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He wants to help others the way others helped him

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This afternoon at Westminster United Church, a tall man in a suit will stand before the graduating students at Gordon Bell High School and deliver a speech in the form of a short story.

A short story that took a long time to finally tell.

It dates back more than 20 years, to another Gordon Bell grad ceremony that happened in the same church on what Frank Lonardelli now calls "one of the best days and worst days of my life."

It's a story that explains why, at age 39, he has returned to his former neighbourhood to bestow a graduation gift on Gordon Bell in the form of a $100,000 scholarship endowment.

It's also a story that I think every Class of 2009 should hear.

* * *

Maybe the best way to start is to tell you who Frank Lonardelli is now.

He is the CEO of a Calgary-based, commercial real estate company he named Arlington Street Investments, in tribute to the address where he and his three older sisters were raised.

A street where they had to fend for themselves after their Italian-born father died.

Frank was three.

"My mother didn't speak English," Frank said.

At first, all she could do was clean houses, taking little Frank along with her until he was old enough for school.

Naples-born Elena Lonardelli would go on to support herself as a cook at an Italian restaurant.

"She went to work at nine o'clock in the morning," Frank recalled, "and came back at 11 at night."

Given the circumstances -- poor, fatherless, without a mother most of the day, and living in the inner city -- young Frank could easily have found trouble. Or it could have found him.

Especially because he didn't take school seriously.

What may have saved him, he acknowledges, is his passion for sports.

Frank would go on to be named Gordon Bell's athlete of the year as a senior. But Frank was as disinterested in academics as he was devoted to athletics.

"And in Grade 12, life kind of caught up with me."

Although, back on that June day in 1987, most of the other Gordon Bell grads seated at Westminster United Church thought Frank was one of the luckiest guys in the school. After all, the University of Winnipeg had awarded him a scholarship to play volleyball.

But, at the time, what almost no one knew was that Frank had not graduated.

When he went up to accept the portfolio that was supposed to contain his high school diploma, there was nothing there but a blank sheet of paper. By calling him up with legitimate graduates, the school was evidently trying to shield him from the shame of his fellow students knowing Frank hadn't achieved a single Grade 12 university entrance credit.

The crushing reality was he couldn't accept the scholarship.

And then, as he stood outside the church having his picture taken with his mother -- holding the high school portfolio with the secret inside -- someone pulled him aside.

The someone was Mike Gaston, an African-American and former pitcher with the original 1950s Winnipeg Goldeyes. He had a reputation as the toughest teacher in the school.

"He was the male figure who probably reached out to me a number of times," Frank said. "And I just didn't hear him."

But Frank was in so much pain that day that he was finally ready to hear Gaston.

"He put his hand on my shoulder," Frank recalled. "And he said, 'Hey boy.' He always called me 'boy'. 'Are you prepared to change your results now?' And I began to cry."

That's when Gaston stopped calling him boy. "He said, 'Frank, what you have to do now is make yourself proud.' That changed my life forever."

Frank Lonardelli did make himself proud. He went on to get his high school diploma from Grant Park, accept the volleyball scholarship that was still open to him, and graduate from the University of Winnipeg.

"And I never looked back."

Actually, that's not quite accurate.

* * *

Last winter, the same tall man in a suit told the same story to a group of about 40 students gathered in Room 209 at Gordon Bell.

Together, the student athletes -- as they all were -- looked like a racial rainbow. Some were First Nations or Métis. Some were from the war zone that the inner city can sometimes seem like. Some were refugees from the real war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

It's from that group that the winner of the inaugural Arlington Street Investment scholarship will be announced at Gordon Bell's grad today.

She or he will have best met three requirements of the scholarship: overcoming adversity, being an athlete and succeeding academically.

Now you understand. In fact, Frank Lonardelli did look back.

Because he wanted to help others the way others helped him.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2009 B1

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