For more than half a century, he has been the most recognized citizen in his hometown of Campbellton, New Brunswick. And the most talked-about.
That’s rather odd because the man has never run for office … nor has he had a half-decent job, let alone a prominent one. He has never owned a vehicle — not even a driver’s license.
And get this: forget high school or junior high, the guy failed to get beyond grade school.
What’s really bizarre is that in his 70-plus years, the man has committed no crimes — yet he has been punished far more than most criminals.
Who is he???
His name is Bobby Steeves.
People in Campbellton, a community of 7,300, all know Bobby’s name. But they don’t know his story …
In some ways, this is my story too.
It’s everyone’s story.
I was just a kid when I first saw Bobby Steeves. The year was 1957 and I was walking down Duncan Street in the west end of Campbellton, headed to my grade-one class at the Roseberry Street School.
Tucked away in my Roy Rogers packsack were things like pencils, an eraser, a wooden ruler, a Hilroy scribbler [with treasured tiny, shiny stars from the teachers] — and my Dick and Jane reader.
And like most youngsters, I didn’t have a care in the world. Life was fun.
SEE BOBBY RUN
Suddenly, some major excitement was happening. A lad, a few years older than me, was being chased by a bully. The goon — I’ll call him ‘Baboon’ — soon caught up to his prey, Bobby Steeves.
Bobby tripped and fell, landing face down in the grass alongside a picket fence. The chase ended right there. Bobby was trapped. The youngster lay on the ground, trembling. Looming over him, fists clenched, was Baboon.
Baboon towered over his hapless, helpless victim and began to punch and kick him. Bobby, turtling to shield himself from the blows, screamed and shrieked.
He pleaded for mercy. But It didn’t help. The assault continued.
I had no idea what Bobby had done to deserve such a beating. I now realize he was different. Here’s a clue: he ran like a girl.
Not only was the assault non-stop, so was the diatribe. Every slam was laced with a profanity.
I was only a kid, I know, but I hadn’t heard or seen anything like that before. I was stunned … yet sort of fascinated by it all, like a spectator at a hockey game when a fight breaks out on the ice.
Even though Bobby begged for the beating to stop, it continued until his tormentor was exhausted. Mission accomplished, Mr. Tough Guy — beaming from ear to ear — proudly glanced in the direction of a small group of kids who’d taken in the whole thing.
I was part of that group.
I was secretly hoping that Bobby would start swinging and deliver a knock-out punch — like in the old black and white westerns at the Capitol Theatre where the good guy — the handsome dude with the white hat — decked the bad guy, the not-so-handsome guy with the black hat.
But there was no knock-out punch. Not even an attempt.
Bobby remained curled up on the ground. I watched him lay there, twitching and sobbing.
He was very much alone.
Nobody came to help Bobby Steeves. There was no intervention — and no objection. Zip. And no sympathy, or so it seemed.
Sure, you could say that we were small and Baboon would have beaten the snot out of us too if we told him to stop. Maybe. But maybe not. Before I walked into class that day, I’d learned a valuable lesson: How the silent majority behaves.
I also found out who I was. The unprovoked assault on an innocent person left me feeling cheap. Sixty years later, I am humbled to say, what I witnessed that day in 1957 — and my reaction to it — continues to gnaw at me. I still feel cheap.
A HATE CRIME
Bobby Steeves was guilty of the crime of being different. He was — what we jokingly referred to in the day — a queer. A homo. We could easily toss in another 10 or 20 descriptors, including ‘easy target.’
There are moments when one’s life seems upside down, when things are terribly messed up. For Bobby Steeves, his life was ALWAYS upside down.
Someone once found Bobby shaking like a leaf in a canoe, of all places, hiding from someone who wanted to pound the living daylights out of him. Baboon wasn’t the only asshole in town.
Another thing, and it’s an important point. Bobby wasn’t bright. He was — in PC parlance — ‘mentally-challenged’ which made his journey in life that much more hellish.
Maybe every community has a Bobby Steeves, I don’t know. But I suspect the world is full of people like Bobby. They may be a couple of crayons short of a rainbow, but deep down, perhaps they’re actually kind and forgiving people. I now think that’s important.
