By John Stevens
A few days before the 1996 annual meeting and dinner, members of the Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch were shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden passing of Steve Oneschuk, as fine a gentleman as one is ever likely to encounter. At the time of his death he was still in the first year as a member of the executive and had already built the steel cabinet that encloses our sign, carved signs for our Open House, installed shelving in the NPCA storage closet and had carved a Golden Eagle head as a donation to the bucket raffle at our annual dinner.
Steve grew up in St. Catharines , the second youngest of six children who were raised by his mother from the time he was two because his father was killed during construction of the Welland Ship Canal. Introduced to sports in public school, Steve excelled and while in high school played football, basketball, hockey and lacrosse. There were two basketball titles and a football championship at the high school and two provincial lacrosse championships. In his graduating year, he was the Rotary medallist and headed to the University of Toronto (U of T) on a scholarship after declining an offer to try out for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team.
He led his university class in first year and was in the top four when he graduated. He was a Canadian Intercollegiate All-Star four times in football and three times in basketball and was named U of T’s outstanding athlete in 1953 and 1954, thereby gaining entry to the university’s sports hall of fame. In the 1954 football championship game while playing both offense and defence, he scored a touchdown (five points in those days), kicked the convert and in the dying seconds kicked a 40-yard field goal into the wind to lead U of T to a 9-8 victory over Western. That performance probably produced the easiest selection of outstanding athlete ever at U of T.
Both Edmonton and Hamilton selected him in separate drafts for the CFL. He chose Hamilton and was signed for $5,000, not a bonus but as an annual salary. As he had done in university, he played both ways for the Tiger-Cats. On offense he alternated between fullback and halfback, punted and kicked field goals. When the other team had the ball he was a defensive back: all this from a man who played at 180 pounds on a five foot ten inch frame. Hamilton certainly got value for their money. In his six years as a pro, three times as captain he led the team to the Grey Cup game but only got one win.
He began teaching high school in Hamilton in 1955 after graduation. Initially he taught science, chemistry and physical education but by 1970 had become a principal. He served at several high schools in the Hamilton system before taking early retirement after suffering a heart attack in 1987. While it was retirement from education, it was anything but passive as he became a regular volunteer at The Owl Foundation in Vineland and was also able to devote much more time to his real passion, woodcarving.
His pleasure in working with wood had been kindled in a wood pattern-making course that he had in high school. For the last 25 years of his life, the focus of the carving was on birds. In the early 1970s, he entered an amateur competition and won first place with a life-size Canada Goose. The following year, he only came third but that was likely because his entry was mistakenly placed in the professional division! He continued to win awards for his work, topped off with a world championship in 1993 for a life-size Common Loon preening its feathers.
In 2007, the St. Catharines Museum mounted a special exhibition of his carvings. The detail was astonishing and he had the ability to capture the essence of each species of bird with just the right pose. Unlike a drawing or painting, he had to get it right the first time as once it had been carved, it couldn’t be corrected. A particular favourite of mine was one of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in a tubular flower for which the long thin bill of the bird is the only attachment to the rest of the carving.
For all his talents, Steve was actually a quiet man, letting his work speak for him. While it is a shame that he died so young, he has left a legacy that rings loudly for which we can be very thankful.