Memorial University granted an honorary degree on Friday to Edsel Bonnell.
As the official news release put it:
“In essence a man with two careers, Mr. Bonnell has excelled at both.
Fifty years ago, Edsel Bonnell was the first person in Newfoundland to become a professional public relations consultant, winning numerous national awards, becoming in 2002 an honorary fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society and, in 2005, a life member of the same organization.
From 1989-96 he took these skills into government where he served as chief of staff and senior policy advisor to Premier Clyde Wells, chairing both the Economic and the Social Strategic Planning Groups.
In musical circles he is best known for his role as founder and leader of the Gower Youth Band. This began in 1973 with the support of Gower Street United Church but it was intended to be — and has remained — non-denominational.
Educated at Memorial University, Mr. Bonnell has been recognized for his community service work in being named St. John's Citizen of the Year (1984), a Member of the Order of Canada (2001) and was inducted into the Hall of Honour at the St. John's Kiwanis Music Festival (2004).”
Edsel got the rare honour of a standing ovation from the graduates and their guests on Friday.
The reason is his address.
At turns entertaining, frank and provocative, it was fundamentally a message of hope and a wellspring of optimism.
The speech was essentially what Edsel is.
In Edsel’s honour and to give you all a fine start to your week, here is Edsel’s convocation address, in its entirety. It is exactly as he wrote it except in a couple of places where the paragraphing is changed to ease online reading.
Address to Convocation
May 27, 2011
Dr. Edsel J. Bonnell
The thing you often notice about people who receive honours and accolades, whether in Hollywood or Holyrood, is their apparent discomfort. The comments you hear are “I don’t really deserve this”, and “there are so many others who deserve this more than I do.” Every now and then, of course, you get a more pragmatic approach, like when Jack Benny said in an acceptance speech: “I don’t deserve this award. But I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either!”
When somebody wins an Olympic medal or writes a best-selling book or is elected to a high office, he or she has attained a definable goal for all to see, and deserves whatever praise is due. But when you’re engaged in community service and you are honoured for it, you cannot help but think about the people who have influenced you or who work with you, and all the unsung heroes you have met who have given lifetimes of service without recognition of any kind. So, discomfort seen year after year on occasions such as this is not false modesty, but more likely a reality check of one’s own limitations, and an uneasy feeling about being honoured for doing something that makes one feel so good while doing it!
In my own case, I am very aware of people and organizations who share this honour with me today, and I sincerely thank the Senate on their behalf as well as my own. They are legion, from my parents and wonderful “big sister” who set shining examples in their own remarkable achievements, through teachers (especially a music teacher who instilled in students the passion that is music), co-workers and treasured friends, to our sons and their life-partners, and grandchildren, all of whom inspire and instruct me daily.
The announcement from Memorial referred to my work in two “careers”. The one which enabled us to buy groceries every week was public relations, and I would be remiss if I did not pay tribute to my colleagues for more than half a century in the Canadian Public Relations Society who worked with dedication to create and maintain a dynamic profession with a strict code of ethics, a robust five-year accreditation process, and respected post-secondary education programs In Canada.
My other “career” has been involved with music, specifically the Gower Band Program, embodied in the enriching musical and collegial experience of the intergenerational Gower Community Band. I share this honour today with the people of Gower Street United Church who caught the vision 38 years (and more than 900 performances!) ago of establishing a non-denominational community band program which would provide music education and instruments, scholarship support, and opportunities for community service to anyone with a commitment to the love of music and the joy of service --- a truly remarkable gift to community by a church and its supporters and benefactors; and of course the more than 400 musicians who have participated in this program over the years and who continue to touch countless lives with music and community service at home and abroad.
And then, most importantly, there’s my wife Anthea, who has been my life-force for 55 years through both of my “careers”, and without whose hard work and tireless dedication so much of the foregoing would never have happened.
So I don‘t stand here alone. If all the people who have influenced me, given me opportunities, and worked with me could be here, there would be no room for anyone else in this hall. And I am not unique in this respect, because all graduates here today had many people walking across this stage with them in spirit, and I know they acknowledge the support, and often the sacrifice, of parents, family members, and friends in achieving their goals. Truly, “no one is an island, no one stands alone”; we are indeed all “part of the main”.
As an unabashedly proud parent myself, I can assure the Graduates that your parents share your joy and your pride on this special day. But they, like me, come from different generations. Many parents may be from the so-called “Generation X”; others may qualify for what is now known as “Zoomers”. The question is: What kind of world have we of previous generations given to these graduates here today? And the answer is intimidating. It has prompted me to suggest that we are not following “Generation X” with “Generation Y”, but rather with “GENERATION EXPONENTIAL”!
Last month a man died in the southern United States at the remarkable age of 114. He was thought to be the oldest man in the world at the time, having lived in three centuries. Just think for a moment what his life-span witnessed:
We went from “horseless carriages” to space vehicles that send us pictures and information about new planets in the universe beyond our own solar system; from bolt-action rifles and bayonets to nuclear weapons which can destroy life on earth as we know it; from the three little clicks for the Morse code letter “S” that Marconi heard on Signal Hill to Skype; and from silent movies to “tweets” from around the world on the wondrous machines that we now carry around in our pockets.... all in the span of one man’s life.
