Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A gift for generosity and love

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He was born with the kind of hope most parents have for their children. May our baby live a long life, full of happiness and purpose.

But Alexander "Sandy" Turnbull wasn't the kind of child most parents hope for -- even if he turned out to be more than they could have hoped for.

It's been a week now since his family said their formal goodbyes at the funeral for the child-like man who -- despite spending most of his 83 years in care facilities -- achieved that wished-for long life, full of happiness and purpose.

You might recall meeting him at the Grant Park Shopping Centre, where he would give pens to adults, quarters to children and a blessing to all.

"My name is Sandy," he would say, "and I'm praying for you. It's my job."

If you never had the pleasure of meeting Sandy Turnbull, it's my job to introduce you.

He was born at the start of the Great Depression, the first child of a Scottish immigrant farm couple who would have four more. By Grade 3, if not sooner, it became apparent the little boy known to his family as Alec would always stay a little boy in his mind. Eventually, after his father died, his mother, no doubt realizing she would soon be left to care for her oldest child as a man, decided to place him in the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie. Sandy, as he would come to be known there, was 16.

He would spend nearly 40 years there, but the family always visited.

They would take him to watch the good guys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, beat up the bad guys because he loved cowboy movies.

His niece, Beth Bell, described those occasions in her eulogy last Saturday.

"The family would settle in with the other families to enjoy the show and all would be good until the good guys were getting beaten up. Then Uncle Alec would get mad and start yelling and swearing at the bad guys."

Uncle Alec, a.k.a. Sandy, was one of the good guys, of course, and his family were always protective of him around the bad guys.

"There are people in this world," Beth reminded everyone, "who are cruel to people with disabilities."

Sandy was 57 when he was relocated to a River Heights group home operated by Pulford Community Services.

"It was then that the people of Winnipeg got to experience what the people of Portage la Prairie always knew," Bell said. "Sandy Turnbull was praying for them."

His praying for others originated with doing it for family members as a child at bedtime. As for his love of giving away pencils and quarters, that may have originated indirectly from one of his many other loves in life.

Baseball.

When he was the water boy for the Morse Place Oilers baseball team, the players, who were good guys, would thank Sandy with quarters, and with the quarters Sandy would buy pencils and give them away.

Which brings us to something else he loved. Going to the Grant Park mall.

It was there, accompanied by a caregiver, that Sandy would offer strangers pens and quarters, and colouring books and scrapbooks, too.

In her eulogy, Bell recounted a story one of his caregivers told her.

One day in the mall, Sandy saw a mother with her little girl. The caregiver reminded Sandy he would need to ask the mother's permission to give her daughter a quarter. So he asked. "Hey, lady!" he yelled.

After the mother gave permission, and Sandy gave her daughter the quarter, the mother had a gift for him.

She told the caregiver she remembered Sandy from when she was a little girl. He had given her a quarter, too.

There's another story from the Grant Park mall, one then-Free Press Faith page columnist Karen Toole-Mitchell wrote about her encounter years ago with the man whose job it was to pray for others.

"One day, I sat unemployed, depressed and alone in a shopping mall, watching busy people with a purpose rush by," she wrote. "I was lost in my own pain when I heard the familiar words, 'I am praying for you.' I looked up and saw a familiar face. There in front of me was a man from the group home who used to help out at the church I had just left. He greeted everyone with those words. But this day, I finally heard this so-called 'handicapped' man."

It was in 1995, on his 65th birthday, that the legendary Grant Park gift-giver was honoured with the most thoughtful of gifts.

The mall merchants placed a display of pens, pencils and scrapbooks in their windows, with signs that read "Happy Birthday, Sandy," accompanied by "We are praying for you."

The gift of life is given to all of us. What Sandy Turnbull's life suggests is that even if the gift doesn't come with everything included, some of us know how to unwrap and celebrate it better than others.

But then, that was his job.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 B1

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