‘We sing that they shall speak’
A small brass figurine entitled “The Singing Miracle Man” was created for retired businessman and barbershopper extraordinaire George Shields for his longstanding support of the Speech Foundation of Ontario.
And it is a fitting tribute indeed. Not only has George raised over $4 million dollars to treat communication disorders in Ontario through his brainchild, the Harmonize for Speech Fund, but he also led efforts to transform an old home in Toronto into the Speech Foundation, Toronto’s Children’s Centre.
And it all began with a shared love of music.
“Barbershoppers tore the house apart and put it back together again,” George says, evoking memories of the barbershop singing society donning hard hats as they worked to create the foundation’s first treatment centre on Grenville Street.
And the efforts didn’t stop there. The Harmonize for Speech Fund continues to provide funding for numerous speech-related programs and equipment at hospitals, clinics and treatment centres throughout Ontario, including aphasia centres which help stroke survivors regain communication skills. The fund also provides text books, bursaries and scholarships for speech pathology/audiology students.
“Singing is great therapy,” George says, and it is evident that the rewards of his music reach far beyond his personal enjoyment of singing.
“We sing that they shall speak”
The former Chairman of Elliot Research, a marketing research company, also served in the military where he attained the rank of Company Sergeant Major. A graduate from the University of Toronto, George went on to become a member of The Order of Canada and the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, the Commemorative medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada and many other awards and citations.
But through it all, music has remained his great love. “I’ve been singing since I can remember,” George says, adding that as a boy he sang in the church choir where his father was choir director.
It was his passion for singing that drove him to put together the East York Barbershoppers’ concert tour of the British Isles in 1964 – which resulted in the establishment of the first barbershop chorus in England. Since then barbershop harmony has spread too many countries outside North America, including Japan, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Brazil, Italy, and Israel.
Back at home, George was the driving force for the construction of Harmony Hall, East York Chorus’ rehearsal facility which is also the home of the Harmony Hall Centre for Seniors. His efforts also led to the creation of a recreation facility for barbershoppers and their families called Harmony Ranch, which serves as the summer vacation home for more than a hundred Ontario barbershop families.
And for George, singing is very much a family affair – his two sons and his son-in-law sing with him. His wife, Gail, also joins him in a mixed barbershop quartet “Family Ties” that performs throughout the year to raise money for charity.
While George laughingly says that his seemingly boundless energy derives from “singing – it helps to keep you young”, he and his fellow barbershoppers sing for a purpose. Chapter meetings of the Ontario barbershoppers society begin with the song written in honour of their tireless dedication to the cause of treating communication disorders: “We sing that they shall speak.”
In perfect harmony
Barbershop harmony is a style of a capella, or unaccompanied vocal music, consisting of four-part chords. Generally the lead sings the melody; the tenor harmonizes above the melody with the bass singing the lowest harmonizing notes and the baritone completing the chord.
Barbershop harmony is a uniquely North American art form, dating back to the tonsorial parlors and minstrel shows of the late 1800s.
Despite its name, this close-harmony singing is not just for men. According to the World Harmony Council website, independent organizations for women in the United States, Canada and abroad number more than 30,000 active participants. Moreover, there are more than 70,000 aficionados of barbershop harmony in the various organizations that make up the World Harmony Council.
A song for George
Even with all the honours and awards, George is a humble, down-to-earth guy. He makes a point of recognizing his associates on the Harmonize For Speech Fund Board of Trustees and the hundreds of barbershoppers, speech language pathologists and volunteers who assist his efforts.
Speech Foundation of Ontario will pay tribute to George Shields for his extraordinary and far-reaching support in the field of Speech-Language Pathology during National Speech and Hearing Month, on May 27, 2007.
“George Shields is a remarkable man, who has demonstrated unparalleled support of our cause,” said Dr. Robert Kroll, Program Director of the Speech Foundation of Ontario’s Stuttering Centre.
“If anyone is worthy of being honoured, it is most certainly George,” he added. The event has already raised almost $100,000, and more than 250 people are registered to attend.
For more information on the gala event or the important work done by the organization, click here.