Bob Vipond was, quite possibly, Canada’s No. 1 fan.
He was a proud patriot who wore a Canada hat practically every day, and his huge collection of Canada paraphernalia included flags, pins, stickers, magnets; you name it.
His niece Laurie Bailey said when she jumped on the No. 15 bus a few years ago, she realized Bob had been there sometime before her: he had placed several Canadian flag stickers on some of the seats.
"He would put Canada stickers in public places, especially on buses and bus stops," Bailey said. "You could say he was Canada’s biggest booster. He loved to get anything related to Canada for his birthday."
Bob’s love of Canada was so great that when his family planned his funeral after his death on Feb. 6, at age 66, they decided there would be Canada flags instead of flowers and that his casket would be draped in a flag.
"Each mourner had their own flag and wrote a message to Bob on it. They were placed in his grave as a fitting send-off for him," Bailey said.
Robert Leonard Stanley (Bob) was born on July 25, 1952, to loving and accepting parents, Len and Cicely Vipond, who lived in the North End.
Because Cicely was a nurse, she knew immediately when Bob was born that he had Down syndrome, and would have physical growth delays and an intellectual disability. But it was also an era in which there were crude names for it, the nicest of which might be "mental retardation."
Bob’s brother-in-law Chris Franczyk recalled that the doctor told Bob’s father he had an "idiot" for a son and he should put him in an institution.
"Bob’s dad told the doctor something like, ‘He’s my son, and I’ll raise him at home where he belongs,’" Franczyk said.
In 1952, it was common practice to place children such as Bob into institutions, even as newborns, because they were viewed as less than human, never mind people who could contribute to society. They were warehoused and locked away so they wouldn’t be a burden to the outside world.
"My grandparents would have never put Bob in an institution. They raised him like they did their other children, their four daughters. He was treated as an equal," said Bailey.
Bob grew up with two older sisters, Linda and Barbara, and two younger sisters, Sheila and Kathy. Linda did the lion’s share of watching out for Bob when the kids were younger. She had her hands full because Bob was not one to stay put.
"I was always chasing Bob," Linda Vipond said. "It was tough to keep up to him. Even when he broke his leg as a kid, it didn’t really slow him down."
Bob watched a lot of TV and would often imitate the characters in the shows he loved. In the late 1960s, he was a huge fan of T.H.E. Cat, a show about a cat burglar, so when he was about 15, he decided to become T.H.E Cat. He walked from his home on College Avenue, to his aunt’s house down the street, climbed onto the garage roof, held a towel around him as if it were a cape, yelled out "T.H.E. Cat," and jumped… onto his cousin Dougie’s car. His daredevil trick left a huge dent in Dougie’s car and Bob had to hightail it back home to escape Dougie’s wrath.
Then there was the time he sneaked into a neighbour’s backyard and put their garden hose into their window. He turned it on and ran away.
Years ago, there was a Safeway at Mountain Avenue and McPhillips Street. It’s where Bob’s parents did their grocery shopping. So Bob was regularly in the store with them. But one day, he decided to do the shopping himself. He loaded up his cart with all the food he liked: Coke and Old Dutch chips took up most of the space; milk and bread were an afterthought. He walked out of the store with his junk food-laden cart and went home with it.
His mom scolded him and marched him back to the store where he had to confess he had pilfered the cart and goodies. Bob explained he didn’t know he had to pay for it.
"Bob was a real character who kept his family guessing what his next move would be. I sometimes thought he was pretending he didn’t know he had done something wrong. He was very clever," said Bailey.
One of his family’s favourite stories about Bob involves the time one of his cousins bumped into him at the old Winnipeg Arena during a wrestling match.
"Bob was a huge wrestling fan. He loved ‘the Claw’ and would always imitate ‘the Claw’s’ signature hand gesture," said Craig Franczyk, his nephew.
As the story goes, Bob was acting sheepish when his cousin asked him how he had got into the arena to watch the wrestling match. Bob, who was unaccompanied by a family member, finally confessed. He had told the ticket agent he had lost his ticket, and he was allowed in. He told his cousin it was something he did any time he wanted to get into a venue. He instructed his cousin, "Don’t tell my dad!"
The story only came to light years later.
During his life, Bob faced many obstacles, including the inability to read, and he was on the receiving end of occasional taunts and glares, but he led a happy and fulfilled life, said his niece Kelly Franczyk.
"From a very young age, I remember people being uncomfortable around him, even avoiding him. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized they were missing out on knowing a special man," she said. "Uncle Bob could always make you smile and laugh. He loved to tell a joke, then follow it up with his signature wink and giggle."
His nieces and nephews considered him one of their friends; they coloured together and watched TV, especially crime shows, thrillers and anything with Bruce Lee or karate. They went to Winnipeg Beach and shopped at the Garden City mall.
He was a practical joker. Long before people took selfies on their smartphones, Bob would sneak around a corner with his trusty Kodak camera and instantly snap a photo of someone caught unaware. Often, his photos showed someone looking frightened because he had surprised them.
"He always had a joke to tell and loved to flirt, especially with his home care workers and hospital nurses," his obituary read.
"He was thoughtful and generous with what he had. He never forget a birthday, and was always reminding everybody when a birthday was approaching," said Bailey.
Bob attended Kinsmen and Argyle schools. He worked as a cleaner at West Kildonan Auto for years and when his physical abilities changed, he attended Work and Social Opportunities Inc., which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Ann Merriott, a WASO manager, said Bob worked there for nine years, starting in 2009.
"He was always eager to start working and he would participate in any task assigned. If he happened to miss his morning transportation pick-up, he would just go and get on the city bus.
"He did not like to miss work... Bob’s happy disposition and Canadian pride will be sadly missed by all."
Bob’s main haunts were the 7-Eleven on Mountain Avenue and the old Empress Bowling Lanes, where he played in a Kinsmen league every Saturday morning for years. He was also a huge fan of the old Winnipeg airport.
One of his favourite activities was riding the No. 15 (Mountain) bus to the airport. He would head out in the morning, telling his mom he was off to "take the transit bus." He spent hours walking around the airport and talking to the people who worked there.
"Bob was a very sociable person. He would talk to anybody," Linda Vipond said.
His family said he taught them valuable lessons about accepting people as they are; seeing them for what they can do, and not what they can’t.
"One of the greatest lessons I learned from watching my Uncle Bob is that joy is often found in the simple things. You could always make him happy with a box of chocolate cherries at Christmas, a $20 bill for his birthday, or another Canada-themed trinket to add to his collection," Kelly Franczyk said.
"There was an innocence in how he lived his life, an innocence I think many of us have lost."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.