Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

All dressed up, ready to laugh

His costumes give others a chuckle

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Most Winnipeggers know Bob Sweet simply as the crossing guard with the goofy costumes.

He regularly stops traffic in front of St. Ignatius School with his orange flag and the wacky outfit of the day. He makes transit drivers laugh and people detour to the corner of Harrow Street and Corydon Avenue to see what he's got on.

Sweet ensures the first day of school and all the others that follow are fun for kids heading to school. He knows their parents get a kick out of him, too.

Sweet is a south-end fixture whose childlike love of dressing up has made him a neighbourhood celebrity.

"The very first one was the Cookie Monster," says Sweet, 62. "The kids loved that. After that, came the chicken. It just sort of went from there."

This week, he followed up the Headless Horseman with a bright yellow M & M costume. Drivers, students and parents never know what they're going to see.

Sweet was hired by the school seven years ago. He was their second choice. The first adult crossing guard quit almost immediately, done in by a cold February day. Sweet quickly stepped in.

He thinks this was one of the best decisions of his life.

There isn't much money in the job. He works the morning rush, changes out of his costume and helps in the school library. He takes a few hours off and then returns for the after-school departures. He averages four hours a day at the school.

St. Ignatius Church pays him $625 a month.

But he's a hustler, a skill honed as the oldest of eight children born to an alcoholic air force member and his long-suffering wife.

"The chaplain, the padre was the first person my mother met on every posting. My dad was the guy who would get paid, head to the bar and blow his cheque on his new friends. My mother never knew if there'd be grocery money."

And Sweet was never sure where he'd live next. He spent his first four years with his grandparents. When his parents showed up to claim him, his new sibling in tow, he had no idea who the strangers were.

"We moved to Gimli, then we went to Ottawa, then to Moose Jaw," he says. "We ended up in Winnipeg. I graduated from Daniel McIntyre."

Sweet's first job was at a hamburger joint, working for 75 cents an hours. When he was 13, his father set him and one of his brothers up as pin setters at the St. Regis bowling centre. They each worked two lanes at a time. He quickly learned to be nimble.

Sweet was a stock boy at Eaton's. He's been a backup singer in a band and a bike courier. He still mows other people's lawns. Some people might remember him from his delivery days. Others will never forget him as the rowdy leprechaun at the Irish pavilion.

On Canada Day, you can see him in Osborne Village. That's right: He's Captain Canuck.

The crossing guard job isn't his only source of income. He's the building supervisor at his small condo complex, working in exchange for free rent on his basement suite. He also works part time at Marvellous Mascots, the source of many of his costumes.

"I don't make a lot of money," he says. "I don't need a lot."

Outside the costumes, he's a slightly built man with a long, grey goatee and a strip of grey hair. He never married and has no children. Although he works for a Catholic church, he is a non-practising Mormon.

It was Sweet's idea to start dressing up. The school agreed and a legend was born.

"My mom always taught us if you have a good sense of humour and you can laugh at yourself you'll be OK."

He started small, picking up a couple of funny hats at Gags Unlimited. But now, he's big enough that he'll do theme weeks. One week will be fairy-tale characters, another superheroes and then maybe a week of cartoon characters.

He wears the costumes in the morning, sun or snow. If it's raining, he's in his civvies. Fake fur takes a while to dry. He's got roughly 100 costumes, which he keeps in cardboard garment boxes in his condo's storage locker. Sweet figures he's spent about $1,500 on his costumes.

He has some strict rules. He won't do anything really frightening, not even at Halloween. Vampires are out, Casper the Ghost makes the grade. He'll do a clown but not the face makeup because clowns give some people the willies.

While he has purchased the majority of his costumes, he's had a couple donated.

"This woman stopped one day. She had a dragon costume she'd made for her boyfriend. He wouldn't wear it so she gave it to me." When he put on his first costume seven years ago, he had no idea he'd become an icon.

"I love doing this for the kids and the staff. There's a lot of honks from the cars. If you're having a bad day and you see a guy dressed up you'll smile.

"I'm doing something worthwhile with my life. I make people happy."

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2009 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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