Don Saunders didn’t know what hit him
One minute he was rehearsing his role in the Goldovsky Opera Company production of Carmen, in New York City, and the next thing he knew he had fallen madly in love.
It was 1968 and the talented actor/singer was shell-shocked as he found himself partnered on stage with Joni Morcom.
“She completely knocked me off my feet. Here I was singing with the most gorgeous soprano I had ever seen in my life. I actually had a hard time focusing. She was breathtaking with gorgeous red hair, the most stunning blue eyes and her voice — it was incredible,” says Don. “When we sang together it was magic.”
The beautiful soprano with the fiery red hair would also be instantly smitten with the handsome actor and for the next 43 years they would continue to make beautiful music together.
The duo were inseparable travelling the world with opera companies such as the Goldovsky Opera Company and Turnau Opera Company performing, among others, their favorite opera La Traviataby Giuseppe Verdi.
They also created a duo act, ‘Joni and Don’ which they took to night clubs and on cruise ships performing opera and show tunes.
“I have to say when we worked together the sparks flew off each other – it was so much fun,” says Saunders.
In 1977 the couple decided to plant some roots and chose the quiet and peaceful town of Churchill for their home. It was then Joni decided to explore her passion for art and became well known for her exquisite portraiture. She was commissioned to do a series for the Barrie Sports Hall of Fame, which is on display at the Allandale Recreation Centre, as well as the Simcoe County Museum. While Joni immersed herself in her art, Don continued acting and singing on stage, television and in commercials. Faithful Gryphon Theatre goers will remember him in many productions such as Hobson’s Choice (1985), Honeymoon for Three (1996), Run for your Wife(1997), and Over the River and Through the Woods (2000).
The couple continued to share their mutual passion for music, eventually singing together in the church choir at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Churchill.
Then one day Joni began to forget.
Her paintings were taking her an unusually long time to complete.
“This was a woman who could memorize a three-act opera in a week,” says Don.
During the next few years Don would see the woman he adored slowly sink into a sea of forgetfulness. Joni had Alzheimer’s disease and although much of her world would become strange to her, two things remained – her love for Don and their music.
“It was awful to watch. Here was a woman with such a love for life, so talented and so beautiful. To lose a bit of her every day was devastating,” says Don, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Yet, she remembered the music and even during her final days we would sit and sing. I would hold her. I remember her leaning on me and saying, ‘I love you.’”
Then on February 22, 2011, Joni passed away at the age of 78 from complications related to pneumonia. Don knew that her love of life, music and art had to live on.
With the help of his financial planner, Don did just that.
A scholarship for a student at the Kempenfelt Bay School who demonstrated talent and passion for both art and music was set up in Joni’s name.
Donations were also made to the local chapter of the Alzheimer Society of Canada in Joni’s name.
Yet, there was more to do.
“Joni and I had already decided years ago that we wanted to leave our accumulated savings to charities as our legacy. We worked really hard for our money and we wanted to make sure that it went to something worthwhile. So when I toured Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre I thought to myself, ‘My God this is so beautiful and so incredible I was actually overwhelmed. Just looking at it should make people feel better,’” laughed Don.
And indeed this June, Don had the opportunity to test that theory when he hurt his back splitting wood, requiring he be rushed by ambulance to the new Emergency department at RVH.
“They told me that they had just opened the night before. The staff were so courteous and friendly – I totally admire them and what they do. They helped me and the expansion is helping others in this region get the care they need. I thought, ‘Hmmm now that’s worth putting our hard earned money into.’”
Don has since updated his will and committed much of the wealth he and Joni accumulated to RVH along with their other favourite charities. He has also worked with the RVH Foundation to specify which programs will benefit from the funds.
“I know Joni would love that. I’m not sure how far our 20 cents will go, but every bit helps.”
Eric Dean, CEO of the RVH Foundation, would agree ‘every bit does help’.
“In legacies, the size of the gift isn’t important – it’s about choosing to support your favourite charities through your estate, contributing part of your life’s savings to the causes that mattered to you during your life and extending your support for future generations,” says Dean.
There are many planned giving options: make a gift of stocks or securities; purchase a life insurance plan with your charity as the beneficiary or create a legacy through your estate.
Creating a legacy through a will simply requires a clause within the will that explains how the person wants to support a favourite charity.
“There are five major reasons why people give to charity. To say thanks, to give back, to help others, to remember someone or to honour someone,” says Dean.
Don’s has done all that in Joni’s memory.
“God, what a class act she was. I’m so glad I was able to do this in her honour,” says Don
– Donna Danyluk