Bob Russell was passionate, outspoken; 'He didn't let a second go to waste'

After nearly six decades of public service in St. Albert, the outspoken and sometimes galvanizing Bob Russell died at 91 years old on Aug. 31.

Bob spent more than a decade on St. Albert city council, wrapping up his last term in 2017. But he never quite took his sights off a council seat and ran for mayor last year at the age of 90.

Bob’s first mention in the St. Albert Gazette was in 1965 when he joined the St. Albert and District Recreation Centre Committee.

Bob’s son, Robert Russell, said he remembers as a kid his dad lobbying city hall to build an indoor pool, the first one in St. Albert, in the early 1970s.

To help make a splash with city council, Bob and a few neighbours entered the St. Albert parade with his wife Joanne’s convertible pulling a trailer, which represented the swimming pool, Robert said.

“Two of the neighbours sat in the ‘pool’ with old fashioned swim gear on with pails and threw out candy instead of water,” Robert said.

Eventually from the lobbying efforts of Bob and others in the community, Grosvenor Pool was built, Robert said.

Sheena Hughes, who served with Bob on council during his last term, after he won the by-election and sat on council from 2016-2017, said the man lived many lives during his 91 years on earth.

“He actually lived like five lifetimes,” said Hughes.

Bob served as the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party; president of the Big Lake Environment Support Society; was an advocate for seniors through Seniors United Now; helped bring the St. Albert Saints to the city; helped hand out scholarships for years for the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL); and sang in his church choir. Bob was the founder of the St. Albert radio station CKST, which started broadcasting in 1978 out of Mission Ridge Plaza on McKenney Avenue.

When not volunteering in the community, Bob worked as a relator, in airline operations, in marketing and public relations, and went back to school in his 70s to become a paralegal. Bob was known for his beautiful garden where he grew many varieties of tomatoes and fuchsia plants.

In his youth he played junior hockey and won the Canadian welterweight boxing title during his last year of high school.

“He loved his wife, he loved politics, he loved gardening, and he loved helping people. Those were the four things that kind of kept him going and he revolved all of his life around that,” Hughes said.

Bob never slowed down.

"He never saw his age as a deterrent,” said Hughes.

Bob was born in 1930 in California where his father, a First World War veteran, was taking a course. The family moved to a farm in B.C. where Bob lived until he was 14. Soon the family was moving again, this time to Lethbridge, to be near their father who was serving in the Second World War, posted as a guard at a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Neither of Bob’s parents were involved in politics when they were young, Bob told The Gazette in 2012, but their dinner-table conversations were always focused on community engagement.

"I have four siblings and we're all politically active. My dad was a world traveller who served in two world wars. My sister's an NDPer in Vancouver. We had squabbles, absolutely, but we still love each other,” Bob said in 2012.

In 1949 Bob was offered a position to play hockey in Whitehorse, but declined in favour of a job at Canadian Pacific Airlines. Bob spent the next few years working in the operations side of the airline industry and the job eventually took him to Vancouver.

While in Vancouver, Bob met his wife Joanne and they were married in 1954.

Joanne was the great love of his life, Hughes said.

“I don't know if there has been a man that has been as devoted to his wife as he was,” said Hughes.

“His devotion to his wife was second to none.”

In 1963 the Russell family moved to St. Albert and bought their house in Grandin for $17,000, where the pair lived out their lives. The Russells had three kids: Robert, Teresa, and David.

Bob was a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada and the politico first rose to prominence after running to be the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party in 1966, but he was defeated by Calgary Lawyer Adrian Berry. In 1970, Bob was eventually elected to the position, but had run the year before and lost to Jack Lowery of Calgary.

During the 1967 election Bob ran in the St. Albert riding for the Liberals but finished second of four candidates, some 572 votes behind the Social Credit candidate.

In the 1971 election Bob led the provincial party, but they didn’t win a single seat in the race, with Bob finishing third in St. Albert. Bob resigned from the leadership in 1974.

Although he lost many elections through his years, Bob never wavered from the Liberal Party.

"I once had an invitation to join the Conservatives. I couldn't do it. I will say, though, that I thought Lougheed did a good job, but philosophically I'm Liberal," Bob told The Gazette in 2013.

