Geoff Bowden at home, with the laptop computer and speaker he uses for his music and history presentations at the Community of Lookout Ridge on Highway 20. DON RICKERS

Geoff Bowden shares his love of music and history with seniors

Who says that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Geoff Bowden, 81 years young, started playing the piano at 75, and still takes a couple lessons each month. The Lookout Village resident doesn’t just study music, he shares it with others, including those at the seniors residence across the street. Ditto for local and global history stories.

Taylor Cotnam, the Recreation and Volunteer Manager at the Community of Lookout Ridge retirement home, said that the residents look forward to Bowden’s regular visits.

“Geoff is a passionate history and music buff, and involves the residents in conversations about ‘the good old days.’ He creates his own playlists and gives background information about each song and artist. The independent, assisted, and care centre residents all love him. Geoff even comes in to play background music for our events such as our summer fun fair and Halloween party,” said Cotnam.

Bowden’s friend, Pelham Town Councillor Wayne Olson, told the Voice that “Geoff has completed studies of bootlegging and the dance halls of the north shore of Lake Erie. He makes entertaining presentations at museums and historical societies, as well as the seniors homes. I really admire his uncomplicated and enthusiastic approach to serving others.”

His own life story is an interesting one, too.

“I was born in England and adopted in 1941 at an early age, so I never knew my biological parents,” said Bowden. “A Yorkshire couple raised me very well. I left school at age 15-and-a-half to work in the family business, which was delivering milk. Then I worked for a banana company and was a porter on the shipping docks, before joined the police force at age 19. I was a bobby for the Hampshire Constabulary on the Isle of Wight for five years, before emigrating to Canada with a friend in 1965. I drove a bus for the Toronto Transit Commission and led bus tours to places like Niagara Falls.”

An opportunity to join a fledgling convenience store chain called Mac’s Milk presented itself, and Bowden switched careers yet again.

“I was with them for almost 20 years,” he said. “I had one store, then five stores, which I gave up to become a supervisor looking after 30 stores, then a zone manager overseeing 150.”

Bowden complained bitterly to the corporate office that no real training program was in place for Mac’s employees.

“One day the company president had enough of my griping and told me to get it done. So I created a training program for all Mac’s Milk Stores. I wrote the manuals, and ran a training centre from 1975 until about 1988. By then, we’d grown from 60 stores to 1300 stretched across the country. I did all of the management training as well.”

Looking for a new challenge, Bowden became a consultant with a small company in St. Jacobs, near Kitchener, and at the same time commenced work as a part-time disc jockey, as an outlet for his passion for music. He maintained his DJ gig for many years.

His next employment stint was with WSIB, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, as a corporate development consultant, responsible for management team training. Bowden’s wife passed away in 1998, and he left his consultant job and decided to purchase a bed and breakfast in Vineland, something to occupy his time in retirement.

“I was a member of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, involved with tourism,” said Bowden. “That’s what got me interested in all things Niagara, since being in the B&B business, you need to be able to talk to people about local culture and history.”

He subsequently joined both the Wainfleet and Pelham Historical Societies, and started giving Powerpoint presentations about local history. As a teenager, he had attended many jazz festivals in Britain, and especially enjoyed Duke Ellington’s big band. With MP3 music files loaded on his laptop computer, and a portable speaker, he told audiences stories and played his music, everything from jazz and big bands, through to rock and roll and ballads, up to about the mid-1980s era.

“I played Bill Haley’s classic rock and roll song, Rock Around the Clock, and introduced it by telling the audience that one morning years ago, while working the shipping docks in Britain, I had a brief opportunity to meet the man himself, who was arriving on a tour of the UK for the first time. Back in the 1950s, everyone came across the Atlantic by boat, since airline travel hadn’t become popular yet.”

There’s actually a World War One aircraft hangar still around in Vineland, part of a church that sticks out near the road

Bowden, whose email moniker is “Jazzmaster,” started off playing music at Lookout Ridge once a month in the care centre, and then twice a month, playing for an hour and a half just before dinner on Saturdays. He’d get many song requests from the residents in attendance, anywhere from one to two dozen people.

“Many of them were wheelchair-bound. It was great to see them respond to the music. Even those with dementia would perk up when they heard a familiar tune, and would be tapping their feet,” said Bowden. “I would throw on YMCA by the Village People and get audience participation. I even had them up in the care centre the other day doing the Chicken Dance.”

Bowden also gives historical presentations to the assisted living group at Lookout Ridge.

“I told them that perhaps we could get out of the residence and take in a trip to a museum, or Morningstar Mill, or Balls Falls. There’s actually a World War One aircraft hangar still around in Vineland, part of a church that sticks out near the road. I think some would enjoy that.”

Many don’t realize that there was a prisoner-of-war camp in the Wainfleet Bog area during WWII, said Bowden.

“Some of those German prisoners emigrated back here after the war. They were treated pretty well. They dug peat during the day, and often sneaked out on Saturday nights to travel into Port Colborne, where they would dance with the local girls, and then sneak back into the camp.”

Bowden’s outgoing nature helped him find love for a second time.

“I met my partner Sandra at a local mixer, a club for older people that offered golfing, movies, and game nights. It was centered here in Pelham, in Bailey’s restaurant, the site of today’s Peter Piper’s Pubhouse on Highway 20. Sandra showed up one night, and we hit it off. The rest, as they say, is history.”