For more than half a century, the man has been the most recognized and talked-about citizen in his hometown of Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada.
That’s rather odd because he has never run for office … nor has he had a half-decent job, let alone a prominent one. He has never owned a vehicle … nor had a driver’s license. And get this: Never mind high school, he never completed grade school.
What’s really bizarre is that in his 70-plus years, the man has committed no crimes — yet he’s 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, it’s my story too. It’s everyone’s story.
I was a little boy 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 pencils, an eraser, wooden ruler, a Hilroy scribbler [with treasured tiny, shiny stars from the teachers] — and my Dick and Jane reader.
And like most kids, I didn’t have a care in the world. Life was fun. Easy street.
SEE BOBBY RUN
Suddenly, some major excitement was happening. A lad, a few years older than me, was being chased by a bully. The thug — 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. That was the end of the chase. The youngster was trapped. He lay on the ground, trembling. Looming over him, fists clenched, was the victorious Baboon.
The attack began. Baboon towered over his hapless, helpless victim, punching and kicking. Turtling to shield himself from the blows, the lad screamed and pleaded for mercy.
But it didn’t help.
I had no idea what Bobby had done to deserve such a hammering. I now realize it was because he was different. Here’s a clue: Bobby ran like a girl.
Not only was the assault non-stop, so was the diatribe. Every slam was laced with a profanity.
I was just 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 fan at a hockey game when a fight breaks out.
Even though Bobby whimpered and pleaded, the assault 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 seen the whole thing.
I was part of that group.
I was secretly hoping Bobby would start swinging and deliver a knock-out punch — just like in the old black and white westerns at the Capitol Theatre where the good guy, the handsome dude wearing the white hat, decks the bad guy, the not-so-handsome guy with the black hat.
There would be no knock-out punch. Not even an attempt. Bobby remained on the ground, curled up, whimpering.
Nobody came to help the guy. He was very much alone. There was no intervention — and no objection. Zip. Dick all. And no sympathy, or so it seemed.
Sure, you could say that we were just kids and Baboon would have beaten the snot out of us too if we asked 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 child left me feeling kind of cheap. Sixty years later, I am humbled to say, what I witnessed that day and my reaction to it, still gnaws at me.
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. Homo. We could easily toss in another 10 or 20 descriptors, including ‘easy target.’
There are moments when everyone’s whole 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. 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 — and you decide if this is important — perhaps they’re kind and forgiving. I think that’s important.
When I turned 18, I pulled out of Campbellton with a suitcase of new clothes, a cheap 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 really 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 Mr. Steeves. He wasn’t hard to find. I soon discovered that he had 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 bark of a small dog.
FINALLY. WE MEET.
I returned a few days later and knocked on the 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 my name … and announced 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 visiting him.
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 pretty. You were beaten up 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!” Steeves drove the point home by wagging his finger at me.
“Whatever happened to that son-of-a-bitch?” I asked. The answer: “He moved to Ontario and got married … 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 some huge potholes.
“What’s the name of your roommate?” I asked, motioning my head toward a small mutt that couldn’t sit still. “Pitou,” he said. “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 one of his proud possessions, 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.
As Michael Landry put 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’d loved her son dearly. That touched me, as real love does.
Someone recently shared that Bobby often visits his mother’s plot at the Campbellton Rural Cemetery, at the west end of Duncan Street.
Bobby and I talked about this and so I asked, “Would you care to show me your mother’s grave?” He agreed. He was pleasantly surprised I took an interest in something that was dear to him.
Bobby 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 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 the 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 even 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 he sure 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 but 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.
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?
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.
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 have 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 too. Good for them. If I get to Heaven I’ll buy ’em a beer.
I told Bobby I was bothered about what happened a long time ago. I also shared that I knew he’d been 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
A follow-up: There’s been a positive response to the article on Bobby Steeves … it is now past 17,000 views. No other story on my blog has ever been off to a start like that.
Most of the readers are from Canada, but the article has also been read by people in more than three dozen countries. So. Bobby’s story is touching folk around the world, as it should.
The number of sincere and courageous comments on the blog site alone number 60-plus, most ever. Then there’s Facebook with 400 shares, plus more than 100 comments. All in all, quite a show of support for a man who’d been shunned his entire life.
Last fall, 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. The box is now closed.
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, like the Good Book says. 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.
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.”
It sure did. Her gesture also touched Facebook readers across the world:
Congratulations Donna, you received the recognition you certainly deserve and the students learned a great life lesson [Linda] … The world needs more great people like you!!! [Tracy] … Children need to learn valuable lessons at a young age to carry through their lives. [Gloria] … You are certainly an inspiration to these students and everyone who knows you. [Jane] … Congratulations not only to you but your students.” [Daniel] … “The kids will remember [this] forever. [Jacqueline] … I too grew up in Campbellton and this story touched my heart in a personal way. It is so heart-warming in our troubled world to hear stories like this. [Claudette] … If all who are in a position of influence on little hearts and minds were to do the same all over the world … just imagine! [Leslie] She has a great caring heart and all her students will surely learn to follow her loving ways. [Nancy] … It is so refreshing to read about kindness. [Bev] … You are one special teacher and hope there are more teachers out there as my grandkids move forward. [Diane] … You make us proud to have been teachers. [Shirley] … You are setting such a good example for our kids. [Shelley] … A very kind gesture on the part of you and your students. [Carmel] … Small acts of kindness can make a big difference in someone’s life. [Edris] … Tide Head School is the best! [Bonnie] … You did a beautiful thing by sowing love in kids’ hearts. [Margot] … Lovely gesture — still so proud of my hometown of Tide Head and its teachers and students. [Ruth] … I bet your kids will take that act of kindness through their lives. [Phyllis] Maybe we can beat back ignorance one wonderful teacher at a time. [Lucienne]
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 Bobby had cried after realizing he had been honoured.
Nice to see tears of joy for a change.
I asked Bobby to show me the birthday cards that had arrived in the mail. There was sure 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 Tim Horton’s cash cards. 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 at few days later at a McDonalds on Roseberry Street. He was alone at a table, nursing a cup of coffee. I sat down beside him. “When are you leaving?” he asked, and I replied I’d be back in Alberta within a week. He shook my hand and said, “Have a safe trip.”
CARE TO CONTACT BOBBY?
For those who’d like to get in touch with Bobby Steeves, his snail-mail address: Basement Suite, 168 Lansdowne Street, Campbellton, New Brunswick E3N 2M9 CANADA.
Bobby was born on 29 June 1944 [source: birth certificate], so if birthday cards are your thing, there you go.
Note that Mr. Steeves does not have access to the Internet, nor does he have a computer. – Editor