Friends and colleagues say farewell to beloved social activist and outdoorsman

‘The wind is so strong the tree tops are touching. Perhaps they’re telling each other the news: Bob died, Bob has passed.

‘The wind is so strong the tree tops are touching. Perhaps they’re telling each other the news: Bob died, Bob has passed.”

Bill Thomas made the remark during a memorial service for Robert ‘Bob’ George James Couchman, 71.

Bob was a gentle soul who led a virtuous life working for the basic rights of youth, families and the homeless, said Thomas, who worked with Bob in the Yukon Anti-poverty Coalition.

“God, how I envy you,” said Thomas. “It’s your turn, now, to know and work with Bob Couchman.”

Bob’s death was sudden and unexpected.

It came May 3 in Kingston, Ontario, one day after the respected social justice advocate gave a eulogy at the funeral of a good friend.

Bob was an eloquent, impassioned and prolific letter writer, so it was somehow fitting that he’d have his own words used in his eulogy.

After Bob’s death, Stephane Voswinkel, of the Rotary Club, found a letter his good friend was writing in support of the Youth of Today Society.

He read the draft to about 125 people who attended the Whitehorse United Church memorial.

In it, Bob lamented the lack of a permanent youth shelter.

“Many youth couch surf, a practice that puts them at high risk for harm and danger,” he wrote.

Efforts to open the shelter have faltered, said Voswinkel.

He asked Bob’s friends to support the shelter any way they could.

Bob had worked with homeless youth throughout his career, and had been pushing for Angel’s Nest, a dedicated homeless-youth shelter in Whitehorse, until the day he died.

But that was just his latest cause.

He was also involved in numerous local charities and organizations, including the Anti-poverty Coalition and the Rotary Club.

He’d helped establish the No Fixed Address Outreach Van and is the former executive director of the Yukon Family Services Association.

Bob was involved in social justice issues in Toronto, but moved north to Whitehorse, via Atlin, BC, in 1996.

Bob quickly got involved in the Rotary Club after meeting Voswinkel in the 1990s.

“He was a pillar of our club,” said Voswinkel, noting Bob’s dry humour kept members entertained.

“When I went through the e-mails from Bob, I was overwhelmed by the number of activities and volunteer work he involved the Rotary Club in.

“Our motto is ‘Service Above Self,’ and Bob lived that motto until the end.”

He ran the United Kingdom-based charitable foundation TQR Ltd., which distributed millions of dollars to arts organizations across Canada.

And he was once the executive director of Donner Canadian Foundation in Toronto.

In Toronto, Bob worked with street gangs, said his son Stephen Couchman.

He told a story of two gang members who, despite Bob’s best efforts, robbed a convenience store and took a family with a small child hostage in a nearby house.

Cops surrounded the house and told the two thieves to give themselves up.

One of them took the gun from the other and threw it out the window.

“Why’d you do that?” asked the stunned gangbanger.

“Because this little girl reminds me of Barb (Bob’s daughter),” came the reply.

“That would never have happened if Dad hadn’t introduced them to the concept of empathy,” said Stephen.

Always itching to get outdoors, Bob loved taking friends and family on hikes and canoe trips, said his son.

He was a gentle warrior, a superhero.

“He could leap portages in a single bound and take on Scientologists with a smile and swing in his gait,” said Stephen.

Family was the centre of Bob’s life, he added.

Eleanor Frederickson worked with Bob on Dealing with the Whole Child Society board.

“He guided me with great wisdom and brought me up when I was down,” said Frederickson.

Despite Bob’s hectic, cramped schedule, he always had time for friends and family, noted Fredrickson.

“I think he was busier than the prime minister,” she said.

Once, needing guidance, she asked him out for tea.

“He told me, ‘I have no time for tea, but I can give you an hour and a half.’”