Richard Plain, a friend of Bob's, said it takes a lot of dedication to public service to be active in politics for as long as Bob was.

“It tends to be a commitment to policy and policy directions,” said Plain.

Bob went on to serve five terms on city council through his life, sometimes polarizing many in the community with his views.

Hughes said she and Bob disagreed on many issues, but it still didn’t stop the two from forming a friendship.

“He didn't define himself based on popular opinion of the day,” Hughes said.

“I think that was one of the big things that brought Bob brought to the table, especially the municipal level, where it's easier for you to voice your opinion.”

Sometimes Bob’s opinions would get him in hot water, Hughes said, and he would say things to get himself in trouble with city administration.

“There was no stopping the man from being who he was,” Hughes said.

In 2012, former mayor Paul Chalifoux spoke to The Gazette about Bob, saying he admired Bob's tenaciousness when he took on a cause, but said he found working with Bob to be a challenge when they were on opposite sides of issues.

"Once he adopted a cause he was aggressive in bringing it forward and sticking with it. I credit his focus and doggedness, even though I didn't agree with him. If you disagreed with Bob, it was a challenging situation," Chalifoux said in 2012.

Chalifoux died in 2017.

While on council, Bob would advocate for “common sense” approaches. Hughes said.

But while he might have been polarizing, Plain said Bob was a great at getting his point across.

“Bob had a talent for being able to write good letters. He was a communicator,” Plain said.

Through his life in St. Albert, Bob was known for writing passionate letters to The Gazette sharing his thoughts and opinions on what was happening in the community.

He was tirelessly dedicated to his job. During his last term on council, Bob had trouble with his hip and was in pain. In the end he needed to have hip surgery and was slated to be off for six weeks.

"That whole time he was basically in excruciating pain and just kept going anyway. It never slowed him down. He had the surgery. The doctor gave him six weeks off work. He went back after two. He was back at the council meeting. He was not about to miss six weeks,” Hughes said.

Bob’s passion for the environment led him to serve a term as president of Big Lake Environmental Support Society (BLESS), according to friend Miles Constable.

During Bob’s time at BLESS, the city was moving forward with building what is now known as Ray Gibbon Drive.

“Bob took this to heart. He really didn't think that the road alignment was going to be very good for St. Albert,” Constable said.

Many environmentalists at the time were concerned with the road cutting into the Big Lake area and disrupting the wildlife. Bob expressed concerns with the noise and road itself disrupting the delicate wetlands.

Bob was so passionate about the issue that he ran to be president of BLESS in the early 2000s and spent the three-year term combing over the environmental impact assessment of Ray Gibbon Drive, Constable said.

“Bob put a lot of work into it. He reviewed, line by line, environmental impact assessments and responses. He rewrote and crafted documents and so he spent a lot of time on that,” Constable said.

In the end BLESS was only partly successful in their endeavour, Constable said. The bridge was moved north on the river, as opposed to the original alignment, which put it through where the BLESS platform is today.

Bob’s passion for the environment didn’t stop after his term with BLESS. Constable said the organization always had a friendly ear on council when Bob held a seat.

In an interview with The Gazette in 2012, Bob said if he could change one thing about St. Albert, it would be to protect the river.

"I'd look after the Sturgeon River. We're still not protecting it. I'd like to think we could have a beautiful lake again as there was 100 years ago, before they started cutting down trees,” Bob said.

When Bob wasn’t duking it out in the political arena, he was known for being a pioneer in the garden.

Plain, who is a passionate gardener, knew Bob through his gardening.

“Bob was a stalwart in St. Albert Garden Club for many, many years. He was outstanding in his own right,” Plain said.

Bob was known for having a “glorious” collection of fuchsias and a wide variety of tomatoes.

“They were treated with love and affection and I'm sure with careful administration from Joanne from time to time,” Plain said.

Bob was a pioneer, Plain said, and ahead of his time in terms of composting, using recycled materials, and making his garden as productive as it could be.

For many years Bob volunteered as a mentor in the community gardens and would always enter the annual garden club show in the foyer of St. Albert Place, arriving with an array of vegetables.

Robert said he shared his father's love of gardening and would often help him in the yard.

