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The London Free Press - September 28, 2000

McDermott Sings from Heart

By James Reaney
Free Press Arts & Entertainment Columnist


The world's greatest Irish-Scots-Canadian tenor melted hearts and raised smiles in London (Ontario) yesterday.

Toronto's John McDermott was the star attraction last night at the Tribute 2000 gala for the Parkwood Hospital Foundation at the London Convention Centre.  The evening attracted a crowd estimated at 900 and raised about $160,000 (CND) to support Parkwood Hospital's veterans' care program.

McDermott turned on the charm early in his concert after the more formal business of the fund-raiser had concluded.  He saluted the memory of his parents by picking out a U.S. folk song about an early Alzheimer patients, The Dutchman, and relating it to his father's "moments" of less serious forgetfulness and the way his mother stayed level-headed through them all.

He also did the right this by his Glasgow origins, with a version of Scotland the Brave he called faithful to its original words

"Do you know them?" he asked the audience.  "If you do, I'd like to meet must be 360 years old."

Actually, it was McDermott everybody wanted to meet.  Before dinner, he'd cruised along the silent auction, putting in his own generous bids and chatting freely with fans.

He also made sure he met the veterans who are so important to him.

Earlier in the day, McDermott had given a special performance at Parkwood for many of the 370 veterans who call Parkwood and the Western Counties Wing home.

"It just makes this whole this worthwhile, I mean what we do for a living" the singer said of his afternoon show.  "Basically, it's just a matter of giving something back."

McDermott's commitment to veterans' causes is well-known.  His father was a great supporter of the War Amps, a traditional McDermott continues.  A brother of his mother's died as a prisoner of war in Japanese-held Malaysia.  He also aids homeless vets in the U.S.

McDermott knew the veterans could sense the underlying message in his music.  "There was so much in that room, you can't describe it.  They were singing -- and the memories."

The tenor has revived material such as In Flanders Field, I'll Be Seeing You, Lili Marlene, which brings back memories of the last century's great wars and their heroes.

McDermott knows the Scottish and Irish material in his repertoire -- played beautifully by his Celtic-folk backing group -- brings up memories too.  "They're all based on true stories.  If you can share the story, it gives a new dimension to the piece and so many people can relate to that story."

McDermott's own story is a marvel in itself.  The former Toronto Sun circulation manager and now internationally known balladeer has sun for heads of state.  He is the first Canadian to perform at The Wall, the memorial in the U.S. to the Vietnam War.

McDermott is the ninth of 12 children.  The family is said to be the largest family to emigrate from Scotland to Canada en masse since the First World War.  Fourteen members came to Willowdale in 1965.

John was invited to attend St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto.  In additional to the hit-makers of the 1960s, he also responded to the great Scottish and Irish singers such as Andy Stewart and John McCormack  The dry wit of his stage manner and his love of the quiet throwaway line can also be traced to music halls and comic masters from Britain and Ireland.  His jokes about his endlessly curly hair are all part of that east charm.

McDermott's professional singing career took hold in the early 1990s.  His traditional ballads and his signature, Danny Boy, have made him a word-of-mouth favourite and he's sold millions of recordings.  As one of the The Irish Tenors, he has become a staple on PBS television.

Last night's gala also honoured London volunteer Janet Stewart, a managing partner at the Lerner and Associates law firm.  Stewart has been an advocate for non-profit organizations across Canada.  Locally, she has worked with such agencies and institutions as Big Sisters, the London Community Foundation, the London Health Science campaign cabinet and the Parkwood foundation.

"Other people do way more community work that I do and have for many years...this sort of thing embarrasses me a bit," said Stewart, adding she was honoured by the tribute.  She cited the role of her sister-in-law, Sylvia Davis, and friend and fellow London community activist Nancy McNee in helping connect her with Parkwood.

Davis guided the hospital when the Women's Christian Temperance Union was responsible for its governance before the health service restructuring.  McNee helped persuade Stewart to join her in supporting the foundation's rehabilitation and geriatric care research initiative.  It is seeking to raise $6.25 million in endowment funds dedicated to long-term research at the hospital.

Stewart concluded her speech last night by quoting Canadian author Margaret Laurence's call for "a passionate commitment to caring."

The Tribute galas raise money annually for support of patient and resident care programs at the hospital.  Parkwood's veterans' care is seen as providing a model for the care of the age-related challenges faced by the elderly -- including disabilities, chronic or terminal illness and the complications of advancing age.