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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Getting to Know Dawn M. Nevills - Part 1

It's an interesting thing, coming to know a person - and often challenging, in combination with proximity, opportunity, and the inevitable enemy - shyness.

The average person fears public speaking, for instance, more than Death - a true fact often discussed in theatre and public speaking circles like Toastmasters - but inexplicably addressed or properly overcome in public life, beyond the inevitable assumptions about being tongue-tied, imaginative suggestions of fear and leprosy, and the agonizing position of not being able to think of a thing to say, within the prescribed and usual, allotted time of fifteen seconds, other than a wish for good weather, a lack of bunions, and genuine good health. Frankly, a decent sense of humour often saves the day, and a flaming pair of cheeks.

To alleviate this, (the fear of public speaking, since I must leave the bunions, and onions, to your own good governance) it has been suggested, for instance, that you should pick a spot on a back wall, and imagine everyone in their underwear, so as to place one's self in the relaxed position of a "reverse Emperor's clothes" juxtaposition.....but perhaps, beyond the idea of gentle humour and overcoming fear...I shall simply ….tell you about myself.

Public service is, and should be, approached with the goal of success in genuine intent, and mine, as you shall discover, is very genuine, indeed. "Service", and its place in my life, has taken many forms.

"Wherever did you come from?" said one lady, at church, one day, making me feel a little like an alien. I suspect the practicality of my somewhat traditional Inuit-style haircut precipitated a gently veiled fear of an emerging Marine within me, molting out like a military butterfly - but, alas, this has been entirely more practical than a preoccupation with a desire to resemble a confused owl, a shorn eagle, or a stern Sergeant-at-Arms. I've effected the dangly earrings as a reassurance, to be honest; a nod to the constant, inner war with my innate sense of the hippy in us all, and a throwback to the days as a three year old when my mother scotch-taped bows to my head, so people would know I was not a boy, (oh, to have had Velcro) but I confess, it is entirely time-driven. I work a lot. I appreciate the "odd bird" nomenclature, somewhat unworriedly, as it usually seems to be with a guarded affection.....but I digress.

I am, as they say, of solid blue collar stock, (with a few delights thrown in for good measure, as well as more than a few smiles), and a good deal of fruit picking in my youth, during which I received sun stroke, first time out - as a future warning -  after lending a black girl with whom I had set about picking strawberries one morning at 5:30 am, my practical straw hat, since she didn't have one. I was infuriated that I had to spend two hours in the afternoon recovering from sunburn, and sunstroke, as a result, and she was just as determined that she was going to split her earnings with me, having been given the hat which probably would have been better had it been traded back and forth sporadically, in retrospect - but we were kids, and I hadn't thought that one through very well at the time, to be honest. Surrounded by a steelworker father, three very large uncles, and a towering Irish grandfather who taught gunnery practice during the Second World War, I was old hat at faking impenetrability.

The women were tougher - all of them. It was simply Expected. Still is. More than likely that's probably why I chose to live here in 1994. I knew they would approve, and it was just about as unpretentious as where I grew up - a quality I like very much.

 My four and half foot great- grandmother Chrysler had had 16 children, and a meeting at the long table in the dining room, seating 20, was like a United Nations summit of Pennsylvania Dutch, Irish, German and assorted anomalies. Into this, came my father, the product of a fiercely independent Mother and Dorset/England Toronto Nana who smoked, drove her own Buick, worked in the women's auxiliary, wore lipstick which matched her C of E suits like a military uniform, and sister to an Aunt and Uncle who owned a travel agency, well travelled and used to being in places like Cuba, working in a hotel, and Singapore during a yellow fever epidemic, during which she refused to stay on ship, wanting to help, and bribed a naval officer to get off and help in the hospital. She also refused to marry my Boppa Nevills, despite determinedly wanting to woo her, until well into her forties - a single mother in a time single mothers were suspected of many things, but certainly not rescuing all of the neighbourhood children from abusive husbands, and the best-laden tea trolley of treats in the Gage Park District - all of  which I clearly remember from my childhood. I recall this park as an oasis of running through fountains, picnics, and walking to the Big Top Restaurant, the Becker's store (which housed the magical popsicles my grandfather Nevills handed out to all of the neighbourhood children) and back home to the little war-time house we lived in on Holton Avenue South, in the city of Hamilton, where I lived on the second floor with my parents in the upstairs apartment. I often walked the four blocks to meet my mother after work, too, who worked as an X-ray technician at the clinic around the corner.  It was strange, listening to her memorize pictures of bones and connections, while twist-dancing to "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" by Jerry Lee Lewis in the living room, but life gives us unique gifts - and my family is my most Precious. I have shadowed memories of great uncles in suit jackets and dress hats, all discussing politics and smoking on the porch of rare Sunday afternoon visits to see my great-grandmother Chrysler - the "mini whirlwind" who knew every single name of every family member, and, incredulously, never mixed mine up - unlike my Aunts, who often chorused "Harry, Sam, George", when they mixed up a name, on occasion, laughing - even when it was one of the girls. I preferred to park myself with my ice cream-in-a- cup with a wooden spoon, like a female garden gnome, steadfastly observing, and carefully listening to them discuss work and family life.

