A Life's Story
January 28, 2023
Life lessons on farm, music on road
Robert Bunkowsky, 82, was leader of Family Spectrum band
By: Janine LeGal
While musical families like the Jacksons and Cowsills (even the fictional Partridge Family) were hitting the world’s airwaves, Manitobans had one of their own.
The Family Spectrum was made up of one rural farm family — and Robert Bunkowsky served as both dad and band leader.
Bunkowsky was 82 when he died the evening of his 59th wedding anniversary (Nov. 15, 2022), holding his wife’s hand.
His daughter, Lisa Bunkowsky, says she lived a charmed childhood.
“My parents were crazy in love with each other. They were best friends and full partners in everything. Not long before my dad died, I saw them dance together,” Lisa recalls.
“He performed on stage, was engaged in community affairs, but my father was a more of an introverted person. He was a very deep and thoughtful person.
“His childhood made him think very deeply about everything. He made up his mind that his life was going to be completely different. He would think something through, come up with a goal and go for it: in relationships, in his musical career, and how his children would be raised.”
Both the farm and music provided opportunities for working together with the family he adored and for teaching and learning new things. His son and daughters were equally trained in farm work.
“We had to work hard on the farm, juggle university and music. It was critical that all the kids were university educated. He wanted us to have opportunities to be self-starters, to get good jobs. There was a strong feminist theme in our family, an empowerment of women and what they can do. My dad was instrumental in that,” Lisa says.
In 1964, Bunkowsky started a dance band, the Polka Partners, later becoming Southern Comfort, playing with brothers and friends until the 1970s.
The era of the Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell musicals was the catalyst for the Bunkowsky family to take their musical talent on tour.
Known as the Family Spectrum, he lined up the children, taught them songs and ensured everyone could play an instrument. They ended up recording three albums.
“Every Sunday, we would hit the road for an evening performance,” Lisa says. “My dad always loved the experience of playing music with his family. He wanted to make it something more, he wanted to find places for us to perform… We were hired to perform all over southern Manitoba and eventually Western Canada, and invited to do a concert tour in Germany.”
Bunkowsky didn’t have an easy childhood, but that’s not something he cared to talk about. Instead, he did everything he could to create a life well-lived for his family and friends, community and music fans. Investing time and energy with each of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, teaching, instilling values, building confidence and independence — these are his legacy.
Bunkowsky grew up on the farm in the small community of Lea Bank. He received his formal education in a tiny rural Manitoba school.
He married Heather, the farm girl down the road, in 1963. Together, they started their own farm, growing cereal, oilseed and legume crops.
Bunkowsky was an early adopter of technology and best practices for conservation and sustainability. New crop diversification, pedigreed seed production and zero-tillage reflected his interest in innovation and preserving the land for future generations.
As a Canadian food producer, he contributed to and oversaw Canadian food aid on the ground in Africa during the 1980s famine.
At home on the farm, his more than 3,000 acres were bustling with livestock, dogs and cats. Over time, the couple had five daughters and a son. When he wasn’t working the farm, Bunkowsky was making music.
“When I think of Bob, I also always have to think of Heather, because the two of them did everything together,” says Lea Bank native Weldon Isaac.
“I started to work for him when I was 18. He was a good teacher. On my first day of work, Bob said: ‘Just follow me and watch what I do.’
“All the children had specific jobs on the farm. His daughters filled important positions… to operate combines, tractors and dozers. He said the women were better equipment operators then the men,” Isaac says, adding employees were always treated as part of the family.
‘There was no bringing your own lunch. Everyone ate around the dining room table. Bob and Heather’s door was always open for visitors.”
Later, when his health began to fail, Bunkowsky would accompany the family to every music gig in a different capacity.
“He still loved to come and watch us,” says Lisa.
“My father’s role completely shifted to head cheerleader instead,” she says, adding the band, which now includes other family members and is aptly named Legacy, continues to perform.
“When we would be on the road and touring, my father would drive the van. He was still farming full-time. We had to make some tight timelines, all night on the road. Dad would be driving, everybody would be sleeping. I was a night owl. We could talk to him about anything. He was close with all of us kids.”
Lisa says it is no surprise she and two of her siblings became school teachers.
“My father was the most amazing teacher,” she said. “He would be so patient, really able to dissect a skill set. He gave that gift to all of his children, to help people.
“He was a generous person with his time and his money, on the side and behind the scenes. He was a very kind man.”