Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tears, smiles for village's biggest heart

Cancer claims woman who was much-loved panhandler at River and Osborne

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SHE begged every weekday for about 13 years at the corner of River Avenue and Osborne Street, acting as a concerned mom to street kids and a big-hearted neighbourhood fixture to passersby.

Cathy Day, who died of cancer on Saturday at age 58, will be honoured at 11 a.m. on Thursday with a public memorial service on "her corner," inside the Gas Station Theatre.

Her nickname -- Cathy From the Corner -- is up on the bright yellow marquee.

"I know she would have been tickled to see her name up there," said Kim Zeglinski, one of three friends who were at Day's hospital bedside when she passed away, lacking any family members in her life.

"She took some pride in knowing she was an Osborne Village institution."

Day was a short, gruff woman with a weathered face who always wore a fanny pack at her waist and held out a baseball cap for change. She started panhandling around 1994 at the Papa George's corner of the intersection, but in recent years habitually stood on the northeast corner, near the four-sided advertising pillar and the polar bear statue.

On Tuesday, a piece of torn brown wrapping paper that had been taped to the pillar as a makeshift memorial -- above a few ragged flowers left on a concrete ledge -- was moved out of the rain by Gas Station staff and placed on an easel.

Neighbourhood regulars had penned messages, some recalling Day as a "second mom" with words such as "Thanks for watching out for me."

One person wrote: "You were always a pleasure to see on my morning walks to school and have always been so warm and welcoming as I grew up in the village. I'll miss you."

Friends said Day had a meagre pension and lived in a small apartment on Stradbrook Avenue. She did not touch alcohol and was never known to have drug or mental-health problems, but could read at only an elementary level and perhaps had learning difficulties.

She had cable TV, a phone and a microwave. She viewed begging as a part-time job to allow her to make ends meet, treat others to small gifts such as a hot chocolate, and sometimes give food to young people who had less than she did.

Five years ago, Day made the news when she argued unsuccessfully that MPI should compensate her for lost begging income after she was hit by a truck and couldn't work her corner. She told the Free Press that she begged from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. each weekday, and would stop when she had $20 in her hat.

The kind-hearted panhandler sometimes let street kids stay at her apartment -- even after some bad experiences of being robbed -- and would try to give them curfews and discipline, Zeglinski said.

She formed relationships with many Winnipeggers who regularly gave her bus fare, cigarettes, groceries, restaurant takeout and warm clothes. In return, they got hugs, words of affection and jokes about the weather.

David Northcott, executive co-ordinator of Winnipeg Harvest, described Day as "a remarkable woman" who found a sense of belonging on the corner when she became a "respected beggar" after the death of her husband Bob in 1993.

The Days were devoted volunteers at the food bank in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Northcott said. But once Bob, who had been a truck driver and had other service-industry jobs, was gone, Cathy was lonely and did not have enough money to survive.

"People need to fit somewhere," Northcott said. "As a widow, she was able to find her fit in the community around Osborne Village.

"She made sure kids in that neighbourhood ate. She never lost that spirit of helping."

Standup comic Al Rae, artistic director of the Gas Station-based CBC Winnipeg Comedy Festival, said Day was affectionate toward him and took pride in his accomplishments.

"She was just a lady that was trying to get by. Despite her own personal worries and difficulties, she was always pleased to hear about things that I was doing. She was always wishing me well."

Day's routine got more difficult when the city passed a bylaw prohibiting aggressive panhandling. When police from outside the village issued Day a ticket, Rae wrote her a letter of support, arguing that she did no harm by begging on theatre property, which extends to the Osborne sidewalk.

Ultimately, Rae said, community officers who knew Day helped get the charge dropped.

Day apparently had two daughters and several siblings, but was estranged from her family. "There was some difficulty and pain; grief and loss of relationships," Northcott said.

In the past 18 months, as she struggled with illness, members of Village Vineyard Winnipeg Church stepped forward to care for her.

"We take ownership of our city by taking ownership of one another -- I really hope that's the message people will get on Thursday," said pastor Rob Polkowski, who will officiate at Day's memorial.

Day's baseball cap will also be passed around one final time, for donations to the Urban Connection street ministry run by Village Vineyard.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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