A Life's Story
November 20, 2021
'His word was his bond'
Former Altona police chief Bob Mart was a tough officer with a soft side
By: Jason Bell
Bob Mart was always the first through the door.
The longtime chief of the Altona Police Service made that abundantly clear to officers under his command, even though there was no such policy at the department.
Actions considered contrary to Mart’s edict would not be tolerated. Then again, no one dared defy those orders during the four years Norm Carter wore a badge in Altona.
Don’t believe for a moment no perilous scenarios lurked on the other side of the door in the tight-knit community in southern Manitoba.
"Whenever we had to go through situations that might be questionable or even dangerous, we were to call Bob. He always came out to make sure he went in that door first," Carter says. "I guess, he never wanted to deliver bad news to spouses and their families. So, he always went in ahead. It’s something I carried with me the rest of my career."
Those closest to Mart say that selfless approach was typical of the consummate protector, who inspired those around him, at home and on the job.
"He was a great husband and father, extremely protective of his family, and he was also protective of his officers and their families," Carter says. "He was probably one of the most courageous men I’ve ever known. Bob created a reputation that he was fair, but he was there to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.
"All of us in Altona at that time felt secure in his presence."
Robert (Bob) Mart, whose career in law enforcement spanned nearly five decades, died in March at his residence at Tuxedo Villa Personal Care Home. He was 86.
Left to mourn are his wife of 64 years, Lillian, sons Alan (Madeleine), Brad (Connie) and Chris (Christine), grandchildren Curtis, Holly, Rob and Pat, and great-granddaughter Briawna.
Family members say being a police officer was more of a calling than a job for the patriarch of the Mart clan.
"He gave so much time to it. He never really had a day off, and in those days before cellphones, we had a dedicated land line (in Altona) just for police calls. He’d respond 24/7," says Lillian. "On the job, he was both dog catcher and family counsellor. People used to show up at your house looking for his advice on things."
Bob was a larger-than-life figure in the community, and kids were drawn to him, particularly one Elmwood Elementary School student with special needs.
"This boy always got so excited when he saw the police cruiser, and so dad showed up one day and took him for a ride and let him push the siren button," says Chris. "The boy was so thrilled and his mom was so grateful. They didn’t have much money but a day later she brought in a little gift basket, with some eggs and a few other things, because it made such a difference in her son’s life."
Whether in uniform or in civvies, Bob was deeply invested in the good work people were doing in Altona and never passed up an opportunity to help.
"Dad organized funding for critical pieces of medical equipment when asked by hospital staff. He sat in a dunk tank to raise money for community events. He formed a crossing-guards group to increase safety at the elementary school and treated them to a hockey game or movie for a job well done. He helped establish a drop-in centre for youth," says Brad.
"Dad would join mom with the local church group to serve coffee and food at special events they were catering. He’d talk at local functions and schools when asked, he’d interact with people at the local mall and always made time to listen to someone in need.
"If Dad gave you his word, he’d do everything in his power to make it happen… his word was his bond."
Bob was born in 1934 and raised in the Point Douglas area of Winnipeg and was the eldest of two sons.
As a boy, he would help his uncle with deliveries for City Bread, which used a horse and wagon to criss-cross town. On one chilly winter morning, Nelly the trusty steed slid all the way down slippery Louise Bridge but kept the cart upright. After the deliveries were done for the morning, Uncle Norman would treat his nephew to a corned-beef sandwich at Oscar’s Deli, at its original Main Street location.
Bob and Lillian were married in 1956 after a courtship that began while both worked for Johnson-Hutchinson Jewellers, located at 286 Portage Ave.
He was a terrific fastball player and loved shooting pool, Lillian says.
Bob was only 20 when he was hired as a police officer with the East Kildonan Public Safety Division, located on Watt Street, with the understanding he’d also be trained to battle blazes as well as crime when the fire department was short-staffed. He used to tell his sons stories about responding to huge infernos in the dead of winter, routinely getting soaked and frozen to the ladder rungs.
In 1963, the East Kildonan Council divided the division into fire and police departments, and Bob stuck with law enforcement.
The Marts headed to Altona in 1974 after Bob successfully applied to become a constable. Three years later, he replaced Chief Joe Villeneuve and held the top position until his retirement in 1989.
Carter was 26 when he was first interviewed for a job by the Altona chief in 1981.
"He was a rough, tough and gruff guy. But that was just the exterior," says Carter, who got a glimpse of his boss’s soft side when Mart met the young couple, with babe in arms, to check out a rental property.
"He said, ‘You go look and I’ll hold your baby (Chris).’ He had this way of having a little crack of smile when he didn’t want anyone to see him smiling," Carter recalls. "He did the unthinkable, a little dance we all do when we hold a baby, just rocking back and forth."
Back then, officers in small municipal departments were thrust into on-the-job instruction and guidance in the community after being hired. After a six-month probationary period, officers were sent to the police academy for more intensive training, which, in Carter’s case, happened in Brandon.
On Day 1 of his new gig with Altona police, the recruit received a rather distressing initiation to his new post; he maintains it was one of the most valuable experiences of his career.
Apprehensively, he accompanied Mart on a call of a sudden death in Altona.
"I was shaking inside because I didn’t know what to do. All I did was watch him work, his process of investigation, to ensure there was no foul play," Carter says. "I was amazed at how thorough he was, checking carefully for evidence… but very respectful of where he was and what he was doing.
"I learned so much from him over the course of four years. He was a great teacher."
Bob shed his hardened exterior when he came home to his three sons.
"He was a great guy to us, always doing right by us," says Brad, the middle son, who admits to testing his dad’s patience far more than his brothers did. "He tried to be the opposite of what he was as a policeman, a tough guy on the job and with the family he was much gentler.
Alan, the eldest son, recalls the family camping trip to the Boston area, adding he was glad to see his mom and dad get away more often after retirement.
San Francisco was a favourite spot for its "hilly streets, friendly people and fisherman’s wharf." The couple travelled to the West Coast several times until Bob’s health started to decline.
Bob’s commitment and devotion to his wife and family was inspiring, just one of the many lessons passed onto his children.
"You can’t think or talk about Dad without thinking and talking about mom, the love of his life, his partner who would always be there for," says Alan. "His moral compass was based on the principal of truth and integrity, family and to do the right thing. These are all qualities he and mom instilled in us."