It was unprecedented. No other human life-time in the history of the world has ever experienced so much change, so much challenge, and so much stress as the past century or so. But the more startling reality is that the speed of all this change has been, and is, exponential. It has grown faster and faster each decade, and indeed each year, until now it is almost incomprehensible. It’s easy to forget that until 30 years ago, there were no personal computers; and five years ago many of us still thought that Blackberries were edible. The old discussion about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin has gone out the window (no pun intended!) because now they can put the contents of the U.S. Library of Congress on the head of a pin. All the wisdom of the world is available to any child who can access a computer. The whole process of education may soon become unrecognizable to those in my generation.
Science fiction has become reality. It is no longer considered futuristic to talk about the age of Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity, when machine intelligence merges with or exceeds human intelligence. Earlier this year, IBM’s “Watson” defeated two brilliant Jeopardy champions. That was truly history in the making!
The questions that arise, of course, are critical. Can we use our technology so as not to be abused by it? Can we master it so as not to be mastered by it? Can we lead so as not to be led?
This is the legacy we have given to you in your “Generation Exponential”.
For centuries, generations have talked about passing the torch from one to another with the usual proverb that the new breeds hold in their hands the keys to the future and the fate of the world. Now, however, it has a more urgent ring to it. Graduates, your generation can literally kill or cure the world; you have the tools to do either one, and the choice is yours. And in the case of most graduates here today, you are called not only to use the tools wisely, but to teach coming generations to do the same. It is an awesome but heroic undertaking.
We are already well into the Communications Revolution. It is changing the world order as we speak. Events in Egypt this year have shown dramatically what could be accomplished by people communicating electronically as an alternative to armed rebellion. Throughout history, tyranny has thrived on secrecy and ignorance and fear. But these curses are being eradicated by the little I-phones and other machines we hold in the palms of our hands, where the people of the world can talk as friends instead of fearing each other as enemies. They find that there is more to unite us than to divide us, if we can only respect each other`s way of life.
For those of us in the communications field, it is a dream come true. But dreams can also be nightmares, and progress has brought with it invasion of privacy, hackers, scams, spam, terrorism, slanderous blogs, and a variety of e-crimes unknown in previous history.
As we work and live in constant communication through social media, we diminish our physical human contact. We text a lot, but actually talk very little. We see on Skype, but don’t feel the touch of a hand. Business and professional life is filled with virtual meetings, webinars, and the like, and traditional gathering places such as churches and service clubs and youth organizations may be required to create virtual entities with interactive e-worship services and web-meetings and surrogate activities in order to carry out their missions. Volunteerism is in numerical decline, with fewer people doing more than their share. This new generation will be challenged to preserve the critical element of Community, not as an option, but as an imperative, if we are to maintain our humanity.
In this commitment to community, every individual has a responsibility. No one can move a mountain, but anyone can move a stone. And when enough people move enough stones together, the mountain will be moved. When we live in community, we experience the joy of fellowship and the peace of common purpose. When we engage in service, we share love with others and see the light of understanding. And when we combine the two -- Community Service – we become participants in the hope of the world.
In 2008, Lanier Phillips stood where I am standing now and captivated the Convocation with his eloquent tribute to the people of this Province. Dr. Phillips was the only African American among the 46 survivors of the tragic sinking of the USS Truxton off St. Lawrence during World War II. He had no idea where they had run ashore, and he had suffered so much abuse, hatred, and racism in his young life that he lay down to die on the beach thinking that he would probably be lynched because of the color of his skin. Instead, a kindly voice spoke and strong arms got him to his feet and then up over the cliffs of Chambers Cove. He found love from the good people of St. Lawrence. And even though the abuse and hatred continued in his naval service throughout the war and back home in the United States, he kept the St. Lawrence experience in his heart as a beacon of love and humanity and tolerance, and vowed that he would spend his life telling people all over the world that there is a place where respect and justice and love can heal the wounds of the soul.
Graduates, you are in that place, and you are of that place, whether you were born here or chose to come here. You are in Canada, a bastion of freedom, democracy, and human rights; where we are so modest that we feel a little embarrassed by saying that it`s the best place in the world to live… but it is! Where citizenship and social justice are treasured. Where we don`t make war, but we keep peace in the world, often at a dear price of brave young lives who win respect for Canada’s red maple leaf in every part of the world.
And within this great nation, you are in this province of Newfoundland and Labrador with its noble heritage, its generosity of spirit, its sense of community, its incredible wealth of talent and human resources vastly disproportionate to the size of its population, and its fierce dedication to fair play and justice. You are in this awesome place of courage and courtesy, survival and success, wit and wisdom through half a millennium of continuous settlement.
But you are also in and of this great university, a university which cares about community and shares with community, to which I can attest from the musical community’s symbiotic relationship with our remarkable School of Music for more than three decades. Today you have become alumni of Memorial, the latest generation of a proud tradition of academic excellence which has sent its graduates to teach others, to provide leadership, and to serve humanity around the world as well as here at home.
That`s why I know that you all have what it takes to tackle the challenges that will flow exponentially around you in the coming months and years. You have already achieved much, and you will achieve much more. You are from the best of stock, nationally, provincially, and academically, and it is both a profound honor and a humbling experience for me to be included in your ceremony today.
So by all means, celebrate today with family and friends. You deserve it.
And then, follow Memorial’s time-honored motto: “Launch forth into the deep”.
Use the knowledge and tools which are at your disposal, turn your challenges into opportunities, and save the world.
Because the world is truly yours, with all the blunders and blessings that you inherit.
Your world. Your choice. Your future.
Enjoy the voyage!
- srbp -