When I turned 18, I pulled out of Campbellton with a suitcase of new clothes, a small Kodak Instamatic camera and some old memories, mostly good ones. However, I could never delete from the hard drive on my shoulders the hammering that Bobby Steeves took that day. I tried to make sense of it but couldn’t.
The months and years would morph into a decade before I finally ‘worked out’ who Bobby was. He was gay. He wasn’t heterosexual, like me. Like most of us. That was strike one. Bobby was also simple. Strike two. Boom.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Never heard of it.
I’m sure the good folk of Campbellton never thought of Bobby Steeves as a victim of a hate crime, but he surely was. And yes, of course, the world was ‘a different place then,’ etc.
My brain and heart don’t always agree on things, but I’m telling you what my heart was thinking: Something was terribly wrong here.
I returned to Campbellton from time to time, sometimes spotting Bobby doing his Forrest Gump thing and by that, I mean walking and running here and there. He still walked like a girl.
And he was always alone. Can’t say I ever saw him with a friend.
People driving by often called out his name. “Bobby!” they’d shout and lay on the horn. Like a trained seal, Bobby would turn, wave and smile like the sun. A fun time for all. The guys, especially, seemed to enjoy teasing Bobby … and perhaps he didn’t mind the attention, I couldn’t really tell.
And what did I do about this abuse? Zip. Let’s be honest here. I wasn’t part of the solution; I was part of the problem.
Mind you, back then that ‘small-town mentality’ was very much alive in places like Campbellton. I’m talking about views on sexuality, religion, old grudges, etc. I raise the point because it’s not purely an ‘age’ thing — but where one is brought up as well.
I made no effort to sit down and talk with Bobby Steeves … although as I got older I thought it would be a good idea to get his thoughts on life and meaningful stuff like that.
In late August 2016, I was back in Campbellton and figured I’d get around and meet him. He wasn’t hard to find. I discovered he lived in a basement suite in what used to be his small family home at the west end of Lansdowne Street.
I knocked on a paint-blistered side door. No answer. I then put my ear to the door hoping to hear somebody inside. The only sound was the barking of a small dog.
FINALLY. WE MEET.
I returned a few days later and knocked on his door again. This time, the man I was looking for was home. “Who is it?” a voice called out.
I opened the door slightly, told him who I was … and that I was coming in. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, Bobby Steeves was standing to my right. The puzzled look on his face signaled he had no clue who I was and why I was there.
We shook hands. I jokingly said I had good news and bad news … the good news was that I was not a Jehovah Witness; the bad news was that I was a reporter. Don’t think he got it.
What Bobby did get, however, was my business card.
“I saw you a long time ago,” I remarked, hoping to grab his attention, “… but it wasn’t nice, Bobby. You were beaten up pretty bad … by Baboon.”
While Bobby studied my card, I continued my trip down Memory Lane without waiting for an answer. “Do you recall that day, Bobby? You were attacked alongside a wooden fence, not far from here.” “Yes,” came a near-whisper reply, his eyes darting back and forth as he tried to work out where this was going …
Bobby interrupted my story to reveal his attacker’s real name, adding he thought he’d moved away from Campbellton after the police warned him “if he ever attacked Bobby again, he’d go to jail!” He drove the point home by wagging his finger at me.
“Whatever happened to that son-of-a-bitch?” I asked. “He moved to Ontario and got married,” he said, “… I think he had children.” “I wonder if they turned out to be assholes,” I countered. “I don’t know,” Bobby replied … his voice trailing, suggesting it was time to change the subject.
Sometimes Memory Lane has big potholes.
“What’s the name of your roommate?” I asked, motioning my head toward a small mutt that couldn’t sit still. “Pitou. He’s a nice puppy.”
Pitou is a classic French name for a dog that roughly translates into ‘cute little puppy.’
New Brunswick has more than its share of Rhodes scholars, but Bobby’s tormentor sure wasn’t one of them. Baboon could barely read and write — and ‘according to unconfirmed reports’ — he once got someone to prominently print ‘Hells Angels’ on the back of his proud possession, a black leather jacket.
Baboon was later stopped by police and asked why he was wearing apparel like that. He quickly explained that he didn’t really belong to the Hells Angels. “That’s not the problem,” said the officer, “why are you wearing a jacket that says FUCK OFF?”
I don’t know if that story is true or if it’s another ‘urban legend.’ No matter. It’s now part of Campbellton folklore.
