The man is one of Campbellton, New Brunswick’s best-known citizens, and it’s been like that for more than 60 years.
He is certainly the most talked-about — and that’s rather odd because he’s not in the news, hasn’t run for office … and has never held down a half-decent job, let alone a good one.
There’s more. He has never owned a vehicle, not even a driver’s license. And get this: forget high school or junior high, he failed to get beyond grade school.
What’s really bizarre is that in his 75-plus years, he has committed no crimes. Yet, he has been punished far more than most criminals …
Who is he???
His name is Bobby Steeves.
People in the community of 6,900 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 just a kid when I first saw Bobby Steeves. It was late spring 1956 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 some 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. Duncan Street was Easy Street.
SEE BOBBY RUN
Suddenly, some major excitement was happening …
A lad a few years older than me, Bobby Steeves, was being chased by a bully whose nickname was ‘Baboon.’
The goon soon caught up to his prey. Bobby tripped and fell, landing face down in the grass alongside a fence. The pursuit ended right there.
Bobby was trapped. Towering over him, fists clenched, was Baboon. Bobby began to tremble. He knew what was coming.
Baboon then began kicking and punching his victim who shrieked loudly and turtled to shield himself from the blows. The kid pleaded for mercy, but it didn’t help. The assault continued. Bam! Bam! Bam!
I had no idea what Bobby had done to deserve such a beating. I now realize his crime was that he was different. Here’s a clue: he ran like a girl.
Not only was the assault non-stop, so was the filthy diatribe. 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 sort of fascinated by it all, like spectators at a hockey game when a fight breaks out.
Although 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 some kids who’d taken in the whole thing.
I was one of those kids.
I felt for Bobby. I was hoping he’d get up and start swinging, delivering a knock-out punch, just like in the black and white westerns at the old Capitol Theater where the good guy — the handsome dude with the white hat — decked the bad guy.
There would be no knock-out punch. Not even an attempt.
Bobby remained curled up on the ground, like a human cinnamon bun. I watched him lay there, twitching and crying.
The youngster was very much alone. No one came to help him. There was no intervention — and, to be honest, no objection. Zip.
And no sympathy.
Or so it seemed.
Sure, you could say that we were young 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. I am humbled to say that what I witnessed many years ago continues to gnaw at me.
I could see that decent people in Campbellton ducked the issue, which at first seemed to signal that the attacks were okay, but I don’t see it that way anymore. Deep down, they too must have felt terrible.
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 descriptors, including ‘easy target.’
There are moments when one’s life seems upside down, when things are terribly messed up. We all have those days. For Bobby Steeves, his life was ALWAYS upside down. That’s all he’s ever known.
Someone once found Bobby trembling in an overturned canoe, of all places, hiding from another predator who wanted to pound the living daylights out of him. Baboon wasn’t the only asshole in town.
Another thing, Bobby wasn’t bright. He was — in PC parlance — ‘mentally-challenged’ which made his journey in life that much more hellish.
I suspect that every community has a Bobby Steeves or two. They may be a couple of crayons short of a rainbow, but deep down, they are kind and forgiving. They’re not ‘bad’ people.
When I turned 18, I pulled out of Campbellton with a suitcase of new clothes, a small Kodak Instamatic camera and some memories, mostly good ones.
The years would pass … but I could never delete from that hard drive on my shoulders the hammering young Bobby Steeves got that day. I thought about it now and then, trying to make sense of it. My brain and heart don’t always agree on things, but I’m telling you what my heart was feeling: Something was terribly wrong here.
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. Strike one. Bobby was also simple. Strike two. Boom.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Never heard of it.
The physical attacks and the harassment Bobby suffered were — for a large part — condoned by many. Remember, we’re talking 1950s and 60s … and back then, people weren’t always tolerant of those who were different. And, sure, the world was ‘a different place then,’ etc …
As Michael Landry puts it, Bobby Steeves was the bravest man to walk the streets of Campbellton.
I’m sure the good folk of my home town never thought of Bobby Steeves as a victim of a hate crime, but he was.
I returned to Campbellton every so often, sometimes spotting Bobby doing his Forrest Gump thing, running here and there. He still walked like a girl.
And he was always by himself. Can’t say I ever saw him with a friend.
People drove by calling 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. Perhaps Bobby liked all the attention, I couldn’t tell.
Males, especially, seemed to enjoy teasing and taunting Bobby. Females didn’t.
It wasn’t all jeers thrown his way. Some guys actually pitched baseball-size rocks at him.
And what did I do about this crazy shit? Nothing. Sadly, I remained 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 wouldn’t be a bad idea to hear him out.
In late August 2016, I was back in Campbellton and I figured I’d get around and finally meet Bobby.
He wasn’t hard to find. The man 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 someone inside. The only sound was a small dog barking.
FINALLY. WE MEET.
I returned a few days later and rapped on the door again. This time someone was home. A voice called out. “Who is it?”
I opened the door slightly, announced who I was and said 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 and I handed him my business card.
“I saw you a long time ago,” I remarked, hoping to get his attention, “… but it wasn’t nice. 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 punched and kicked alongside a 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 …
He interrupted my story to reveal his attacker’s real name, adding he thought Baboon had moved away after police warned him. At this point, Bobby did his best impersonation of a tough cop. “They told him,” he said, “if he ever attacked me again, he’d go to jail!”
