People we like to remember

BY JOE BARKOVICH
TRIBUNE STAFF
WELLAND

The material on this page Copyright 1996 The Tribune.

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Do you think about people you've met one time or another in life, those who made an impression because of what they said or did?

Sometime, it seems like forever and a day since the time your paths crossed. Why they pop into mind after so much time has trickled by is not important; what is, though, is that they do. I found myself in such frame of mind one night this week.

For example, I thought about Robert Niece.

He lived in a little house on Thorold Road. The city editor of the day sent me there to write about his work.

Mr. Niece, you see, was blind. I do not remember the circumstances that caused him to be vision impaired, it was long ago when we met. But Mr. Niece was a remarkable man. He was known to some here in Sleepy Hollow because of a skill he had. Or maybe it was a gift.

He caned chairs.

What a pair we made for the first while we were together: he was sightless; I was speechless.

I was speechless because I could not believe his workmanship, especially in view of his situation. I watched in awe as he caned the backs and seats of chairs. He worked slowly but confidently. He used his hands to guide him and to do the painstaking work that was required in this weaving process.

My own eyes were untrained when it came to inspecting a caned chair, but even so I could see that his work was flawless. I could see the devotion that he gave to his craft. I could see that his work was a labour of love. I cold see that disability was not an impediment to this man's will to achieve. A sightless man showed me this, and so much more.

I thought about Lemuel Hogue.

Our paths crossed during one of the times he spoke to kids at one or another of Sleepy Hollow's schools.

It led to followup visits to his home, two or three over the years.

I remember his snowy white mane and how he would peer over the top of his glasses at times when speaking to you.

Mr. Hogue was like a living history book.

He was one of those characters lucky enough to stand with one foot in a bygone era, the other in the present day, but he was equally at home in both.

He knew about blacksmithing because he'd done that work, and I seem to recall him being one of the last of the trade in these parts.

I remember the hand-built, scale model of the Main Street bridge he liked to show off when a visitor dropped by. It was his pride and joy, well one of them anyway.

Mr. Hogue regaled me for hours on end with stories about Welland over the years: stories about the N.S. and T., and, T.H. and B rail lines, canal stories and others tales, some of them tall tales, no doubt.

If you want help picturing him, have a peep at the mural across the street from The Tribune building, the one showing a grandfatherly character (but without moustache) with grandson on knee, talking to the young lad about the so-called "olden days."

Those encounters with Lemuel Hogue taught me to have appreciation of local history; he shared it eloquently and passionately, his feet planted in two time periods, his head deep in Sleepy Hollow.

I thought about Shopping Bag Betty.

Our paths crossed a handful of times at Holy Trinity's Out of the Cold site a dozen or so years ago.

She would come in for a hot supper carrying two cloth shopping bag one in each hand.

She kept them close by her side, even when she'd put them down in order to have her meal.

One Friday night, I asked why she carried those two cloth shopping bags, I assumed it was week after week, with her.

A volunteer who knew something about her said they were all she had to remind her of a life she'd had somewhere else and she didn't want to let go of it, or them.

I wonder: what became of Shopping Bag Betty?

Last but not least, for this time around, I thought about a kid who shined shoes Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons.

I do not remember much about him other than he went to St. Mary School and he lived down near the arena.

He worked East Main Street, outside the Dexter and the Reeta hotels.

For young hustlers whose street smarts made them far wiser than their years, those pieces of real estate were prize locations in this trade.

He was just a little guy with beaming eyes, a headful of tousled hair and a smile that could outshine a starry sky.

It was early to mid-70s. I think he was one of the last if not the last kids who asked downtown shoppers downtown boozers too, if they wanted shoes polished and shined on the spot.

Whether their shoes needed it or not, some men liked stopping to give their business to kids like this one who, by afternoon's end, had more colour on him than in his tins of black, brown and oxblood polish.

He buffed my shoes a couple of times. They sparkled like they did when brand new, giving them longer life.

I thought of him as my sole saviour.

From stories reported on these pages over the years, these are a handful of the characters who have made Sleepy Hollow the memorable place that it is for this longtime scribbler.

And I suppose this made them old friends, too.

■ Joe Barkovich is The Tribune's city editor.


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