A Life's Story
November 18, 2023
‘He cared for people and he cared for the planet’
Bob Buchanan’s selflessness left an impression on everyone he met, many of whom are committed to carrying on his legacy of helping others
By: Mike McIntyre
Mention the name Bob Buchanan and those who knew him — whether it was simply in passing or in a more personal way — can’t help but pour on the platitudes.
Caring. Selfless. And, without question, one-of-a-kind. The type of guy who would always give you the time of day, the rumpled shirt off his back and spent the latter part of his life doing everything he could to make a difference.
A kind, gentle soul with a real soft spot for those less fortunate, even as his own health began to fail.
“He really had a big heart,” said Bonnie Scott, who first met Buchanan when he began attending Transcona Memorial United Church more than two decades ago. It wasn’t long before the two were working side-by-side, along with other volunteers, preparing sandwiches and meals for the local food bank.
That was just the start for Buchanan, who took hands-on roles with numerous local organizations, including Agape Table, Red Road Lodge, Winnipeg Harvest, Main Street Project and Gifts of Grace to try to make life a little better for vulnerable people.
“He saw the beauty in everyone. That every person has a story,” said Scott. “I think he just had the biggest heart for people who were down and out.”
Buchanan, 70, died June 12 from complications related to a blood disorder.
“Bob would see the best in anybody, even if it wasn’t obvious. He had the ability to draw out or to see the absolutely best in other people, which I always found kind of amazing,” said Barry Simoneau, who began working with Buchanan at Gifts of Grace about four years ago.
“It was kind of a wake-up call for me to say, ‘Geez, maybe we’re a little bit too hard on people.’ And if you could think a little bit more like Bobby, the world gets to be a better place.”
Buchanan was born in Halifax and earned an arts degree in psychology from Dalhousie University. He then moved to Alberta and attended the University of Calgary on a scholarship, completing his master of science in psychology and working towards his PhD. In what would be one of the many displays of his principled approach to life, Buchanan pulled the plug on his studies due to frustrations with how group work was being shared by others.
He began a career in the newspaper industry as a district manager of deliveries at publications including the Calgary Sun and Financial Post. Then, at the age of 45, he retired. After separating from his first wife, Buchanan eventually re-connected with his first love, Louise, and ultimately moved to Winnipeg where they were married in 2001. That is when life really began, in a way.
“Bob knew what he wanted and he went for it,” said Louise.
That included his commitment to family, the church and especially the community at large.
“I think it’s from his roots,” said Scott. “I think coming from the East Coast, they were very down-to-earth people and had the mindset of everybody’s welcome, that kind of thing. That was kind of Bob’s approach.”
Elizabeth McAdam first met Buchanan a couple of decades ago while working at Agape, where he started dropping off various hard-to-get items including feminine hygiene supplies, diapers and deodorant that he gathered from various sources. She came to appreciate his dedication up close, from bringing members of the Red Road Lodge to Agape’s low-cost grocery store program to creating a breakfast-and-a-movie event at Red Road Lodge every Sunday.
“He did so much of the cooking and the prep work by himself,” said McAdam, who later connected with Buchanan at Main Street Project, where she is currently an integrated support worker.
He brought the movie program to MSP, along with Sunday meals through Gifts of Grace (which included hot dishes such as casseroles that were a welcome break from the usual soup being dished out) and even monthly pizza nights.
“He was very proud of the work he was doing,” said McAdam.
“And he had a number of crews that were regular and dependable. To be able to do this massive meal service for such a long time, that was part of his self-identity And he felt really good about that.”
Despite his education and work history, Buchanan was anything but materialistic. In fact, the very people he’d extend a helping hand to would often mistake him for one of their own, due to his scruffy appearance and clothing. That wasn’t performative in any way. It was truly who and what he was.
“He was a really nondescript man and I would always jokingly say, you know, the way Bob could carry himself and dress, he could be on either side of the table,” said Simoneau.
From reheating a freezing cup cold of coffee and wearing clothing until it was literally falling apart to recycling religiously and purchasing an electric car, Buchanan was mindful of the environment and did everything he could to tread as lightly as possible. And while some who steer themselves towards charity and philanthropy might have ulterior motives, such as scoring valuable PR points or publicity, there was not a trace of that to be found with Buchanan.
“Bob did it because he was caring. He was dedicated to the people on the street,” said Simoneau. “As time went on, and I could see that Bob’s health was declining, he was even more dedicated to helping people who were less fortunate than maybe he was looking after his own health. That’s the kind of guy he was. He gave 100 per cent of his time.”
When Buchanan first required hospitalization a couple of years ago, his absence was noticed on the street. Simoneau ended up creating a huge makeshift “Get Well” card which he took through the food line one Sunday morning on Main Street, getting the very people Buchanan took great pride in serving to send their well-wishes.
“People were writing little notes in it. (His wife, Louise) took it to the hospital and he was just overwhelmed by that kind of gesture,” said Simoneau. “I know he cherished it.”
Indeed he did, as stepdaughter Dawn Maisey can attest. She recently found the card among her father’s many belongings following his death.
“It’s kind of fun (to go back and read),” said Maisey. “It reminded me that some people called him Applesauce Bob.” We have a apple tree in the yard, and he would just spend hours just peeling them and turning them into applesauce. And then he’d bring it and serve it to people. It’s all very sweet.”
Buchanan found beauty in many unexpected places, including murals around Winnipeg which he began documenting on a website he launched in 2002, which included an annual “mural of the year” award. He saw the artwork on buildings and businesses as a unique slice of history to be celebrated.
“He truly appreciated all the outdoor art in every form,” Rev. Carol Fletcher told mourners during his celebration of life earlier this summer at Transcona Memorial United Church. “Just as every day brought him a new adventure, every mural brought new beauty and a new opportunity to write about it and post it on the website.”
Buchanan’s journalistic background made him a valuable asset for the church and the many organizations he assisted, including writing up compelling pitches for causes such as removing limits on Winnipeg Harvest registrations, lobbying for grants and fundraising projects and putting together detailed annual reports.
“For Bob, exercising his volunteering muscle was exercising his faith,” said Fletcher. “Bob believed in sharing. Bob believed in caring, Bob believed in living love. He cared for people and he cared for the planet. Those were the seasons of his life.”
Although he lives a large void behind, those he mentored and inspired are now determined to ensure his legacy lives on in a meaningful way.
“He set the bar high,” said McAdam. “His interest was helping people and he considered the people that we serve his friends. He worked for them and would do whatever he could to help them out.”
“Now that he’s gone, it’s nice to see that it’s been able to continue,” said Maisey. “Obviously, it’s what he wanted.”