‘A different era’ ends with Paddy
The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, January 26, 2007
Byline: Ron Corbett
Column: Ron Corbett
Source: The Ottawa Citizen (reprinted with permission)
The parking lot behind St. Anthony’s Soccer Club was crowded with cars yesterday, so many people had come to say goodbye to Paddy Mitchell.
There was a memorial service for the notorious bank robber at Pinecrest Cemetery at noon, then a reception at St. Anthony’s on Preston Street, where the Mitchell clan was raised in the 1940s and ’50s — seven brothers and sisters — with Paddy the youngest.
Anyway, you couldn’t find a parking spot at St. Anthony’s. That’s right, for a convicted bank robber who died in Leavenworth Prison 10 days ago, you couldn’t find a parking spot.
It’s almost a certainty someone will find this offensive and write a letter stating that Mr. Mitchell was a bank robber, a criminal, why in the world would so many people come to pay their last respects to such a man?
And those facts will be true. But come through the doors of St. Anthony’s for a moment (aren’t you curious?) and walk around with me a bit. That guy over there, that’s Jay Roberts, a tight end with the Ottawa Rough Riders between 1964 and 1970 (which gives him three Grey Cup rings.)
He met Paddy “in the day” when Ottawa was more a town than a city, and to know what was happening anywhere you only had to go to a few places. Top of the list was the Belle Claire Hotel on Queen Street.
“We had a table that Sam (Koffmann) kept for us,” remembers Mr. Roberts. “Paddy was one of the regulars at the table. What can I tell you? — he was a fun guy. I know what he did wasn’t right, but it wasn’t that odd in those days to know someone like Paddy.”
Sitting with Mr. Roberts is writer Brian Doyle. They trade Mitchell stories. Mr. Roberts continues to talk about the Belle Claire, telling me several times: “You have to remember, that was a different era.”
Go to the other side of the room and there’s Pinky Mitchell, one of Paddy’s older brothers, and according to many, the person all the news stories should have been written about. Toughest s.o.b. in the city. The undisputed middle-weight champion of the Canadian Forces for many years (which so annoyed the army [Mr. Mitchell was air force] that the army convinced Yvon Durelle to enlist for three months in 1957 just so he could fight Mr. Mitchell. The Fighting Fisherman won by a decision after the five-round fight, but only after being knocked from the ring in the last round.)
Pinky is 77, a grandfather, and you still don’t want to take a punch from him.
“It’s a good turnout for my brother,” he says, looking around the room at St. Anthony’s. “You know, Paddy was basically a good person. He just messed up his life.”
With those words, you have the dilemma of Paddy Mitchell. Is there really such a thing as a “Gentleman Robber?” How can you reconcile what Paddy Mitchell did with the man everyone says they knew?
Msgr. Len Lunney, who presided over the memorial service, seemed best at wrestling that question to the ground. When death approaches, he told the crowded room, human judgment starts to lose its power.
“In a given moment, human judgment will lose its power entirely,” said Msgr. Lunney. “It was never intended for us to be the judge. A life can become worthwhile, conversion can happen, in a second.
Come on, let’s go back to St. Anthony’s. You’re never going to see a crowd like this again.
See the guy over there — yeah him — he’s the one they say owned the cocaine that led to Paddy Mitchell’s first arrest, but Paddy never rolled on him. Paddy was sentenced to 20 years on a conspiracy charge, but he never rolled. The guy will tell you today that Paddy was a “stand-up guy.”
Over here is the son of a bankrobber Paddy once knew, and when the son was arrested for robbing a corner store in Ottawa, he received a letter from Leavenworth, telling him to stop being such an idiot. That guy over there, he was on the ’48 Olympic hockey team, the one that won a gold medal at St. Moritz.
See, it’s all muddy as hell, what you’re supposed to think about Paddy Mitchell. Throw in what seems like half the Ottawa Rough Riders from 1967, some retired journalists, some lawyers, firefighters, police officers — all saying what a great guy he was — and it gets worse.
Funniest thing, though, may be this: there was a time when we probably wouldn’t have thought about it so much. What to think of someone else. A time when there was a place like the Belle Claire and we didn’t live to pass judgment on people.
Let’s give the last word to his son:
“My dad never wanted people to lead the life he led,” says Kevin Mitchell, sitting with his two young sons at the back of the room. “He encouraged people to stay away from it. He died of cancer in Leavenworth, let’s not forget.
He turns his head and looks over the crowded room. More people are piling through the front doors and there is a traffic jam in the parking lot.
“I think a lot of these people just want to remember the old days,” says Mr. Mitchell. “We didn’t worry so much back then.”
Yes, it was a different era.