Bobby and his tormentor had one thing in common. They were both simple. One was harmless, the other hopeless.
The physical attacks and the harassment Bobby suffered were — for a large part — condoned by people in Campbellton. Remember, we’re talking 1950s and 60s … and folk weren’t as tolerant of those who were ‘different.’
As Michael Landry puts it, Bobby Steeves was the bravest man to walk the streets of Campbellton.
About 10 years ago, I got word from a good friend that Bobby’s mother, Annie, had died. She had loved her son dearly. That touched me.
Someone recently shared that Bobby often visits his mother’s plot at the Campbellton Rural Cemetery, at the west end of town.
Bobby and I talked about this and so I asked, “Would you care to show me your mother’s grave?” He agreed. Bobby was pleasantly surprised I took an interest in something that was dear to him.
The man kept his word. I dropped by his house one morning and said, “let’s go to the cemetery.” Campbellton being Campbellton, the graveyard was only a few minutes’ drive away.
Once our seat-belts went ‘click,’ I did a U-turn and we were off to the races. “Nice car,” he said.
The grave of Annie [Flannagan] Steeves [1910-2003], in the far southeast corner of the cemetery, was adorned with flowers. No other plot, I could see, had as many.
The flowers were synthetic. Fake. However, Bobby’s love for the woman who stood by him through all his pain was anything but fake.
We walked up to her grave. “Was it you who got these beautiful flowers?” I asked. “Yes,” Bobby replied, glancing my way. “Did the flowers, by chance, come from other graves …?”
Perhaps it was out of place to ask, but I did anyway. Bobby ducked the question. He rubbed his chin and said, “My, she was wonderful! … just wonderful.”
That she was, Mr. Steeves. I can’t begin to fathom the stress and sorrow that poor lady went through.
“She loved you dearly, didn’t she?” Bobby nodded again, this time in silence, his eyes fixed on a small, gray speckled tombstone. At this point, I figured he might open up and say something. But no, not a word. I understood. People can still say plenty when they say nothing.
Bobby leaned over and began brushing grass clippings off the base of the tombstone. A simple grave in a far corner of the cemetery had been transformed into a private shrine, and I sensed that Bobby wanted things to be ‘just so.’
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
We then went for breakfast, Bobby Steeves and I. We got back in the rental and drove to the sleepy village of Tide Head, just west of Campbellton, pulling up at one of my favourite dining spots — the Sanfar Restaurant.
It’s here where owner and friend Dave Richards, with two plasticized menus in hand, escorted us to a table in the corner of a back room.
It was a quiet spot. Private. We could talk without anyone listening in.
“HE’S HARMLESS …”
Bobby Steeves was mentally challenged but had excellent table manners. He also knew how to say ‘thank you.’
The man ate everything on his plate and at Sanfar they serve big helpings. I got a few things off my plate as well.
I had a few questions. One, in particular, made Bobby uncomfortable. “You’re gay, aren’t you?” He looked up, stopped eating, waited a few seconds and announced, quite definitively, “Yes.” Bobby’s eyes never left mine, a clear signal his sexual orientation was none of my business.
For a while, nothing was said.
I broke the silence. Getting back to that decades-old attack by Baboon, I remarked, “… what did your Mom say about those who beat you up?” “She told me,” Bobby offered, “not to mind them …”
How it must have broken Mrs. Steeves’ heart to see her boy crying, bloodied and bruised when he hadn’t done anything wrong. She must have thought, where’s the justice here? What the hell is going on?
I wondered too about how other family members handled this ‘situation.’ They must have struggled with it as well. A burden for all.
Don’t let anyone tell you the 1950s were always Happy Days.
However, a lot changes in half a century … including our views on those who don’t fit in. Bobby Steeves is no longer hunted down and turned into a human punching bag. For the most part, the catcalls have also ended too.
Today the people of Campbellton not only accept Bobby — now an aging senior — they also treat him well. Dare I say with respect. They’ll share a coffee with the man and if the weather is bad — even if it’s not — they’ll give him a lift home.
They’ve now rallied behind him.
“He’s harmless,” a cousin of mine pointed out. Another described him kind and friendly, having a good heart.
I’m not around Campbellton a lot [I live in Alberta] so I don’t see Bobby much but I gotta say, he is sometimes on my mind.
