Al Neath took the violent foster kids no one could manage.
In the early 1980s, Neath set up a foster home along the Waternhen River, about 340 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.
One kid arrived in handcuffs and leg manacles. Another kid, whom I met once at Al's place, punched his school principal in the face and broke his glasses. Another kid was alleged to have stolen 52 cars in one week. The majority of his kids suffered some degree of fetal alcohol syndrome. Some kids had been in 10 or 12 foster homes before he got them.
But as tough as the kids were, Al would tell you each one of them held onto the belief that one day their dad was going to show up and take them home.
That didn't happen. Al became the father figure those kids never had. He died Aug. 19, at age 62, after a brief illness.
Foster parenting didn't scare Al. A powerful man with an explosive temper and a heart as big as the wilderness at Waterhen, he was the top bouncer in Winnipeg in the 1970s alongside pal Ross Bonnyman. "They were formidable," said my brother, a rock musician in bars back then.
Al estimated he was in more than 400 fights with rowdy bar patrons. Ross and Al later formed a company that provided concert security for the top rock acts that played Winnipeg. Ross said their experiences as bouncers prepared them for fostering.
Al went on to work with kids with behavioural problems at Knowles Centre. There he befriended Justin Swandel, now the city's deputy mayor. Swandel and his family attended Al's funeral in Waterhen last week.
Swandel left Knowles to become a foster parent and convinced Al to give it a try. Al later encouraged his former bouncer partner, Ross, to do the same. Ross also took on the toughest kids but operated in Winnipeg. One kid attacked Ross with a machete. Another kid attacked him with a hockey stick. "It didn't go so well for them," Ross recalled, laughing.
Al was never politically correct. New kids often had to be taught to toe the line. The kid I mentioned earlier, who had punched his principal in the face, was mouthing off to Al the first day he arrived, calling him "a fat, bald-headed freak," and so on. Boom. The kid was on the ground so fast, his face pressed to the turf and his arms behind him in a full nelson. It was Al's way of telling a kid that all that crap the kid had been getting away with up to that point was now over. And it was.
Al once told me he was naturally "hyper-vigilant." He said that was someone who looks at you suspiciously once, then turns away, then turns back to look at you again. Most people don't look back the second time, he said.
There were manager types within government who wanted Al removed. When he broke a kid's arm using the submission hold described above, that just about ended his career. But enough people in government understood the difficulty of his task and appreciated the results.
In time, and with the tightening of foster-care regulations, he mostly used more passive submission holds. But he usually didn't have to. As strong as he was physically, he was even better at verbal jousting. You couldn't get the better of Al.
What amazed me is how Al's life was an open book to the kids. They were privy to everything going on in Al's life, and there was always a lot whirling around him. He was always fighting red tape or with some bureaucracy. He was that kind of guy. But he was also always advocating for the kids, firing off letters to politicians. He was a two-term mayor of Waterhen. He got the kids involved in all the outdoor stuff like canoeing, swimming, fishing, riding his horses and snowmobiling. (For other stories on Al Neath, see Free Press archives, May 15, 1995; May 18, 1982.)
Initially, people in Waterhen were alarmed this guy was bringing these kids into their community. He usually fostered four kids at a time. It didn't take long for the community to become his biggest supporter. If those kids didn't behave, they got a tongue-lashing at home and privileges revoked.
Al was divorced and never had kids of his own. Most of his foster kids kept in touch after they turned 18. One of the worst young offenders now runs a construction company in Kelowna, B.C. He flew in for Al's funeral. About a half-dozen of his former kids drove out. Several have gone on to become foster parents themselves. Just functioning within society is a victory for many of these kids. Most of his charges have done better than that.
His death may have been caused by blood poisoning, but many people suspect he had another stroke, worse than one a few years earlier. He was found passed out on his floor and never regained consciousness.
He called his place, 'Neath Northern Skies. He was imperfect and he was beautiful and he made everyone around him feel taller. For hardened foster kids that no one else wanted and that everyone had given up on, they found someone who understood them and loved them.
He will not be forgotten.