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Rev. Robert Rumball of the United Church, pictured here in 1980, was a passionate advocate for Ontario’s deaf community.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

A big, plain-spoken, Harley-riding preacher who left professional football for more spiritual pastures, Rev. Bob Rumball found his greatest success, and satisfaction, ministering to Ontario's deaf community.

In 1956, the year he left the Toronto Argonauts, Mr. Rumball answered a call both practical and spiritual: He was asked to speak to the congregation at Toronto's Evangelical Church of the Deaf. "No one looked at me," he said in a video celebrating his 50 years of advocacy. "They all looked at the interpreter."

Still, the church was in dire straits. "They said they were desperate, they'd take anybody, would I come and be their pastor? I said, 'As soon as the football season's over I'll come.'"

Mr. Rumball, who died on June 1 at the age of 86, was as good as his word. He soon learned sign language, and took over the ministry of the church. He began a career of advocacy for the deaf and hearing-impaired that would become an all-consuming passion for him and his family. Over the next 50 years, he would act as an interpreter for the deaf in courtrooms and in jails, open a summer camp, multipurpose facility and retirement home for the deaf, and raise seven children who learned sign language as soon as they could speak.

"Our deaf community was marginalized because of the language barriers they faced every day," says Derek Rumball, who runs Toronto's Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf, founded by his father in 1979. "The need was overwhelming."

In the first few years of his ministry, Mr. Rumball was instrumental in making sure that deaf people accused of a crime were made of aware of their rights, helped get interpreters into mental health facilities and worked to have sign language made available in community colleges. When he stepped down from most of his duties in 2006 – by which time he could no longer ride his beloved Harley-Davidsons – Mr. Rumball had spent decades lobbying politicians and networking with influential businessmen in order to raise the profile of the deaf community in Canada. All the while, he addressed the spiritual needs of his congregation: As his son says, "His faith and his obedient walk superseded everything he did."

Robert Leslie Rumball was born on Oct. 2, 1929, in Woodbridge, Ont., and was set early on the path of righteousness. His father, Charles Lesley, was a Methodist preacher, though he would later say it was his mother, Bertha Adele, who "set the pattern in the home and in my spiritual development." When he was in his teens, his family moved to the outskirts of Toronto, to a rough neighbourhood, Mr. Rumball said, where many of his peers never made it to adulthood, the victims of fights and shootings.

At Vaughan Road Collegiate Institute, he was a relatively small teenager who managed to excel at football and basketball. By the time he'd graduated and moved to the University of Toronto, he was 200 pounds and a star of the Varsity Blues football team.

"He was an imposing guy. In those days, you had to play both sides. You had to be tough," says Alistair Fraser, who would meet Mr. Rumball a couple of decades later and become the chair of the board of the Bob Rumball Foundation.

When he was 22, he met his future wife, Mary Jean Kennedy, then 18, at a Billy Graham Youth for Christ rally. Later, Mr. Rumball asked if she would like to go for a ride on his motorcycle, but she refused, saying her mother wouldn't approve. Indeed, her mother told him that "nice girls don't ride motorcycles."

"They do if they're with me," he replied. Mary Jean and Bob were married in 1955, and had seven children: five biological, and two adopted hearing-impaired girls.

In 1952, Mr. Rumball graduated from U of T with a bachelor of arts degree (he would receive a bachelor of divinity in 1955.) He was offered contracts by the Edmonton Eskimos and the Ottawa Rough Riders, and chose Ottawa on one condition: That he wouldn't have to play on Sundays. During his time as a half-back with the team, he would read headlines such as: "Rumball in pulpit, Rough Riders get whipped in Montreal."

But he wasn't yet in the pulpit. He was enrolled at the Northern Baptist Seminary in Chicago, because it allowed him to study in the off-season (eventually he would be ordained in the United Church of Canada.) After four seasons with the Rough Riders, he was traded to the Toronto Argonauts, although an injury limited his playing time there. When he left the Argos, the story in The Globe and Mail read, "Reverend Bob Rumball turned in his football gear last night and asked Argos Coach Bill Swiacki to place him on waivers."

He had found a calling more powerful than football. After accepting the invitation of the Evangelical Church of the Deaf to be its minister, he realized the scope of the ostracism facing the deaf community: There were suspects in court with no interpreters, and people in mental institutions, schools and old age homes who were isolated because they had no one to communicate with. "When I heard the stories," he would say later, "I was concerned that we lived in that kind of country."

The family was immersed in the deaf community, with all the children learning sign language at a young age, and spending their summers at the camp for the deaf that Mr. Rumball opened near Parry Sound, Ont., in 1960. That life had its challenges, as Mary Jean would later recall: "I think our children did suffer a little bit because of it," she said in the 50th-anniversary tribute video to her husband. "If anyone came to our door, the police or anyone needing interpreting for a deaf person, you had to answer it."

Mr. Rumball's major dream, to open a dedicated, multipurpose centre for the deaf, would be realized in the late 1970s with the help of high-powered friends, including Toronto Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe, team owner Harold Ballard and celebrity wrestler and fundraiser Whipper Billy Watson. One day while driving up Bayview Avenue in Toronto, Mr. Rumball spotted an estate he thought would be perfect. He went and knocked on the door, and asked its owner, General Bruce Matthews, if he wanted to sell. Gen. Matthews replied that he quite liked living in his house. Not long after, though, Gen. Matthews offered to sell the property to Mr. Rumball, who promptly went to the bank, asked for (and received) a loan.

He enlisted the aid of powerful friends to help raise funds. Mr. Smythe would pick him up in a chauffeur-driven car and take him to visit wealthy potential donors: "He'd put the arm on them," Mr. Rumball later recalled, "and many of them contributed." The centre would open in 1979, at a cost of $7.6-million.Today, it offers a variety of services for the deaf community, including a residential program, preschool care, translation and job counselling for new Canadians, and social activities for seniors.

Mr. Rumball achieved many of his aims thanks to what his son Derek calls "a godly inspired stubbornness." For many years, he fought with the Ontario government to open a long-term care home for the deaf in Barrie, Ont. The government favoured a policy of integration; Mr. Rumball argued that the elderly were best served by being among people who understood their particular needs. In a 1989 Toronto Star story, a civil servant described Mr. Rumball: "He forges ahead and personalities get bruised along the way." In the end, Mr. Rumball won the fight, and the Bob Rumball Long Term Care Home for the Deaf opened in Barrie in 2007.

Stubbornness also helped in Mr. Rumball's political advocacy for the deaf. He had the ear of senior politicians in Ontario, and was consulted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was being drafted. In 2006, Mr. Rumball remembered the exchanges: "Several times, I said to [Mr. Trudeau], if somebody somewhere would just stand up and be honest about the needs of the deaf. He phoned me and said, 'What would you like?' And I told him. … Today, according to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Mr. Trudeau, every deaf person has the right to understand and be understood."

Mr. Rumball found time to work as a chaplain for the Toronto Police, and to ride his beloved motorcycles. Among the many honours he received, he was named to the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada and received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Toronto and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Victoria University at U of T. His health declined after Mary Jean died four years ago. Mr. Rumball is survived by his seven children, 19 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and one sister.

"My dad was there to try to solve things he thought weren't right, the inequities facing the deaf community," Derek Rumball says. "He just wanted things to be fair."