Part of a Nova Scotian family known as the "Boxing Downeys" for its number of famed fighters, Robert (Bobby) Downey achieved success in the ring while boxing for the 2nd Battalion, Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (Black Watch).
On the team from 1957 to 1965, Mr. Downey, who died at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax on July 9 at age 78 from an aggressive form of cancer, became Eastern Command boxing champion and Canadian Army champion during that time. In 1960, he also earned the title of Canadian Amateur Boxing Association Lightweight Champion.
"My brother Bobby was the one who inspired me to do the boxing," said his younger brother David, who in 1967 won his first Canadian Professional Middleweight championship. "I used to let him bang at me to get him ready for fights."
Following in the Downey family boxing tradition, David's son, Raymond (Sugar Ray) Downey achieved international success as a boxer, becoming a two-time Olympian. Raymond was a bronze medalist in the light middleweight boxing category at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and competed in Barcelona in 1992.
Born in Halifax on Sept. 6, 1936, Bobby Downey was one of the 10 biological children of Leotra Geneva (née Tomlinson) and George Alexander Downey. Patriarch George Downey was a no-nonsense entrepreneur who sold coal and had a team of horses, as well as being a veteran who served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War and in the Veterans Guard of Canada during the Second World War. Leotra Downey, a school teacher, was known for her generosity and helping her extended family and neighbourhood children in need. Along with her large family, she raised two grandchildren as her own children.
The fifth boy of seven in the family, Mr. Downey, who stood about five feet seven inches tall, was taught by his father to be a fighter in life and to stand up for his family. Though George Downey didn't box, he taught his sons to duke it out. "His method of conflict resolution was, 'Take it to the backyard, and may the best Downey win,'" said Bobby's son Robert. "George Downey also greatly valued family loyalty, teaching his sons that if you fought one Downey, you fought them all."
Growing up in Halifax's north-end neighbourhood, which was known to have its share of street fighting at the time, Bobby and his brothers spent most of their free time at the Prizefighter's Club. A boxing gym, it was where some of Nova Scotia's greatest fighters at the time were said to train, including Richard "Kid" Howard. Located on Creighton Street, it was a stone's throw from the Downey family home. Mr. Downey's brothers Donnie and Billy also boxed competitively, but didn't reach the level of success in the ring as he or his younger brother David did.
"He moved around, but not as much as me. He was more a puncher," said David Downey of his brother's technique in the ring.
In 1957, with a Grade 10 education, Mr. Downey joined the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (Black Watch), the country's oldest highland regiment, and became one of the top fighters in the Canadian military at the time.
"Boxing gave him the robustness he needed to be in the infantry," said Cyril Clayton, who served with Mr. Downey in the Black Watch.
"He was a very unique fighter," he said. "He didn't have the killer instinct."
Mr. Clayton remembers watching his friend step back in the ring when he knew he had his opponent beat. Not wanting to hurt his opponent more than he had to, he wouldn't deliver a final blow.
During military training in Truro, N.S., Mr. Downey met a young woman named Carol Collins and fell in love. They married in March, 1958, and had five children. She was struck and killed by a speeding car while crossing the road in Dartmouth, N.S., on the evening of Oct. 17, 1981. After 13 years as a widower, Mr. Downey found love again with a childhood sweetheart named Owida Bruce. He was left a widower again when she died a decade later after a brief illness. At the time of his death, Mr. Downey was married to his third wife, Catherine (née Trenholm).
"He believed in love," his son Robert said. "He was a very optimistic and humble individual."
Obtaining the rank of sergeant, Mr. Downey served in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Germany, Cyprus and the Canadian Arctic. As a military chef, he prepared banquets for Prince Charles, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and other dignitaries. While at Canadian Forces Station Alert on Ellesmere Island in 1975, Mr. Downey was called upon to prepare a meal for Mr. Trudeau, who was visiting the station with his son Justin. Mr. Downey was ready to serve a fine meal of filet mignon when he heard that Justin, then a toddler, would prefer a hamburger. Without a hesitation, Mr. Downey ground up a steak to make a burger for the boy, who is now Canada's Liberal Leader.
In 1986, Mr. Downey retired from the Canadian Forces after 29 years of service. He found work again as a cook at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. A proud veteran and an active community member, he was part of several associations as well as the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, where he served on the board of trustees. Known for his cooking, he was the chef in demand for all major church events. "People would ask: 'Was Bob Downey in the kitchen?'" his son Robert said.
Known for his homemade pizza, fish and chips and seafood chowder, Mr. Downey's cooking was also sought after in his north-end Halifax community whenever there was a large gathering. He didn't like to turn people down if he could help.
"He was always smiling," Robert said. "My nickname for him was Gentleman Bob. He tended to let things roll off his back."
Up until last year, Mr. Downey regularly worked out at the gym and enjoyed hitting the punching bag.
Mr. Downey leaves his wife, Catherine; his children, Robert, Terry, Sheridan and Paula; six grandchildren; one great-grandchild; brothers Graham, David and Vernon; sisters Phyllis and Karen. He was predeceased by his first wife, Carol; second wife, Owida; daughter Carolyn Marcell (who died in infancy); brothers Theodore, Donald, George and Edward William "Billy"; sisters, Lillian and Evelyn; and half-siblings, LeRoy Jones and Evelyn Lindstrom.
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