Missionary, soldier, husband, friend. Born on Oct. 23, 1932, in Alma, Que; died on June 28, 2014, in Ottawa, of heart failure, aged 81.
“Life is good.” That phrase popped out of Bob Gagnon’s mouth so often, it struck many people as a “have-a-nice day” pleasantry. But those close to Bob knew that his habitual greeting meant something. His words were a purposeful affirmation that good will ultimately prevail, and that, as one friend noted at his wake, “Life is inherently good, worth the effort, and worth preserving.”
Bob grew up in Lac-Saint-Jean, a remote region of Quebec that did not feel the Spanish flu pandemic until the 1920s. Though it arrived late, the flu was virulent, and his parents buried six children in the space of two weeks. When Bob was born a decade later, his staunch Roman Catholic parents saw his arrival as a gift from God. Although he was an only child, he did not grow up alone. His parents took in a group of his cousins, after their own parents were killed in a car accident.
As “God’s gift,” Bob was raised as the child surrounded by specific expectations, which led him to the seminary. Shortly after his ordination in 1956, he was sent to serve as one of the Pères Blancs missionaries in Malawi. He worked for eight years in a small village before returning to Canada with memories that he would cherish as exemplary of the human spirit.
After his return, Bob and a group of other young priests were called together and advised that the Canadian Armed Forces needed more Catholic chaplains. As Bob later recalled the scene, the bishop went around the room saying, “You, you, and you will be volunteering for the Forces.” The third “you” was Bob.
Although he was initially taken aback by the sudden change in his life, Bob found the instruction easier to obey when he calculated the difference between an army officer’s pay and the poverty of an African missionary.
He stayed in the Forces for more than 25 years serving on bases in Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba and various Ontario locations, ending his career in 1992 at the Uplands base in Ottawa where he settled. Bob felt he had not only done his duty for Queen and country, but also, perhaps, for God and successfully sought dispensation to leave the priesthood.
This set the stage to renew a friendship with Dona Bowers, a family physician and a former nun, whom he had met years earlier at the base chapel in North Bay. They married in 1998, and were active and popular at St. Joseph’s Church in Ottawa, she as a member of the choir and he as a volunteer at St. Joe’s Supper Table.
Bob also had many friends on the tennis courts at the Ottawa Athletic Club and in his central Ottawa neighbourhood. He was a consummate story teller, known for his friendly laugh; as one friend said, “He was impossible not to like.”
He drew many of his stories from travels with Dona. They visited Greece, Ireland, England, Caribbean islands, Mexico, and made a transatlantic trip that took them to Iceland and Greenland. In the year before Bob’s passing, they took a long vacation through Russia and Eastern Europe.
To the end, Bob believed that life was good, but he did acknowledge, on occasion, that it would be a little better if the Habs could win the Stanley Cup again.
Dick Bourgeois-Doyle is a friend of Bob.