Fondly remembering former T.O. mayor Rob Ford

Rob Ford did not do things quietly.


A trip to the hockey game, fast food restaurant, local pub or even TV talk show seemed to always make big news headlines.

Even his funeral had thousands walking behind his hearse from city hall to the church where even his fiercest political opponents lined up to get inside to say goodbye.

“Rob was larger then life,” says his widow Renata, remembering her husband who died of cancer a year ago Wednesday.

Time marches on but things in Toronto definitely seemed to become a little quieter after March 22, 2016.

Love him, and many did, the former mayor stole the attention of every room he entered. Hate him, and many did, they could not wait for him to exit.

But there is one thing friend and foe, critics and supporters, do not dispute about the mayor from 2010 to 2014.

“He loved Toronto,” said Renata. “And he was a proud Canadian.”

Every bit of both.

And he loved being out in the city as both the mayor and as a councillor, which he was for a decade prior to becoming mayor and which he became again after pulling out of the 2014 campaign facing the news that he had cancer.

He loved helping people.

The headlines and interest in videos about his addictions are gone. So is the cat and mouse game of political opponents and media trying to force him from office. But also gone is his style of street politics. The style of calling every person back and saving every possible taxpayer buck.

Foreign trade and travel trips are back in vogue. Big budgets and construction cost overruns are yawned at again.

Political correctness is back with a vengeance.

And many say the personal touch of a mayor calling a constituent concerned about an unplowed street is not what it was.

“They miss his passion for them and for what he believed,” said Renata.

He believed every tax dollar was sacred and not to be wasted or squandered.

Yes, he had personal demons. And yes, he took too long to seek help.

However, what is lost in Rob Ford’s story is that he did tackle his alcohol and drug issues and at the time of his death he was two years clean and sober.

“Had he got through the cancer the next phase of his life would have been talking to kids and young people about just what addiction can do,” Phil Zullo told me recently. “He really wanted to take his story to the kids so they would not make the same mistake.”

Phil knows this because he’s one of the reasons Rob did get his act straightened around. People in sports know Phil because he’s a trainer for professional athletes or those who aspire to be. He’s so good at his job that former NHL players hire him to work with their kids.

He teaches discipline and diet and lifestyle. Rob, at the heart of it all, was a football coach. They became close.

Zullo met Ford up at the Greenstone rehab facility in Muskoka where he helped get patients into shape. They became friends. If only they had met before.

“Rob was an inspiration to everybody,” Zullo told me, as we sat outside the funeral at St. James Cathedral almost a year ago.

That is the thing about Rob that a lot of those who don’t like him don’t understand. If you knew him personally, you couldn’t despise him as so many tried to encourage. He had a gregarious, caring style about him and was genuinely interested in people. He tried hard to remember people’s names and their circumstances and he was as good at that as any politician.

He was also a political wizard who didn’t hold grudges. A socially generous fiscal conservative.

His favourite task as mayor was helping tenants in social housing improve their lives.

Personal failures aside, he had an everyman quality about him. You could get mad at something he did or said but you couldn’t stay mad at him.

“The people that knew him, knew he was a good man,” said Renata.

She doesn’t argue that he was flawed. But everybody is. Not everybody has investigative reporters, police and social media keeping track of their every move as Ford did.

There was less focus on his many achievements — mostly in keeping the city running for less cost to the taxpayer.

“Like him or not he did a lot a of good for the city, especially giving interest to Toronto and city politics,” said Renata.

But as a husband and as a father, she said, he was great too. She describes the last two years of his life, much of it battling cancer, as special because they were able to connect again and bond as a family.

She says their children Stephanie and Dougie cherish their father’s memory.

He is “missed by his family and his friends,” she says. “He may not be with us physically but his spirit lives on in the people who love him.”

A year has passed since his death and although not as loud as it once was, the memory of Rob Ford is still making noise in the city of Toronto.

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