Their take on Spirituality was self-imposed, practical, and surprisingly humble, and often laced with humour and gratitude. These Hamilton men were earnest, intent - and hardworking. They still are. These were the Peach Kings, travelling from the orchards and farmlands of grape-growing country of Southwestern Ontario, still amongst the most richly fertile arctic glacier deposit soil in the Nation,  into the steel mills and industrial hub of Dofasco, Stelco, and Westinghouse: the steellunchbox men of proud hearts and bigger smiles, amidst the grit of work-a-days. God and their families were implicit, and included, in all of their dreams for betterment. They still are. They were fishers of Men and farmers of sustenance, wherever the work presented itself and was reliable - and the dirt, and heat, and the danger was no deterrent to a day's pay: the Grit hearts of John Munro, pre-airport, John Diefenbaker, Six Nations savvy and black-satin dress-glove proud, on occasions when the black and white service dress skirts and blouses were laid aside from the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club banquet tray-holding hands, and family celebrations gave way to baby laughter, earnest study, and the discipline of applied hard work. "Our Product is Steel - our strength is People." The words echo in my mind to this day.

 Just beyond the outskirts of the bustling city, the quieter Town of Stoney Creek, in its earlier days, had a pride of its own: Flag Day Parades, a High School with the ancient gunnery target shooting area used during the Second World War, and a Saracen Spirit from Saltfleet High School, with deep, lasting connections which reached far beyond religion, race or anything except the fierce and lasting bonds of Friendship are maintained to this day - a treasure retained from my somewhat unorthodox entry and term as Class President during my last year, having skipped Grade Three and Grade 13, anxious to get on with life, and the care of People. At 16, I was an anomaly, too. Keen on politics like both of my parents, I wrote a 12-page paper on the Douma  in my last year, as a lasting reminder of changing times and my interest in Civics, in the midst of the heady hope and earnest striving of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau years, John Munro, and the industrious and earnest age of Hamilton Mayor Vic Copps and his daughter, Sheila.

Having sustained a head injury in my youth, (I tripped on an upturned and broken concrete sidewalk while running down the street one day, flew up into the air, and landed directly onto my face and forehead against an upturned shard, splitting open my skull until my head swelled up and my eyes went black, while I practiced my interpretation of a human egg with bug eyes. I overcame the indicators of anomaly and dyslexia by intensely focusing my mind on starwatching - I still have a secret passion for Astronomy to this day - and/or closing my eyes, in order to refocus, when dealing with stress and the onset of a headache - a technique I use to this day to relax - including on boats, where I take mental  snapshots,  for the rare opportunities when I am able to paint or draw, as a remembrance of those moments.  

