Before his rendition of the song “Danny Boy” helped launch his career, tenor John McDermott agreed to a request from his father.
“My father asked that, if I were to succeed in this business, to perhaps consider giving back by focusing on veterans’ issues,” he says. “My father was a veteran. I had three cousins killed in Vietnam, and my mother’s brother was a veteran who died as a prisoner of war, so we’ve always had a very special place in our home for veterans.”
Five platinum records and many tours later, the local resident continues to fulfill the request.
His commitment to veterans’ causes is apparent through his involvement with numerous charities and fundraisers. Today, through his foundation, McDermott House Canada, he’s working toward expanding and renovating the veterans’ wing at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
The goal of the palliative care unit is to provide high-quality care for veterans, military and first responders who are in the final stages of terminal illness.
“I’m in a position to give back to the veteran community and to fulfill my father’s request, and I like doing it,” McDermott says. “I like the McDermott House aspect of it because it’s not a charity, it’s a foundation. You can actually look at, touch and know that it’s being done and know that your money is being used in a very positive and good way.”
On top of donating a portion of his album sales from his latest release, Journeys, to the project, once a year McDermott also holds a special Christmas concert for the veterans in the main lobby of the hospital.
“The veterans at that particular concert are absolutely at their most vulnerable because most of them are in wheelchairs or in beds, about 500 of them,” he says.
“I’ve seen all of the World War One vets disappear and of course the World War Two vets are getting fewer and fewer.”
Prior to the private concert that will take place this month, there will also be a press conference to announce the work that is being done with McDermott House Canada.
“We’ll take the full band in and do about an hour and 20 minutes for the veterans, just perform all their favourites,” McDermott says, adding that they’ll also take requests. “It’s a lot of fun. I know how much the veterans enjoy it.”
Although McDermott didn’t start his professional singing career until he was in his late 30s, music was a big part of his upbringing, and he says that his love of singing comes from his parents.
After immigrating to Canada from Scotland, the McDermotts and their 12 kids settled in Willowdale where they slowly built a reputation for their weekly musical gatherings.
Some residents may also remember being visited by a group of carollers that called themselves The Mistletones, which was an a cappella group McDermott formed with classmates from St. Michael’s Choir School.
“We went out carolling on the streets and eventually started going into seniors’ residences and to hospitals performing on Christmas Eve,” he says. “The group is still together. I’m on tour, so I can’t go out and do it with them, but I have them on my annual Christmas show that I do every year.”
Veterans’ causes are also themes that McDermott explores in albums and songs, such as “Bringing Buddy Home” and “Christmas in the Trenches.”
“They were picked exactly for that,” he says. “I don’t want to whisper about it, I want to get it out there.”
McDermott, who is currently on tour in support of Journeys, says he’s looking forward to winding down for the holidays.
“My favourite part of Christmas is just spending time with my wife — we have three dogs — and just relaxing,” he says. “It’s pretty exhausting once we’re done. We’re out for about two months.”
For more information visit www.mcdermotthousecanada.org.