Barney Roberge always said he’s lived multiple lives in one.
Anyone who knew him could attest to that.
“He always had a story on his tongue,” said Rebecca Reynolds.
“And a smile that didn’t stop,” interjected Myrna Kingscote.
The two women sat amidst a very full crowd at quittin’ time in the 98 Hotel on Wednesday.
They were there to say goodbye to Roberge, like many of the others who filled up the dingy room, from the mirrored bar adorned with rifles on one side (rumour has it one is loaded), to the opposite wall lined with animal pelts (you can earn an official 98 Breakfast Club pin if you can guess the sex of the lynx on the end).
Roberge, who managed the Whitehorse bar and hotel for the past 30 years, passed away at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on the morning of August 24. He was 88.
Roberge was recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer, said his widow, Carol Buchan.
“It went quick and I was able to be with him. He didn’t suffer,” she said. “Which is good, because Barney was not the type to lie down and wait to die.
“He was quite the guy.”
At 16, Roberge joined the Canadian Navy for 50 cents a day. He spent the next quarter-century on the water, beginning as a tailor on a corvette in the North Atlantic.
He taught himself how to hem pants or patch rips so he could get his tot of high-proof Pusser’s rum each morning. He later brought the drink with him to the territory.
“The real stuff,” Roberge told the News last February. “Fifty-four and a half per cent. It’s a blend of six different rums and was in business in the sixteen-hundreds-whomp-de-whomp, that’s when it was being issued, at that time. You got a two-and-a-half shot every day at 11:30.
“I’ve been drinking that Pusser’s rum for 72 years.”
They had stopped making it – the full-proof stuff, at least – but Roberge tracked down the guy who could, became friends with him – which was always so natural for Roberge – and now the 98 is the only place in Canada where you can get the true Pusser’s.
“It took five years,” he said with a sure nod before breaking into a broad smile.
Roberge first came to the Yukon in 1966. He was supposed to become the director of a mining company outside of Ross River, but he didn’t stay very long.
“It was 60 below all the time we were there,” he said with laugh. “That sort of finished me with the Yukon.”
But soon enough, he “got along with a fellow” who was having trouble managing a few companies he owned in the territory.
“He asked if I could raise 20,000 bucks for him. Well, I had it the next day,” Roberge remembered.
Eventually, Roberge found his way back to Whitehorse and into one of the man’s businesses – a pool hall on the top floor of what is now Murdoch’s on Main Street.
“He wanted to know if I could straighten that out,” Roberge said.
It was only supposed to be for three months. Roberge and his wife rented an apartment in Riverdale, across from the Super A.
“We had a bed, but if you wanted somewhere to sit you had to sit on the toilet. It was the only seat we had in the house,” he said with that infectious chuckle of his. “That or a box of pans – it was a bit rough.”
When it became clear his replacement wasn’t coming at the end of three months, Roberge bought the hall outright and ended up staying in the territory.
He stayed in the bar business too, eventually taking over management of the 98.
Back at the bar table, Reynolds remembers him looking like a scientist as he concocted his famous Sneaky Pete’s.
“There used to be a Bacardi drink competition that was part of Rendezvous, so that’s what he used it for and he won every year,” she said. “But he learned the recipe somewhere south; somewhere in the tropics.”
He had a story he told as he poured a bit of this and a bit of that into his ancient blender.
“He liked to pretend that he forgot the rum,” smiled Reynolds. “So he’d keep adding more.”
But the most important part was a “secret ingredient” that Roberge had a different name for every year.
One year he called it mermaid juice, the next it was dragon piss, Reynolds remembered.
Kingscote and Lana Dowie, who were the Rendezvous can-can dancers’ manager and choreographer the generation before Reynolds, also remember Roberge’s Sneaky Pete’s.
“All the girls would get a drink before they’d go on for the shows,” said Kingscote.
But Roberge was much more than just a bartender.
“He made everything perfect for us,” said Dowie, explaining how Roberge would escort the girls to their hotel room-cum backstage and make sure anyone who gave any “hanky panky” was thrown out.
“And I have to say, this is the best crowd,” added Dowie.
“The whole place shakes,” said Harmony Hunter, another former can-can manager.
“And Barney was the one guy you actually wanted to kiss,” she said, referring to the can-can routine that brings the girls into the crowd to kiss the cheeks of audience members.
“He was always covered with lipstick,” said Reynolds.
The women gushed, as many did, about Roberge’s striking good looks that stayed with him until the end.
“That thick white hair,” said Hunter.
“I’ll always remember those big strong hands,” said Reynolds.
“I will never forget that smile,” said Dowie.
Roberge was a true ladies’ man.
“He had charisma,” said Eva Stehelin, who was Roberge’s boss for the past 30 years, and his friend for at least 45. “He loved to rescue damsels in distress. He was very big-hearted.”
A blown-up portrait of Roberge hangs in a picture box on one of the bar’s walls. Across the room, near a bouquet of flowers and a nearly-full book of condolences, sat two former barmaids of the 98.
“He always treated us all equal,” said Susie Linklater, who worked for Roberge for 22 years. “He was more like a father to most of us.”
And he was like family to most of the 98’s clients too, she said.
“He knows them all, and he’s good to them,” she added, remembering how he always had a turkey at Christmas and a ham at Easter to share with anyone who came in.
“He was always very kind and willing to help,” said Buchan. “He was a big factor of a lot of people’s lives.”
“In many ways he was like family,” said Stehelin. “And when you met him, you didn’t forget him.”
A memorial service will be held for Roberge on November 17, the day after his birthday, at Mount McIntyre from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. He was a widower twice and is survived by Buchan, his third wife of more than 20 years, his five children and nine grandchildren.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at