Over the years, I have come across situations where people have been wronged and I’ve had a chance to put the truth out there — as in ‘do the right thing.’ Shine a light, etc. Sometimes my mind will replay the attack on Bobby, him on the ground squirming, the blows landing in slow motion — and a little voice in my head says, Stand up, for Christ sakes! Don’t let this be another ‘Bobby Steeves moment’ where you keep your mouth shut.
‘Baboon’s’ assault on Bobby Steeves is more than a bad memory. It’s a curse. In a strange twist, it has made me a better person, certainly a better reporter. I don’t mind sharing that with you.
ANGELS: THEY’RE EVERYWHERE
In early 2016, during civic election night in New Brunswick, one of the candidates running for office in Campbellton spotted Bobby Steeves milling about her election office and gave him a lift home.
The side trip meant a little less time with her family on this, the biggest day of her career, but so be it. It was important to her that Bobby got home safe.
That night, Stephanie Anglehart-Paulin became Campbellton’s first female mayor.
I believe that a good number of angels — both in Campbellton and in that ‘Better Place’ — have been looking out for Bobby and I suspect they have put in some overtime as well. Good for them. If I get to Heaven, I’ll buy ’em a beer.
I told Bobby I was bothered about the terrible things that had happened a long time ago. I also shared that I knew he was persecuted for no other reason than he was different. Unlike other homosexuals in Campbellton, Bobby didn’t have the smarts to conceal who he was, nor did his family have the resources to keep his secret a secret.
“What do you have to say about those who mercilessly targetted and humiliated you?” I asked. I was now giving Bobby — a true survivor — an opportunity to unload on the Baboons and others who’d made his life a living hell. Here was his chance to tell them how he really felt.
Bobby paused. I waited. Then came his answer, and what he had to say completely caught me off guard. “These are nice people,” he said, in reference to the men and women of Campbellton. “Nice people,” adding, “I have lots of friends …”
Finally. That knock-out punch.
FLOWERS FOR BOBBY
Carolyn Price of Halifax and an anonymous friend in Campbellton teamed up to have a ‘Flowers for Bobby’ box at the Customer Service counter at Sobeys in Campbellton.
People made donations which were put on a gift card so that Bobby could buy his own flowers, real or otherwise. Hundreds of dollars was collected.
The Bobby Steeves story is much more than a yarn about bullying and being different, both timely topics on their own. It’s also a story of love, forgiveness, understanding … and, I guess, redemption.
Makes me want to say that the Big Guy upstairs works in mysterious ways. I owe Him a beer too.
A CLASS ACT
In June 2017, at a small, red-bricked school in the Village of Tide Head, a veteran K/1 teacher decided to go beyond the textbooks and give her students a real lesson about life. Donna Doucet-Savoie talked to the young ones about Bobby Steeves and the difficult times he had gone through.
The students then crafted birthday cards for Bobby …
The unique act of kindness, which was posted on several Facebook sites, led to a corporate pat on the back for Doucet-Savoie.
Beth Stymiest, Superintendent of the Anglophone North School District, fired off a kudos letter to the innovative instructor, naming her as a Starfish Award recipient for her “extraordinary act of kindness that made a difference in someone’s life.”
Thanks to Mayor Stephanie Anglehart-Paulin and an outpouring of public support, the City of Campbellton honoured Bobby Steeves at the Civic Centre on Sunday, 2 July 2017 with two certificates of recognition for his contribution to the community.
I was around to Bobby’s house shortly after he received his awards. A friend shared that after Bobby received his certificates, he broke down and wept.
I asked Bobby to show me the birthday cards that had arrived in his mail. There was a whack of them. I set some up on his kitchen table and snapped a photo. Many of the cards — all of which had heartfelt messages — arrived with cash cards from Tim Horton’s.
Bobby revealed that he’s been using the cards.
One birthday card was from far away. “Look, here’s one from Australia!” I exclaimed. Bobby asked, “What’s that?” and so I explained, “Australia is on the other side of the world.” “Oh my,” he said.
I saw Bobby a few days later at a McDonalds on Roseberry Street. He was alone at a table, nursing a cup of coffee, and I sat down opposite him. “When are you leaving?” he asked, and I replied I’d be back in Alberta within a week. He shook my hand. “Have a safe trip,” he said.