“My brother and I and gave him a hand planting all the bulbs. He probably had 30 or 40 tomato plants,” Robert said.

Bob also had two greenhouses in his yard, including a solarium off the back of the house, and a seasonal greenhouse built off his garage.

The Russells loved to garden together, and Bob would save cuttings from his plants every year to propagate new ones for the spring. He and his wife loved fuchsias so much that at one point they had so many varieties they would pack them up in the fall and store them over the winter at a greenhouse near Devon, Robert said.

And Bob’s love of gardening was spread to the community. Plain said he had a garden party every year to show off his beautiful garden to his friends.

“Bob had a green thumb from the get-go and helped maintain and sustain that interest throughout the community and then I'm sure would be doing it to this day if he were still here,” Plain said.

Bob was passionate about junior hockey and was part of the group that helped form the St. Albert Saints.

In 1984 Bob helped to start a scholarship program for all Alberta Junior Hockey League players. He remained committed to the program for most of his life. In 1980 Bob was the AJHL’s vice-president and he helped create what would later become the Friends Society.

By 1983 an agreement was reached between the Friends and Alberta Advanced Education to work with the Heritage Scholarship Program to develop a hockey scholarship program.

The first AJHL scholarships were $500 and they were awarded in 1984. Individuals and businesses provided money for the scholarships before the society was formed and registered on Aug. 1, 1985, with Bob as the charter president. The first event to raise funds was a raffle, which generated $4,200.

Through the years, the program has gone on to provide more than $500,000 in scholarships, and in recent years the program has expanded to include AJHL alumni, trainers, on-ice officials, and current players.

Bob was also known for helping players and their families navigate colleges and universities in the United States, until it became so overwhelming that the organization hired a part-time staff member to help.

In 2010, Bob was honoured by the AJHL for his contributions to the league and the scholarship program.

Now most of the money for the scholarships comes from casino nights, and Bob continued to volunteer for those events when they came around.

Bob’s volunteer work was extensive. He received the Queen's Jubilee Medal for his public service. In 1984 he helped to organize the Papal visit.

When Bob wasn’t volunteering in the community, he was spending time with his family.

While none of Bob’s three children ever ventured into the political realm, Bob and his wife Joanne supported the three kids in their passions, Robert said.

The kids loved downhill skiing, a hobby they picked up from an uncle. Joanne and Bob would shuttle their three kids across the province for ski competitions, Robert said, always volunteering to man one of the gates.

The family would often take big ski vacations together, especially when Bob’s grandchildren were younger. The whole crew would go out to Fernie or Big White.

“Mom and dad were in their glory because they could ski for a bit and then hang out with the grandkids,” Robert said.

Bob's and Joanne’s ski boots were so old they shattered on the hill as they were skiing.

“The ski boot has a plastic shell and it broke apart. I think my dad's boots, we taped them up, and [for] my mum we had to rent boots,” Robert said.

When they were skiing Bob would wear coveralls instead of ski pants when he went cruising down the hill. He affectionately known as "Alberta Bob" because of his attire.

Bob remained active in the community and continued working as a paralegal until his death on Aug. 30.

Hughes said Bob was also keen on helping people through his work, rather than to just do a job, which kept him working until his final days.

When Bob ran for mayor in 2021, facing off against incumbent Cathy Heron, he said he had heard many voice dissatisfaction about city council’s transparency.

“The in-camera meetings are bothering people,” Bob said in 2021. “So are the plans for the solar farm.”

Bob also wanted to make sure smaller homes were built in St. Albert for a variety of income levels. He also pursued a Municipal Planning Commission to allow for more transparency when it came to development in the city.

Last year Bob nominated fellow St. Albert resident Bob Lane for a community recognition award for his work co-founding BLESS and for helping to create Lois Hole Park. Lane died in May 2021.

“Right to the very end he [was] busy nominee people for awards,” Hughes said.

The councillor said Bob never let the idea of slowing down even cross his mind. He appreciated the life he had.

“This is a man that definitely did not take life for granted. He didn't take time for granted. He didn't take his family for granted,” Hughes said.

“I’m just glad that he could contribute right to the very end. He didn’t let a second go [to waste],” said Hughes.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette