Park named for Toronto musician

Late guitarist Jeff Healey grew up near park on Bonnyview Drive

When guitarist Jeff Healey went on one of his first dates with the woman he would eventually marry, he took her to Woodford Park.

He wanted to show Cristie where he was from, and where he’d spent his childhood, like his father Bud before him, playing in the park. His family’s house was just across the street, on Bonnyview Drive.

A rare form of cancer, retinoblastoma, claimed Healey’s vision when he was only eight months old, but he knew his way around the park just by sound.

“He knew every inch of that place,” says Rob Quail, one of Healey’s lifelong friends.

It seems fitting, then, that the park has been renamed Jeff Healey Park in honour of the late musician, and is in the process of being made fully accessible to those with disabilities, with a focus on those with visual impairments.

A June 5 celebration marked the renaming, with performances by fellow musicians Jerome Godboo, Danny Marks and the Jazz Wizards, one of Healey’s bands.

Healey died in 2008 after another battle with cancer, when he was 41 years old.

After unsuccessful attempts to get Healey a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame, Quail contacted then-mayor David Miller.

The idea of naming the star’s childhood park after him came up, and councillor Peter Milczyn helped set the process in motion.

While a few community members objected, there was overwhelming support for this way of commemorating Healey, Quail says, and community council approved it unanimously.

“I understand from what I’ve heard from the city that this is the most support they’ve ever had for any renaming or revitalization in the history of this city,” he says.

And that’s all the more important because, Quail says, Healey was underappreciated in his hometown.

“I always felt that Jeff was taken for granted in this city while he was around because he was so accessible,” he says. “So it was great to see that kind of support for this idea.”

But there’s more in the name than a famous star, Quail says, especially for parents of children with disabilities.

“You could look to Jeff as an example of someone who not only overcame the disability, but really came to be at the very pinnacle of his profession,” he says.

Milczyn agrees that Healey is deserving of the tribute.

“I can’t think of a better person whose story to tell,” he says. “Jeff can be universally acknowledged as somebody to look up to.”

The Ward 5 councillor remembers Healey from high school, when they were students a few years apart at Etobicoke Collegiate. Even then, the future musician would sit with his guitar at breaks.

Quail met Healey in high school as well, though not as a classmate — at a party to which they both brought their guitars.

“He was already incredible talent,” Quail says.

He formed his first band, Blue Direction, with Quail a few years later, playing at bars around Toronto.

Quail also started off in the Jeff Healey Band before the recording line-up was chosen — Healey himself, with drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman.

Healey was known for his unique habit of playing with the guitar flat on his lap. When he started playing at the age of three, he couldn’t get his hands around the neck of the guitar, Quail says.

The habit stuck, and he says Healey ended up believing that was the natural way to play.

Always casual about gear, Quail says Healey used to keep all his instruments in the garage or in the unheated porch of his house, even in winter.

“He’d leave this vintage archtop acoustic guitar sitting in its case with ‘Jeff Healey’ blazed on the side sitting on the front porch of his house,” Quail says.

While he was fighting cancer, Quail says Healey was always very positive about his chances, at least publicly.

“He said, ‘Rob, I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t have some pretty dark moments in the middle of the night,’” Quail recalls. “‘But you know, in my 41 years I’ve done more living than most people do in 90.’”

But it was the thought of leaving his family, including children Rachel and Derek, behind that concerned Healey the most.

“‘I have no real regrets about my life, the only thing I really do regret is that my children are going to miss their dad,’” Quail remembers Healey telling him.

The October before he passed away, Healey invited Quail to play with him at a show in Hamilton, seemingly knowing it might be one of his last.

Then as in the beginning, it was a great night.

“I knew when I played with Jeff that we could walk into any gig and any situation and any room and just floor everybody,” Quail says.

His friend’s ability remains emblazoned in his mind.

“I’ve met lots of people who are talented at things,” he says. “But I’ve never met anybody with a natural gift for anything as Jeff had for music.”

About this article:

By: Caitlin Orr
Posted: Jun 30 2011 2:56 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto