In memory of Bob Sisson, 21 years later
By Sue Tiffin
Published Sept. 11, 2018
When you sit front row, centre, at the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion in Haliburton, you are sitting in the chair dedicated to the memory of Bob Sisson. It’s the seat you would want to have if Bob was on stage, a teenager from West Guilford masterfully using an Australian accent or otherwise bringing to life a character with such flourish, that every performance was unforgettable.
He’s still unforgettable, 21 years after a devastating accident claimed his life when he was just 18. The memory of Bob Sisson is still very much alive and the impact he made is still felt by people who lived in this community when he did.
Robert Sisson, known throughout Haliburton County as Bob, or Bobby, was born April 18, 1979 to Marty and Vicki Sisson. He was the “perfect little boy,” according to his mom, who sat down with the Echo to talk about him last winter.
“When he was little, he was just well-behaved, just, he was ordinary, he was quiet, he could entertain himself for hours with his Lego,” said Vicki. “We took him to see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, when he was five. And in the first scene where Princess Leia’s chained up to Jabba, I thought, ‘oh my God, this is too much for a five-year-old.’ But after that, it was just a Star Wars universe. And it was a Marvel universe, and he drew, and he started collecting comic books and he did well in school.”
One of his longest, closest friendships was with Morgan Talaba, who met Bob in elementary school.
“When I first met Bob he was as shy and quiet as I was,” Talaba told the Echo. “Once we started talking we became fast friends.”
Together the pair shared an interest in music, movies, art, skateboarding and comedy – not the norm, according to Talaba, who said most kids their age were interested in hockey and sports.
“It felt like Bob was the first person I’d ever met who spoke the same language as me, and cared about what I cared about,” he said.
Shown here in a play together, Kevin Brezina, left, met Bob Sisson just as high school was starting and the pair formed a fast friendship. /Submitted
Kevin Brezina remembers meeting Bob at a dance held prior to high school.
“I remember thinking that this was a great chance to impress the Haliburton girls,” Kevin, who was from Minden, told the Echo, “so I danced all night, for every song. What made that easier was that there was this other guy, from Haliburton, who seemed to have the same idea giving his all on the dance floor. He was super into it, but his moves were a bit clumsy (I’m sure mine were too), but I remember thinking, ‘as long as I don’t look as crazy as that guy, I’m good.’ So in hindsight, before I’d even met him, Bob was helping me to be a better version of myself.”
It wasn’t until Bob turned 14 and started high school that another side of him emerged, one who thrived while performing, according to his mom. She remembers the time he jumped at the chance to sing The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” at an event night at Sir Sam’s, where they both worked.
“I’d never seen him perform,” she said. “I didn’t know that this was something he wanted to do. That was it. And after that ... he’d jump up on stage at the slightest provocation, and he played the drums and he acted and he was going to be Leonardo DiCaprio or Steven Spielberg when he grew up. I made him promise to make sure I got a front seat at the Oscars, just like Steven Spielberg did with his mother.”
Bob made his mom watch Quentin Tarantino movies alongside him, and Vicki would always get up to leave for the kitchen during the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, when the song “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel comes on.
“He’d say, ‘Mom, it’s not that bad!’” she remembers, laughing. “He didn’t like me reading newspapers when we were watching movies. Everybody else would be in bed. It’d just be the two of us, and he’d hide the newspapers underneath the couch cushion.”
Bob was a member of the broad Sisson clan and he assisted countless numbers of people when he worked at the ski hill and at the West Guilford store. He played with the school band and his own band and announced the high school daily notices over the PA system each morning, as well as the skating shows in the Minden and Haliburton arenas.
Bob announced the high school daily notices over the PA system each morning, as well as the skating shows in the Minden and Haliburton arenas. / Submitted photo
Gary Brohman, Haliburton Highlands Secondary School principal at that time, remembers Bob as being well-known throughout the entire staff and student body and the greater community.
“I remember joy. I remember craziness,” he laughed. “I remember our school and school spirit changed because of Bob Sisson. I think school spirit took off at a different level in our school. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in our school knew Bob Sisson. You can go from custodians to secretaries to educational assistants to teachers to all the students ... What a beautiful thing.”
Brezina remembers Bob stopping to talk with students from every grade, even as an early Grade 9 student. “Everyone was happy to see him, everyone wanted to stop and talk. Even the teachers seemed to know him.”
“...[I]t didn’t take long to notice him,” said Tom Regina, Bob’s high school music teacher. “He stood taller than his classmates, seemed to always have a broad smile and had a gangly sort of Mick Jagger air about him … I think people liked it of him that he was able to make everything seem like a fun time. Bob seemed at ease with all of the various groups of students at the school but it felt like he belonged to the arts kids.”
Bob was a renowned actor, the one who the community knew was destined to a greater fame.
Martha Perkins, who was at that time the editor of this paper, said he stood out.
“For me, as a reporter at the Echo, I sat through lots of plays at the high school. You applaud these people’s efforts, how much fun they had, but in Bobby you saw it,” she said in a phone interview. “You saw the talent. You saw how he could do the metamorphosis and become the person that he was portraying on the stage. You saw his actions, his ability to mimic, and I think in that you see his intelligence. You know that he would be the one who made it. I always thought of him as Heath Ledger. Really visceral talent and ability to go into those dark places or light places, and to me that means you have to be a person with empathy and understanding. You have to have not lived the life of the person you’re portraying, but you do need to understand it enough to bring it to life. It’s such a skill, such a talent, and Bobby had it.”
In Love Affair with Hollywood, written by Cass (Weyrich) Mawbey, Bob (seen here with Sue Tiffin) starred as a small town boy intent on becoming a Hollywood star. /Submitted
“He was a very charming, funny kid,” said Cass (Weyrich) Mawbey, who said Bob had that “presence” that people talk about. She wrote Love Affair With Hollywood, part of the HHSS drama offerings, with Bob in mind, and he starred in it.
“...[W]hen he embraced a character, he became the character, and committed to it,” said Mawbey. “So when I saw him on stage ‘becoming’ a character, it was hard to look away. He was genius at mimicry – recreating Mrs. Doubtfire and Jim Carrey – or speaking with accents.”
Mawbey said Bob was directly responsible for the play she wrote, about a small town boy restless with small town life, brimming with talent and charisma, getting discovered and becoming a Hollywood star.
“I saw him becoming a phenomenon, someone who could truly make it,” she said. “He was born to do it.”
Kate Campbell met Bob on the first day of rehearsal for that production.
“Being on stage with him was electric,” she said. “Our friendship was weird and fabulous. We’d talk about everything from movies, script ideas, moving to L.A. someday, to astrology and Sailor Moon episodes. We’d talk in accents, we’d hang at the ski hill, we would have a double feature screening. I’d show him Singin’ in the Rain, and he’d show me Pulp Fiction.”
Mawbey remembers the last time she spoke to Bob.
“I won’t ever forget the way his face lit up when he saw me,” she said. “I had never truly ever felt that reaction from anyone before. That’s what he did to people. Made them feel like they mattered. He was kind of a technicolour person in a black and white world.”
Bob’s long curly hair – Brohman refers to it as “those golden locks of his,” and Vicki calls it a “fluffy cloud” you could run your fingers through – still makes those who remember it giggle, remembering when Bob shaved it off completely. Teacher Paul Longo said one of his favourite memories of Bob was when, on a school trip to Washington, he came down from his hotel room with a completely smooth scalp.
“I remember thinking at first he took one of those bald caps ... and then I touched it,” he laughed. “That was Bob. It was just funny. It was just the way he rolled.”
When Bob was 17, he told his parents he was going to hitchhike across the country, solo, throughout the summer of 1996. He bought a bunch of “cheap, ugly” ties from a thrift store and got a job cleaning rooms in a hotel out west. Then he went to Montreal and worked in a call centre before returning home.
Bob loved his younger siblings, Mary and Alex, quite famously.
Mary remembers Bob always making time for her and Alex, both seven years younger than him. He read children’s books to them before bed, making up voices for the characters in the stories, and let them play on his drum set and borrow his music cassettes.
“Life was fun,” she said. “Our home was always a safe space, thanks to my parents, but Bob made it that much more happy and safe. He was able to be himself and role modelled what that meant for us. You knew no matter what happened that day at school, you were coming home to his performing or dancing in the kitchen or good music playing from his room.”
Bob (front row, centre), was very close to his family, especially siblings Alex (top row, middle) and Mary (front row, right). /Submitted photo
One of the last times Vicki saw Bob alive was at Midnight Madness in Haliburton, the week before he died in the tragic car accident that plunged the county into mourning. She was waiting for his siblings at what was then the Molou Theatre on Highland Street when she looked across the road and saw her eldest child, dressed in the blue suede jacket she’d bought him. He was promoting Lotus Festival, a weekend-long outdoor music festival to be held in Glebe Park the next week.
“...[A]nd he just, he was just so beautiful,” she said. “I just stood there and looked at him. There were times I just couldn’t believe he was mine. And how much I loved him.”
Bob crossed the street to chat with his mom, and said he’d probably just go to a friend’s house later that night.
“And I grabbed his lapels,” said Vicki, “And I said, ‘OK. You stay wherever you’re going. You don’t be out on the road in the middle of the night.’ ‘I won’t Mom.’ And he was gone the next week. And I just, you think of all these coincidental, freaky things. But that, that is my last best memory.”
On Aug. 9, 1997, the car Bob was in with three friends encountered another vehicle, driven by an impaired driver, on Hwy 118, near Camp White Pine. They collided head-on when the pick-up truck unexpectedly crossed the centre line on a curve.
First responders, ambulance crews and 14 volunteer firefighters from Dysart – some who knew the Sisson family well or had kids who were friends with the teenagers involved – remember details of that early morning accident clearly, even today, though many have long since retired.
Vicki had to answer the phone that jarred her from sleep.
“We got a phone call,” she said. “We got that nightmare phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning. Every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Bob’s siblings weren’t at home that night, Mary at Camp Adelaide and Alex at his grandparents’ house just down the road. But Marty and Vicki faced a horrendous roadblock when they couldn’t physically get from their house in West Guilford to the hospital because of the accident scene that they knew their son had been involved in.
“So off Marty and I went towards Haliburton, and of course we couldn’t get through because the highway was closed because of the accident, so we had to go back to Eagle Lake and all the way around,” said Vicki.
At the Haliburton Hospital, it was clear Bob had been critically injured. Vicki and Marty were asked to think about donating his organs, which Marty quickly agreed to, knowing it was what Bob would have wanted. The parents were driven to Sunnybrook Hospital for that procedure to happen.
“And after it was all said and done, all over, we got a couple of really lovely letters telling us they had restored sight to two people with his beautiful blue eyes. That’s the way I look at it. We knew that somebody had benefited from it all. And that helps too. Depending on how you feel about these things, but for us, that helped too.”
Despite the years that have passed, Vicki still credits the volunteers in the victims services centre at Sunnybrook Hospital who offered sandwiches and tea, and remembers the name of the police officer who offered them support. She wrote a letter thanking him for his care after the fact.
“And then, you go home, and you plan a funeral,” she said. Phoning her mom to tell her the tragic news the year after Vicki’s dad had died, was tremendously difficult.
“I remember holding her hand and going into the funeral and just putting my head on Marty’s shoulder,” said Vicki. “I didn’t cry. I didn’t let anybody see me cry.”
The funeral was held at St. George’s Anglican Church, and was so packed, filled to capacity, that the basement had to be opened for people to attend. Bob’s eulogy would be Brohman’s first for a student and Longo said speaking at his funeral was one of the most important things he has done as a teacher.
“The sense I got was that this was a communal wound,” said Perkins. “It was shared ... You feel like sometimes the universe gets a blow and there are ripples, and Bobby’s death caused a lot of ripples.”
Vicki said grief sunk in after the funeral.
“And then you go home and then that’s when the hurting starts,” said Vicki. “I remember sitting on our railed porch every night, staring up at the sky and just screaming in my head, you know, because I didn’t know when I was going to see him again.”
She acknowledges the response from the community was incredible.
“Money, food, cards, letters, from people we didn’t even know,” she said. “And I’ll never forget that.”
“I feel that no matter how you lose a loved one, all you want is for people to remember them and acknowledge their life and what they gave to the community and the world,” said Mary. “It may feel awkward to speak about it, but rather then remembering the accident and the tragedy, it’s nice to remember the people who showed up. I remember people who were at the funeral that I didn’t even speak to, but I know they were there and that means the world.”
Lotus Festival, organized by local young people including Bob, went on, giving area teens the chance to be together after hearing news of the accident.
“I went into shock,” said Talaba. “I had flashes of the night before of him leaving ... we had an intense conversation, we hugged and made plans to hang out after the festival. I remember playing our set at the festival that night after reuniting with everyone else and feeling some catharsis. After the festival, I remember almost nothing except that constant vacuum that is the loss of a loved one. I don’t even remember attending the funeral. I went underwater for awhile.”
“That night [at Lotus Festival] seemed to last forever and I’m sure a lot of us wished it had,” said friend Kasey (Bull) MacIntyre. “Because the reality of going on without him was too much for a lot of us to even fathom at that point.”
“You can’t describe to someone how painful it was,” said Vicki. “I remember [working] at Sir Sam’s on another party night after all this happened, and Stealers Wheel, ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ came on the sound system and I just … this sound came out of me like a wounded animal. The pain in your heart. When people talk about heartache and heartbreak, it’s real. It feels like somebody’s sitting on your chest. And you think, you can’t live the rest of your life in that much pain. And that’s when people either take up drinking or drugs or do away with themselves. And I have to be honest, I thought about it. I thought, I can’t live my life in this much pain. .... But then I had Alex and Mary. And if I hadn’t had Alex and Mary, it might have been different. Marty, he just couldn’t stop crying. He couldn’t function. The kids kept us going. We kept them going. We were fortunate in that we just became this tight little unit and we looked after each other. When something like this happens, 60 per cent of marriages fail, families implode, people start drinking, and it would have been easy, but we didn’t. We didn’t. We got through it.”
Mary remembers that before she went to camp she saw Bob one last time. He hugged her goodbye, told her he loved her and reminded her to have fun. After the accident, she remembers the house being quiet, the joy being gone.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have my parents,” she said. “Their strength has been an inspiration my entire life. They didn’t try to forget. We have always talked about Bob, told stories, shared memories. They carried on but made sure we were doing OK. I’m extremely proud of them.”
Vicki credits Marty, who she said has been the rock for the family, as well as the strength of Mary and Alex, for the family’s tenacity.
“When something like this happens, it changes you,” she said. “We were happy. We didn’t have a lot but we would dance in the kitchen every morning before school, and I would grab Bob and just … he got to the point where he would just stand there and I would kind of dance around him. But I’d have the radio on and we’d be carrying on and silly and all of that stopped. There was no more music, no more laughing, no more singing, no more dancing. And you just, you can’t hurt me. You don’t feel anything anymore. You don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. You just do what needs to be done. You just get through it. [Bob] wouldn’t have wanted me to be unhappy. He wouldn’t want us to fall apart, you know, we’ve got to keep going.”
Vicki said there were years in which it was hard to be happy.
“We had to work very hard at trying to be positive because every time something would go wrong we’d just sink right back down into that black hole,” she said. Leaving the house without fear was difficult, and allowing Mary and Alex to leave the house as they got older was nerve-wracking.
Mary’s daughter, Isobel, was born four years ago.
“That’s something else,” said Vicki. “When that little girl came, that was just joy, that we hadn’t felt in 20 years. Sometimes you feel guilty. Is that OK, for us to be happy, because Bob’s gone? And yeah, it takes a long time to get over that.”
Mary said Isobel recently took note of a portrait of Bob, and asked, “where’d Bobby go?” Mary said they have had experiences of Isobel seeing “someone” in the house.
“She ran to the kitchen,” said Mary. “The radio was on and she asked to turn it up, cause she wanted to dance in the kitchen. She grabbed her daddy’s hands and danced. I just stared at her. She has his spirit, his joy. I saw my brother. ... I wish [my husband] could have met him. I wish he could have seen his spirit, because Isobel has it. I wish [Bob] was here to see her because he would have been such a wonderful uncle to her. It’s not fair. I wish he could see how happy she makes my parents. He would have been so happy to see them as grandparents.”
Part of the healing for Vicki and Marty has been in seeing tributes from Bob’s friends over the years, even now, decades later.
A few years ago, Meggan Winsley created a screen print of a photo taken by Don Mawbey of Bob in a joyful moment that the Sisson family and many of Bob’s friends have hung at their homes in his memory.
Many note vivid dreams they have had of Bob, have dedicated their work to him, and keep letters, cards and poetry from him. Several friends have, in the years since his death, been tattooed with lines of a poem he wrote, urging people to “live life fully, no second tries.”
MacIntyre said the screen print by Winsley reminds her to slow down and remember what is important in her life. She got her tattoo of Bob’s poem 15 years after his death.
“It is a poem that he wrote about living life to the fullest, because you never know how long you are going to be here,” she said. “Which to me is a very true statement coming from him, and I carry that across my shoulders every day as a reminder of not only him, but of one of the many lessons he taught us.”
In recent years, at least one baby has been named after Bob.
“I shared his name with [my son] to remind me to try to teach my children that drive to get as much out of life as they can,” said Brezina, whose son’s middle name is Robert. “Bob taught me that opening yourself up to life the way he did was a choice, and it isn’t always an easy one to make, as it is often safer or more comfortable to say no to life, or put off making a decision. But the magic happens after you say yes. I sincerely hope that they will embrace that challenge the way he did. Also, I hope it will give me more opportunities to talk about him with my family, and share stories about him.”
Being able to keep in touch with Bob’s friends, have them stop in for a chat or reach out via social media, has been precious to the Sisson family, who welcome friends to connect.
“That just means the world to us,” said Vicki. “Things like that, we love to hear things like that. We don’t want anybody to think you know, well, we don’t want to talk about it, or we can’t talk about it. We like people to remember him.”
In conversation, perhaps unconsciously, Vicki does not say the name of the impaired driver involved in the accident. She and her family have worked toward forgiveness for him.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), “every day, on average, nearly 3.5 Canadians are killed in alcohol and/or drug-related motor vehicle crashes on public roads.”
“How can I convey what it was and what happened and what it felt like to people, for them to know that this can happen … please don’t drink and drive,” urged Vicki. “It can happen to anyone. He was five minutes from home. He’d hitchhiked across Canada and back. And five minutes from home. Bang.”
MacIntyre said she stopped drinking the day of the accident, and continues to be the designated driver for friends.
When she worked at a bar, she said she attempted to deter drunk driving.
“I told Bobby’s story more times than I can remember, hoping that it would change their minds about getting behind the wheel.”
The accident was covered extensively in local media, with two editorials in a row in the Echo dedicated to the community reaction, funeral and candlelight vigil.
Vicki, still in shock and dealing with intense grief, didn’t have the chance at that time to talk publicly about Bob.
“I have always wanted, maybe needed is a better word, to find some way of conveying the unbearable pain and devastation of losing a child so loved, and cherished, who contributed so much to his community and everyone who knew him, so close to home … because someone made the wrong choice. ... It could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime,” she said in her initial response to an interview request.
In the home he grew up in, in West Guilford, a closet in a room upstairs now holds prized possessions: his comic book collection in pristine condition in the Batman-themed bookcase he made in shop class, a book full of his drawings, an Industrial Light and Magic book gifted to him by his grandmother one Christmas, his beloved Lego, the cardboard signs he brought back from his hitchhiking trip.
“Any opportunity I can to get to talk about him,” Vicki told the Echo. “I just, I don’t want people to forget him. That’s what would hurt the most, if he was forgotten. We had him for 18 years, and all the things he did in such a short space of time, I just don’t want him to be forgotten.”