The summer I turned 14, I admit to having left the age blank on my work application the February previously, because I had not yet reached the required age to work scooping rock hard ice cream at The Stoney Creek Dairy, at application time, after generations of my family - including my maternal grandmother - had worked there, but it's where we all honed our steel, rock-hard bloody knuckles, we girls - like many kids who grew up there huddling in a sitting position against the wall in our polyester uniforms, congregating around the punch clock like a gaggle of plastic-shoed nursing shoe cheerleaders in zip up boxing uniforms, intent on "keep the cool" on the lid of the universe, with our shared smokes and our wry jokes. I also learned how to make change - which I also had an opportunity to practice while working for a Chinese man and his family as a manually operated cashier at the local I.G.A. (he used an abacus with a dexterity that would frighten many a present day student, struggling to tally sums with a basic calculator, while simply not being able, reasonably, to subtract amounts in their head in columns), which proved to be a useful, somewhat practical skill, later in life - banking, for instance. On weekends we piled into the Dairy truck, a troupe of super scoopers, ready to pick peaches and serve them up in carefully crafted creations deftly presented to hordes of families, who lined up around the block for the results of our bloody knuckles and our artistry with frozen milk blocks: unending stomach mandelas that cooled the tongues and brought smiles on a Sunday afternoon, after church, purchased with quarters and dollars saved carefully for the oohs and awes of the mini-mountains perched like sculptures, on the yellow plastic trays. The long-handled plastic spoons stuck out like the victory flags of Mount Everest, tantalizing and inviting.  

After early entrance following the now-defunct Grade 12 Summer Program at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, during which I had to complete the equivalent of 3 university credits in 8 weeks (an academic intensity of study and research which has stayed with me to this day), I achieved early entrance to an undergraduate program which I completed at just 20:the first university graduate in my family. One of my courses of study was Geology, the closest I could get, at that point, to one of my other interests, which combined both my interests in languages, and communication, with all things old and rocky:Archeology.

In the midst of it, and having applied for ROTP Airforce at just 18, I was told to come back when I had managed to get my degree, after coming back from near-death, following a first year during which I worked three part-time jobs while maintaining a full course load, having been refused a student loan, until my kidneys produced three large stone testaments to 'unending and unrelenting  business", much to my self-disgust, and I was forced to have them removed, temporarily sidelining my eagerness to "get on with life". Smarting from a disappointing show of academic military support which indicated the attitude towards women in the military at the time, but one which came with surprising changes in attitude and enlightened affection, as the years went on, I waded through the hurdles and weathered the realities of life, undeterred and refusing to wallow in disappointment. I applied later, and was successful in passing the exam for Air Traffic Controller, but other demands took precedence, and Navy Service would not come until other Public Service experience provided a foundation for socio-economic dynamics education, and the basics of government service.

But always, there were The Arts, and Volunteering as panacea, and expression : music, dance, visual and theatre - providing impetus, stimulus, and outlet, along with writing, for a mind alight with the possibilities of Life and Challenge - and there was God, St. Alban's, Church of the Redeemer, and a St. Andrew's College Man to challenge my father's discerning gaze and the phalanx of St. Eugene's eye-boring sessions from my Grandfather and Uncles (much to my delight and mischievious adoration), a combination which brought me back from the brink, following the kidney stone incident, his face asleep on my hand at the hospital bed, upon waking, reminding me that a mind was loved genuinely, when shared by its other half. This brought much comfort later, in the days when the St. Andrew's Man went to work with NASA, at the University of Irvine, California, on a special Ozone depletion atmospheric project, while I had to stay behind and assume responsibilities of government service, with Canada Immigration. The gentle reminders of those twinkling eyes continued in my artist's mind's eye, watching over me as stars in God's sky, after he was killed in a car accident, and my "unlikely wine pairing" - solid as a rock and defiant - ended with his Death.

