After a public life, a public death for Saint Johner Bob McVicar

After a public life, a public death for Saint Johner Bob McVicar

Until last month, Bob McVicar thought he had a bad back. Nothing more. 

Like a lot of "big, strong, older guys," the Saint John real estate agent, 65, was proud to be self-sufficient.

That attitude had served him well in his career as senior vice-president of the 1980s super-brand Cotton Ginny, a franchisee for the Body Shop, and most recently the president of Sutton Group Aurora Realty.

So when a gnawing pain wrapped itself around his back in November 2018, he figured he'd pulled a muscle during a home renovation.

Julia Wright / CBC

"So I self-medicate," he said. "And it went away."

The decision not to see a doctor, as it turned out, would be life-altering.

Fast forward to August 2019. Suddenly, something was badly wrong. 

"My legs felt weak," he said. "I began to feel like there was something going on."  

His partner of eight years, Christine Gilliland, urged him to go to the Saint John Regional Hospital. 

"It was sad to watch," she said. "It was frustrating to see this person who had been so vibrant not enjoying life the way he normally had."

Julia Wright / CBC

When McVicar arrived at the hospital, doctors took some blood — and "did that other thing they do for people, and discovered that I had a large prostate," McVicar said. 

"I didn't know what that meant. I said thank you."

Just 24 hours after his first hospital visit, the oncologist "sat on the edge of the bed and told me I had this cancer that they couldn't really treat, and I probably had two to four months to live."

He had prostate cancer, and it had spread to his bones.

"It's not a bad back after all," said Gilliland. "It's worse, and it's devastating." 

McVicar's love for the city of Saint John runs deep. 

After leaving his hometown of Glace Bay, N.S., he made a name for himself in retail in Toronto. 

Submitted by Bob McVicar

On his first business trip to Saint John in 1982, he recalls walking down Canterbury Street on a foggy night, marvelling at the blocks of stunning heritage buildings. 

"I very specifically remember thinking, 'Oh my God, this is incredible. Look at this. Nobody cares about it, but here it is,'" he said. 

He moved to Saint John in October 1991, quickly establishing himself as an uptown booster and bon vivant with a strong, opinionated style.

Julia Wright / CBC

"I'm a kind of a social guy," he  said. "My home has always been the place where people go on Christmas, on St. Paddy's Day. I've always enjoyed a good party."

The news that he had only a few months to live was "shocking, it was sad, it was a total surprise," said McVicar, who has four adult children.

"It was like some sort of out-of-body experience," he said. "But then you sort of pull back and say, 'OK, now what do we do?'"

Submitted by Bob McVicar

Some people, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, would retreat from the spotlight.

But for McVicar, facing death in his usual, gregarious fashion came more naturally. 

He started a Facebook group, What About Bob?, which rapidly swelled to nearly 700 members and was filled with hundreds of photos, anecdotes and memories of McVicar from all stages of his life. 

Julia Wright/CBC

He made arrangements for an assisted death. He and Gilliland established the Bob McVicar Saint John Heritage Conservation Fund — an endowment through the Community Fund to support heritage conservation projects in the city. 

The message he hopes to impart to Saint Johners is that "it's never too late," he said.  

"Everybody's got broken relationships in their lives," he said. "I was no exception. But so far I've fixed half a dozen of those things, and that's a positive outcome." 

Submitted by Bob McVicar

"I hope that we all are encouraged to do more for our community and for each other — to love our town the way Bob loves it," Gilliland said.

From the first estimate that he had just months to live, McVicar said, doctors have adjusted his treatments and since given him as long as a year. 

"So that's a blessing — and that's the gift of time," he said. 

Nor will he have to miss his wake: "the best party of my life," as he calls it. 

Submitted by Bob McVicar

On Sept. 22, he'll attend a celebration of his life at the restaurant Italian By Night. Guests are expected from around the world.

"Which is better than propping me in the corner if I was dead, right?" McVicar joked. 

"If you can know about it for a little while, you have a chance to fix some things, a chance to reconnect with people, a chance to do some things maybe you didn't do.

"That's a gift."