He is Campbellton, New Brunswick’s most recognized and talked-about citizen. And it’s been like that for more than half a century.
That’s rather odd because the man has never run for office or had a decent job, let alone a prominent one. He didn’t even finish school. And get this: He has never owned a car or had a driver’s license.
What’s really bizarre is that the man has committed no crimes in his 70-plus years — yet he’s been punished far more than most criminals.
Who is he?? His name is Bobby Steeves.
People in the Northern New Brunswick community of 7,400 know the name. The story they don’t.
To some extent, it’s my story too. Everyone’s story.
I was six or seven 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 old Roseberry Street School.
Tucked away in my Roy Rogers packsack were some pencils, an eraser, a Hilroy scribbler [with tiny stars from the teachers] — and my Dick and Jane reader.
Like most kids, I didn’t have a care in the world.
SEE BOBBY RUN
Suddenly, there was some major excitement 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 alongside a picket fence, and that’s where the pursuit ended. The youngster was trapped. He lay on the ground, trembling.
Turtling to shield himself, Bobby screamed and pleaded for mercy. It didn’t work. Baboon towered over his victim and began kicking and raining punches down on him.
I’m not sure what felony Bobby had committed to deserve this; perhaps it was simply because he ran like a girl. The problem, of course, was that Bobby Steeves was different.
Not only were the kicks and punches non-stop, so too was the vulgar language. Every slam was laced with a profanity. I was just a kid, I know, but I hadn’t seen or heard anything like that before. I was stunned … yet fascinated, like an excited 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 get up and start swinging, just like in the old black and white westerns at the Capitol Theatre where the good guy, the one with the white hat, decks the bad guy with the black hat.
But there was no knock-out punch. Not even an attempt. Bobby remained on the ground, sobbing and curled up in a heap.
Nobody came to help. There was no intervention. No protest. Zip. And no sympathy, or so it seemed. Bobby was very much alone.
Sure, you could say that we were just kids and Baboon would have beaten the snot out of us too if we spoke up. Maybe. But maybe not. Before I walked into class that day, I’d learned a valuable lesson: How the silent majority behaves.
The unprovoked assault on an innocent child left me feeling cheap. Sixty years later, I am humbled to say, 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.’
Someone once found Bobby shaking like a leaf in a canoe, of all things, hiding out from someone who wanted to pound the living daylights out of him.
Another thing. 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.
When I turned 18, I pulled out of Campbellton with a suitcase of new clothes and old memories, mostly good ones. However, I could never delete from that hard drive on my shoulders the beating 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.
I’m sure the good folk of Campbellton never thought of Bobby Steeves as a victim of a hate crime, but he was. And yes, of course, “the world was a different place then.” But even so …
From time to time I returned to Campbellton, sometimes spotting Bobby doing his Forrest Gump thing and by that, I mean walking and running here and there.
The man 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 Bobby didn’t mind all the attention, I’m not sure.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Never heard of it.
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 and well 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 raised as well.
I made no effort to sit down and talk with Bobby Steeves … although as I got older — dare I say wiser — 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 town and figured I’d get around to see Mr. Steeves. I discovered he had a basement suite in what used to be his small family home at the west end of Lansdowne Street.
Someone pointed out to me where Bobby lived, and so I knocked on a paint-blistered side door. No answer. I put my ear to the door hoping to hear something, perhaps somebody inside. The only sound was a dog barking.
FINALLY. WE MEET.
I returned a few days later. I knocked. This time, the man I was looking for was at home. “Who is it?” a voice called out.
I opened the door slightly, announced who I was … and said that I was coming in. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, Bobby Steeves was standing to my right. His puzzled look signaled that he had no idea 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 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, Bobby’s 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!” Mr. 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. Memory Lane, to some, 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 wore 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. However, one was violent; the other harmless.
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 and that she had loved her son dearly. That touched me, as real love usually does.
Someone recently shared with me that Bobby often visits his mother’s grave at the Campbellton Rural Cemetery, at the far west end of Duncan Street.
That hit me again.
Bobby and I talked about this and so I asked, “Would you care to show me her grave?” He agreed. He was pleasantly surprised I took an interest in something that was dear to him.
Bobby kept 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 covered with flowers. No other plot in the cemetery had as many.
The flowers were synthetic. Fake. However, Bobby’s love for the woman who raised him and stood by him through all his pain was anything but fake.
I walked up to the plot with Bobby by my side. “Was it you who got these beautiful flowers?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, 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, grey 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 cemetry 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 and I. We got back in the rental and drove to the sleepy community 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 Bobby Steeves and me to a table in the corner of a back room.
It was quiet there. Private. We could talk without anyone listening in.
“HE’S HARMLESS …”
Bobby Steeves was mentally challenged but he had excellent table manners. He also knew how to say thank you.
Bobby ate everything on his plate, and they serve big helpings at Sanfar. I got off a few things off my plate as well … I had some 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, “Yes.” Bobby’s eyes never left mine, a clear signal his sexual orientation was none of my business.
Getting back to the decades-old attack by Baboon, I remarked, breaking the silence, “… what did your Mom say about those who attacked you?” “She told me,” Bobby offered, “not to mind them …”
How it must have broken Mrs. Steeves’ heart to see her boy crying and bloodied 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.
A lot has changed however 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, those catcalls have also ended.
Today the people of Campbellton not only accept Bobby — now a senior — they also treat him well. 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. They’ve now rallied behind him.
“He’s harmless,” a cousin pointed out.
I’m not around Campbellton a lot [I live in Alberta] so I don’t see Bobby much but I gotta say, he’s sometimes on my mind, perhaps more than I care to admit.
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
Earlier this year, during civic election night in New Brunswick, one of the candidates running for office in Campbellton spotted Bobby Steeves at her elections office and she 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 you?” I asked. I was now giving Bobby — a true survivor — an opportunity to unload on the Baboons and others who had 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 threw me. “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 now has more than 11,500 views. No other story on my blog has ever gotten off to a start like that.
Most of the readers are from Canada, of course, but the article has also been read by people in more than three dozen countries. Bobby’s story is touching folk around the world, as it should.
The number of sincere [and let’s face it, 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 for his entire life.
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 [grocery store] in Campbellton. People can now make donations so that Bobby can buy flowers, real or otherwise.
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 suppose, redemption.
Makes me want to say that the Big Guy upstairs works in mysterious ways. I owe Him a beer too.
CARE TO CONTACT BOBBY?
For those who’d like to get in touch with Bobby Steeves, his snail-mail address is: 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