Bobby became very animated, driving the point home by wagging his finger at me.
“Whatever happened to that son-of-a-bitch?” I asked. “He moved away to Ontario and got married,” Bobby replied, nodding his head, adding, “… I think he had children.”
“I wonder if they turned out to be assholes too,” I countered. “I don’t know,” Bobby replied … his voice trailing, suggesting it was time to change the subject.
Sometimes Memory Lane has huge potholes.
“What’s the name of your roommate?” I asked, changing the subject and motioning to a small mutt that couldn’t sit still. “Pitou.” The dog looked our way. Bobby smiled. “He’s a nice puppy,” he said.
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, Baboon, sure wasn’t one of them. The man 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.
The man was later stopped by police and asked why he was wearing apparel like that. Baboon explained he really wasn’t a member of the Hells Angels. “That’s not the problem,” said the officer, “why are you wearing a jacket that says ‘FUCK OFF’?”
Don’t know if that story is true, or another urban legend. No matter. It’s now part of the town’s folklore.
Bobby and his tormentor had one thing in common. They were both simple; one was harmless, the other hopeless.
About 10 years ago, I got word that Bobby’s mother, Annie, had died. The woman had loved her son dearly. That touched me, gotta say.
Someone shared that Bobby often visits his mother’s grave 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 dear to him.
We set a time and a date. The man kept his word. He was waiting when I dropped by his house one morning and announced, “let’s go to the cemetery.” Campbellton being Campbellton, the graveyard was a few minutes’ drive away.
Once our seat-belts went ‘click,’ I did a U-turn on Lansdowne and we were off to the races. “Nice car,” Bobby remarked, checking out the dash. “It’s a rental,” I explained. “They’re always nice.”
The grave of Annie [Flannagan] Steeves [1910-2003], in the far southeast corner of the cemetery, was adorned with flowers. Like wow. No other plot in the entire cemetery had nearly as many.
The flowers were synthetic. Fake. However, Bobby’s love for the woman who’d stood by him was anything but fake.
We walked up to his mother’s grave, just Bobby and I. “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. In any case, 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. Her life must have been hell too.
“She loved you dearly, didn’t she?” Bobby nodded again, his eyes fixed on a 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 when they say nothing.
Bobby leaned over and used his hand to brush 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 headed off for breakfast …
We 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 Bobby and I to a table in the corner of a back room. It was a quiet spot. Private.
Bobby and I could talk.
“HE’S HARMLESS …”
Bobby Steeves was mentally challenged, but he sure had excellent table manners. He also knew to say ‘thank you.’
The man ate everything on his plate — and that’s something because at Sanfar, huge helpings are served.
I got a few things off my plate as well. I had a few questions, but one made Bobby uncomfortable. “You’re gay, aren’t you?” He stopped eating and looked up, 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, no one said a word.
I broke the silence.
Getting back to the 1950s attack by Baboon, I asked, “… What did your Mom say about those who beat you up?” “She said not to pay them any mind.”
How it must have broken Mrs. Steeves’ heart to see her son in tears, bloodied and bruised when he hadn’t done anything wrong. She must have thought, what’s going on here? Where’s the justice? Where’s God?
I wondered too about how other family members handled the ‘situation.’ They must have struggled with it as well.
Don’t let anyone tell you the 1950s were always Happy Days.
However, a lot changes in half a century — including our views on people who don’t fit in. Bobby Steeves is no longer hunted down like an animal or 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 greet Bobby with a smile, share a coffee with him and if the weather is bad — even if it’s not — they’ll give him a lift to where ever he’s headed.
The community has now rallied behind him.
“He’s harmless,” my cousin pointed out. Another resident described him as kind and friendly, having a good heart.
I can see that now.
I’m not around Campbellton much [I live in Alberta] so I don’t see Bobby a lot 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 that 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 did nothing.’
‘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, and I don’t mind sharing that.
ANGELS: THEY’RE EVERYWHERE
In 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. 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.
The Knock-Out Punch …
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’ve logged some serious overtime.
I told Bobby that the terrible things that happened a long time ago always bothered me. I also shared 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 caught me off guard. “These are nice people,” he said, a 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 the Sobeys grocery store 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 redemption.
Makes me want to say that the Big Guy upstairs works in mysterious ways.
A CLASS ACT
In June 2017, at a small, red-bricked school in Tide Head, a kindergarten/grade one 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’d been through.
The students then crafted birthday cards for Bobby …
The 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.
After Bobby received his certificates, he broke down and wept.
I was around to Bobby’s house shortly after he received his awards.
I asked Bobby to show me the birthday cards that had arrived in the mail. There was a whack of them. I set some up on his kitchen table and snapped a photo [above]. Many of the cards — all of which had heartfelt messages — arrived with cash cards from Tim Horton’s.
Bobby proudly revealed that he’s been using the cards to get coffee.
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 a country on the other side of the world.” “Oh my,” he said.
A few days later, I spotted Bobby at McDonalds on Roseberry Street. He was alone at a table, nursing a cup of coffee. I sat down beside him. We chatted for 10 minutes or so. “When are you leaving?” he asked. I replied that I’d be back in Alberta within a week.
Bobby then shook my hand. “Have a safe trip,” he said.