The banquet serving and hospitality-savvy service continued, as I worked my way from line server to Headwaitress at Saga Foods, Brock University, throughout my undergraduate days, and I earned my "other practicum degree" in the hospitality industry - running with my apron strings trailing behind me from class to class, intent on "getting to the line" to have it set up, before many of the classmates with whom I had just been debating slid their trays through. Many were quite astonished, when, looking up, they saw my face, serving them breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the same time, I served as an usher at the University theatre complex, part-time, worked as a Research Assistant for Professor Mary Jane Miller, for her book on Canadian Radio and Television Drama, and ran a "sub shop" on the weekends in the main Residence Hall kitchen, alone, at night. During spare time I served as a late-night D.J. for an Alternative Music and Talk Show for CFBU RadioBrock, Campus Radio, where the St. Andrews College man was also Station Manager at Scollay House, a building (now torn down) which was set well back within the mysterious outer reaches of punk,new wave, jazz, and alternative music trees and wildly flowering plants, near Lake Gibson, on Brock University's Campus: a sort of "cool dude hangout" for nerds and electrogeeks riding the wave of emerging electronic music, house music, and  musical and performance art. I explored movement classes and saw my first Eddy Toussaint ballet performance, enthralled. I also wrote the occasional album review, critique of Student Productions, and live music event reviews of local and visiting bands, for the school newspaper, within the CFBU Campus Radio contributory journalism slot, and continued live performance myself, singing in a relaxed band we called S.T.I.R.R. ("S.o T.his i.s R.ock and R.oll" - a nod to the hilarious fact that I was the only one not old enough to legally drink). We played in the campus pub, Alphie's Trough - named after General Sir Isaac Brock's horse - (among other venues), where I also worked occasionally cleaning up, nights and weekends, since I wasn't old enough to actually imbibe myself, until my last year, much to the amusement of my classmates.

The summer of 1983 I was part of a team working on behalf of P.A.L.S. (The Preservation of Agricultural Land Society) studying the shrinking land base in the Niagara Peninsula, where I got my first introduction, as Government Policy Researcher, to such stimulating reading as the GATT agreement on Trades and Tariffs, and the finer aspects of trying to maintain a viable fruit and vegetable industry while dealing with the increasing pressures of the "megalopolis on the march" real estate push creeping around the Golden Horseshoe regions's finest soil, from the City of Toronto. We called it the "Lake Edge Land Creep", edging ever closer, to ultimately close the gap forever, on some of the finest grape growing soil in the world, nestled within the glacial lake soil deposits forming the Lake Ontario shoreline below the Niagara Escarpment and the Bruce Peninsula. We worried that one unending concrete lakeshore skyline would erase the burgeoning grape growing industry thriving in the greater surroundings of Niagara on the Lake, and the long tradition of Winona Peach Kings, and the fine fare which still makes the E.D. Smith company's jams, jellies and preserves a scent ushering in late autumn, in the outer regions of Saltfleet Township, Winona, and Fruitland, to this day. I still remember the smell of chili sauce wafting for miles in late September, as the bountiful harvest of tomatoes, and plentiful orchards meant a steady unending pickling line and much work for locals - including my mother and neighbours - working on the preserve line.  I even did a survey, and a live Television spot highlighting our workm with Local Television Station CHCH T.V.'s Jennifer Mossop, and Dan Rather, as we canvassed local people about how, why and if, they felt supporting local agriculture was an important aspect of their lives, overcoming excruciating fear of public speaking to earnestly talk about "the Green of Greenery" in a concrete and glass world. I also met Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, while completing our project, who were deeply supportive of our efforts, and, as pioneers in the huge replanting and vinifera specific growth goals which removed labrusca concord jam grapes and supplanted fine wine viniferas in their place, they ushered in, along with grape growers in the region, the painstaking development of today's Ice Wine and world class Merlots and Chardonnays. Indeed, "Foxy" heralded "Moxy", sparking my deep respect, support, and interest in the Canadian wine industry - one which continues to this day, within the largest context of my work in the hospitality industry. I also began working part-time for T.G. Bright and Co. - Brights Wines - at a little wine store in St. Catharines.

I also typed papers for other students for extra money - including the St. Andrew's college man's, who provided a kind of alternate course of study for me in his disciplines: Geography, Social Sciences and Environmental Studies, since I typed and edited most of his papers. I began a serious interest in all things environmental:one which has extended to interests, through the years, in related activities within the Sierra Club, the Empire Club, the I.O.D.E., (where I have been a volunteer for 31 years), the Trans-Canada Trail Project (now complete), and continued when I worked in Security within the chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario, having completed both explosives training from the Texas site-specifics group for Imperial Oil, and Accident Investigations training specific to the Oil Industry, as well as two college diplomas in related studies - an unlikely but intriguing path for a kid who started out studying Theatre Arts at Brock:typically nontraditional, and undeterred, like the Sacred Signal Light, beckoning onward, and skyward East, promising.

