Public figure, private giver To most of his thousands of Twitter followers, Winnipegger Howard Wong was 'pizza Friday guy'; to others, he was an unassuming hero
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/03/2021 (696 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Just after Thanksgiving, Howard Wong sent John Dobbin a message on Twitter to say he was already at the grocery store. The two had met in person once, years before, when Wong had come to take photos of a Folklorama pavilion. Mostly, they knew each other the way Wong seemed to know everyone in Winnipeg: online.
Now, Dobbin was in a tough spot. He’d just learned that COVID-19 was sweeping through a fifth-floor ward at Victoria General Hospital, where he’d been helping care for his parents. After rushing home to quarantine, he realized he was low on food; anxious and stressed, he vented his worries on Twitter.
Soon, Wong — best known as @howwon on Twitter, where he had more than 21,000 followers — reached out. He recalled how, in the early days of the pandemic, Dobbin had helped deliver groceries to seniors. Now, Wong wanted to repay the good deed. He was already at the store, he wrote: what did Dobbin need?
Within an hour, Wong dropped a few bags of groceries at Dobbin’s door, waved at the window, and was gone.
“I would have done anything for him after that,” Dobbin says. “If he’d said he needed help, or was in a tough spot, I would have been on the road right away. Nobody responded faster than him.”
Dobbin offered payment, but Wong refused, telling him to pay it forward. In late December, a chance emerged: Wong Tweeted that he’d been thinking about checking out the new Wonder Woman 84 movie, but balked at the price to stream it online. Dobbin messaged him with a password to his own streaming account.
That was the last time the two exchanged words.
On Jan. 12, Wong tapped out a message on Twitter, saying his MPI rebate cheque had arrived. Other than a couple of replies the next day, it was his last tweet. By early February, some online friends had noticed his absence, asking where he had been, but few alarm bells went off. People drop in and out of digital touch all the time.
Wong, though, had a bigger presence than most. He’d joined Twitter in April 2009, a relatively early adopter. Soon, Twitter became a global phenomenon, with communities loosely coalescing around shared interests or geography; across what is colloquially known as Winnipeg Twitter, Wong became a quirky, beloved figure.
He tweeted a little about news and a lot about the city. A freelance photographer, he’d take his camera to many local events: rallies, concerts, community bike rides. Before police radios were digitally encrypted, he’d listen to the action on a scanner, popping off to late-night scenes to take photos he’d sell to local media outlets.
“I’m rolling,” he’d write, whenever he was hitting the road.
Above all, Wong loved pizza. He shared news stories about pizza, commented approvingly on other users’ photos of pizza, reviewed local mom ‘n’ pop joints and started a hashtag, #pizzafriday, that became a casual local tradition. Folks consulted him for pizza recommendations and gleefully told him whenever they ordered a pie.
So when his account remained dormant on Feb. 9 — National Pizza Day — some of his followers took notice. Before long, they learned why: on Feb. 12, Chris D., who runs an eponymous local news website, tweeted a link to a month-old Facebook post from Birchwood Ford, where, unbeknownst to most Twitter users, Wong worked.
The revelation in the post shook the online community: on Jan. 14, Wong had died.
As news of his death spread, users congregated on Twitter to wrap their minds around his loss and to mourn. They ordered from local pizza restaurants in his honour. Above all, they began to tell stories about the things he’d done to help them, or the community at large — a life of service that, until then, many hadn’t known.
They told stories about how he’d donated Christmas turkeys to shelters, or delivered pizza to non-profit volunteers. Belinda Squance remembered how, when she worked with the Canadian Cancer Society, Wong turned up at their Relay for Life fundraiser with his camera, and donated photos to the non-profit.
“He was genuine and sincere, and just wanted to help,” Squance recalls. “And he had a gift… his quality of photos, they were so amazing and they captured the spirit of the event. And the Canadian Cancer Society was able to use them in other promotions throughout the year… it was a very generous gift.”
These stories shared similar textures. The people grieving him had mostly met him in person once, or never. He’d shown up when needed, offered his help and then, without asking for anything, moved on. Thousands had known him as the “pizza Friday guy” on Twitter. Now they realized they knew very little about him at all.
At Birchwood Ford, employees were having a similar revelation. A parts specialist, Wong had worked at the Regent Avenue dealership for more than 30 years. He was part of the texture of the place, diligent and professional. Staff can’t recall him taking a sick day, or being late for work; he was always friendly, focused and thoughtful.
That’s why, when he didn’t show up for work that day in January, they knew right away something was wrong.
“It’s my understanding we were like his family. His daytime family, I guess you could call it,” says parts manager Chris Nickelmann. “He was private, he was a quiet guy. But I think he enjoyed being with us.”
He took photos at work events for his colleagues to enjoy. He regularly chatted about local restaurants, and to mark milestones — such as when he paid off his vehicle — he bought pizza for the whole dealership. Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he quietly offered to deliver supplies to any employees who had to quarantine.
Then there was that Christmas Day in the late 1990s, shortly after the birth of operations manager Keith Cochrane’s first child. Cochrane and his young family were celebrating at home when, to their surprise, their doorbell rang.
“There’s Howard standing there with a Christmas present for my daughter,” Cochrane says. “Never before had anyone ever done that. It stood out to me, and it still stands out to me today.”
Yet it wasn’t until after Wong died that many of his colleagues learned he had such a big following on Twitter. He never brought it up, Nickelmann says. He would chat about the community events he attended and the photos he took, but he said little about all the connections he made in his spare time.
In a way, Cochrane says, they wish they had known the impact he’d had on the community, and all the ways he’d touched people’s lives. But it wasn’t like Wong to tell, and nobody thought to ask, and that, perhaps, tells his story best of all.
“It was like he had a secret social identity when it came to that,” Nickelmann says. “We were really surprised… We knew that he was into donating his time to organizations, but we didn’t know the extent. He had a good heart when it came to that. He didn’t want to make it a big thing. He wanted to keep it under the radar.”
There was no obituary. Of all the people the Free Press spoke to for this story, none could recall Wong mentioning anything about his personal life. He does have at least one sibling, whom the Free Press was not able to locate. The way he left the world matched the way he lived in it: private, unassuming, but with a lasting impression.
“His story needs to be told, I think,” Dobbin says. “And I don’t think anyone else will tell it, except the people who knew him on Twitter. Who was this person who disappeared that we all knew, but we didn’t know enough to know when he needed us the most?
“I’m hoping he had people around him. And I’m hoping he enjoyed Wonder Woman.”
The day after he died, staff at Birchwood Ford ordered pizza for the whole dealership: double pepperoni from Dal’s Restaurant in Transcona, Wong’s favourite. They found a box of his business cards in a drawer — unused, as if he’d never thought to give them out — and stapled them to the boxes, the most fitting sort of tribute.
Weeks later, when a Free Press writer asked if they had more photos of Wong, they realized they didn’t.
“He was always the one taking the pictures,” Cochrane says.
Hearing this story — about all the photos taken by Wong, but so few of him — a smile touches Squance’s voice.
“Maybe that’s better,” she says. “We see the world as he did. Maybe that’s how he wanted it. He didn’t need the attention on him. There’s a beauty to that. We live in a world where people want to be known and recognized and seen, and here is he is so widely respected and thought of.
“That’s part of the beauty of Winnipeg. You can impact people on social media. You can have a presence that matters. You don’t have to meet someone in person to change the world.”
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.