically, “It’s Tommy Banks Live!”

Just off-stage, out of the range of cameras and microphones, the two writers of the weekly show – Colin MacLean and I – used to stand, joining the audience’s applause in anticipation of the next hour of live-to-air television. Inevitably, as Tommy entered the studio to acknowledge the studio audience’s applause, either Colin or I anticipating the start of another show would lean to the other and say rhetorically, “Does TV get any better than this?”

Letter to an unknown veteran

The two women - l-r Kim and Monica - asked Canadian vet Harry Watts to pose with them for this photo.
The two women – l-r Kim and Monica – asked Canadian vet Harry Watts to pose with them for this photo.

There were two young women in his audience, suddenly captivated by what he had to say. He offered words of reflection, remorse and remembrance. Last spring, Harry Watts, in his 92nd year, had travelled to Holland to pay homage to his fallen comrades and to join in the festivities marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. During a commemorative event in the Dutch town of Baarn, Harry was asked to address the assembly.

“We were volunteers,” Harry told the thousands gathered in the town’s central park. “Because a lot of our parents and grandparents had come from Europe, we came here to, in a way, liberate our families.”

Youth Day

Moderating one of several candidates' debates (photo by Vanessa Brown).
Moderating one of several candidates' debates (photo by Vanessa Brown).

This was perhaps his only opportunity to address the electorate in a debate for the 2010 municipal election. His competitors for councillor in the ward were in the public hall in person. But municipal candidate Joe Amarelo could not be present. A family emergency had forced him to miss the event. He did, nevertheless, have an impact on the meeting. A statement he’d written was read.

“I see unresolved issues in our town, including vandalism,” Amarelo’s statement read. “It’s important to … create a dialogue. Why not have a Youth Day?”

Youth, the cost of war

Dutch liberation vet Ron Charland (left) is joined by air cadet Bo Gibbons during VE Day parade in Apeldoorn, May 9, 2010.
Dutch liberation vet Ron Charland (left) is joined by air cadet Bo Gibbons during VE Day parade in Apeldoorn, May 9, 2010.

As a boy, not surprisingly, he joined the scout movement. He loved to listen to the wireless radio broadcasts that came all the way from the BBC in England. But in every other way Jan Van Hoof was an ordinary Dutch boy during the Second World War. That is, until Sept. 17, 1944. During the next 24 hours, as Allied paratroops descended through the skies over his hometown of Nijmegen, Van Hoof left his youth behind. And it was summed up in what he said to his parents that day.

“The bridge is safe,” he said.

Teacher as student of living history

It was probably the final phone call she made last Sunday night. I’m sure that she had been dealing with a myriad of errands. I imagine that she’d probably checked her to-do list a hundred times. I know for a fact that she had responded to a long list of messages from fellow teachers, her principal and concerned parents. After all, she was about to lead more than 60 students from Uxbridge Secondary School on a 10-day-long trip into history. Nevertheless, U.S.S. instructor Tish MacDonald phoned me.

“Just wanted to say thanks,” she said on the phone. “We’re down to the last few hours before we take off for Holland. Everybody’s all fired up.”