My last year at Brock I decided to complete my final undergraduate course at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, England, on a letter of Permission from Brock University, during the summer of 1984, focusing on Shakespearean Performance Traditions, with specific research complementing my undergraduate studies, (including costume work, Jacobean Theatre, The Chester Mystery Cycle, the Chataqua Festival, and Aeschylus and Euripides, amongst other jewels of Dramatic Literature), within the context of productions at the Barbican, in London, and studies and field trips to the Dulwich Gallery, and other sites, including the original Globe Theatre, and various performances by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company. I visited Warwick Castle, home of the original Kingmakers, discovered Ronnie Scott's jazz club, where I had a riotously good time dancing to wicked good Jazz with some crazy cool employees at the BBC who talked me into singing with the band before we left at 3 in the morning, mindfull of the fact that I had to be on a train to to Dover at 7 am., from Victoria station, where I arrived on time, still slightly pickled, as I recall, but smiling with great unregret. and a slight headache, along with blisters from dancing all night. I was mesmerized, a little later on, by a special 350th anniversary performance of Christ's Passion in the Black Forest Region of Oberammergau, Germany, (something which occurs once every ten years, normally)experienced the delight of a pigeon pooping on my shoulder in San Marcos Plaza, in Venice, Italy, sang with a merry group of female impersonators after a performance in Pigalle, France, before I realized they were all men (much to their affectionate delight), had an eight dollar glass of milk and meticulously sliced and presented apple at Maxim's, in Paris, served with a flourish as if to the Grand Duchess Herself (dear, dear Man), took the train to Versailles after only getting lost once within the labyrinth of nine subway lines and my halting French, and where I hoped fervently I hadn't accidentally asked the way to the washroom again, instead of the subway. I ate strudel in Lichtenstein, explored a miniature clock shop high in the reaches of Titisee, Switzerland, bought an exquisite pair of stitched dress leather dress gloves, in Vitipeno, Italy, and careened down the sides of the Swiss Mountains in a magic bus that I hoped would never stop taking me to places to which I ardently hoped to return, one day, culminating in a singsong version of "We've Only just Begun" by the Carpenters, and enjoyed mightily by all of the gondoliers around our gondola in Venice, (who joined in, in Italian), and the Australian family with whom I made fast friends, on our bus trip, after perhaps a little too much wine, one joyful and happy evening, before we all fell fast asleep, dreaming, after walking back to our hotel, arm in arm, like the Munchkin guards in the Wizard of Oz, singing. I can see their faces in front of me to this day, shocked that gondoliers saluted, (which seemed odd to me, at the time), but, I understand, was only because they weren't allowed to hug. Terrible shame, that last...but such a lovely, wonderful gesture, considering the St. Andrew's man had proposed, and I was going home to be....engaged!

Upon graduation I began work on an eight month project for the Lincoln County Board of Education, creating, as part of a team, the very first Educational Resources Catalogue available for phone in and pickup (like a drive-through restaurant, pre MP download) which formed a huge compilation of cataloguing, data base creation, and computer entry of hundreds of educational films, aids, toys, maps, puppets, machines, music collections, instruments, and all manner of classroom aids to be used by area teachers, and which still forms the basis of their Resource collection to this day. I also had an opportunity to practice a course I had taken in American Sign Language, since I worked side-by-side with our deaf cataloguing assistant, Sheilagh Elliott, a brilliant, hilarious lady with whom I formed a warm friendship, and from whom I learned much about challenge, change and heart, in the face of adversity. I have never seen anyone type that quickly in my life, to this day.

After this intense and arduous project, I began work with the Canada Employment Center, in St. Catharines, fulltime, as well as continuing my part time job at Brights Wines, my first fulltime government job as a claims intake clerk, after many months of pursuing employment there, following the completion of our catalogue. I went back every Wednesday at 1 pm to ask for a job, like clockwork, for six month - until they finally gave me a job. We had to wear four pound lead aprons while working on the huge green lit computers, to avoid radiation and possible breast and ovarian cancer from the screens, in those days, a fact which still surprises many when speaking of the wonders of technology.

....some of which you'll get to know more about, in "Part 2"! Till then........