THE VIOLENT DEATH OF PADDY DONOVAN
THE HUMAN CONDITION
Why does a sensitive 18-year-old from a middle-class home take a sawed-off shotgun and hold up a bank?
IN THE CIRCUMSTANCES the family decided it should be a quiet funeral, but even so about 50 people, maybe more, turned up at the 125-year-old sandstone Church of Our Lady Of The Visitation set back off the highway in the Ontario village of South Gloucester. The Donovans live in the parish but rarely use the church, preferring one nearer to Ottawa. But you have to bury your dead in your own churchyard, and Maureen and Gerry Donovan found it almost comfortingly impersonal to have Paddy buried by a strange priest who knew how he died — who didn’t? — but not how he lived.
Monday, July 28, 4 p.m. The family arrived, sombre dresses for the women and mostly token black ties for the men, who moved with the weary heaviness — a sort of walking sigh — common to men at funerals. There were two distinct groups of friends. There were the older people, friends of the family but set apart from them because that kind of grief cannot be shared by outsiders. Then there were the young people, Paddy’s friends, 10 teenage boys and one bespectacled, pretty-plain brown-haired girl. There is an incongruity about seeing teenagers, even aging ones, silent and inactive in tidily subdued suits, long hair neatly curried. Death is a part of man’s estate to which the young should come late, and as if they felt this
Photography by ARNAUD MAGGS they stood at the back of the church, their faces pallid with the light from the narrow, yellow-glass windows in each wall.
“He was devoutly agnostic and he said once that instead of a funeral he wanted people to throw a great party. He said,
‘I guess I want a million people there saying how neat I was.’ ” Bob Osborn,
19, carroty haired, son of a lieutenant - colonel, lives near Gloucester High School, where he went to school with Paddy. He says that it’s wrong, what everyone says, that Paddy was a loner with few friends. “It’s just that he had rejected The System — didn't want any part of it — and that he was very, very selective in his friends.
Me and John — John Leavitt — and Paddy were very close. He knew he could talk to us, or not talk, and still be understood. The high-school Joes will probably sneer, but if you are more intelligent than the average you know it, and you are set apart from the crowd. Paddy was a very special person, and he knew it -— he was quite conceited about his brain, really — and he sought out others like him.”
When Bob Osborn — Oz — and John Leavitt talk about Paddy Donovan now, they sound almost idolatrous. But ► then, Paddy was exceptional. In a world custom-tailored for the average, he had the misfortune and, later, the courage, not to be (though his mother suspects that for years he deliberately kept his marks down so he wouldn’t stand out from the crowd). Teachers talk of Paddy as a mind “able to think for itself.” School was easy, too easy perhaps, and after a shiftless grade-13 year he had just been accepted by the University of Toronto, where competition is tough, for the arts-andsciences course he considered a prelude to studying law. He could play the guitar like a professional, and was once elected Head Boy of Gloucester High on what teachers remember as an “antiEstablishment” platform — though most of them can only remember that he advocated turning the teachers’ lounge into a student recreation room.
PADDY DONOVAN continued
‘My son would not have shot the policeman-he was a good hoy*
Two men stood totally apart, and spoke to no one. Other mourners thought they were the detectives, Thomas Bowles and Leonard deGrandpré, and so, as the ritual mass wound on and minds wandered, these men in grey inspired much speculation. Would the police inquiry clear them? What did they think, knowing there was a boy of 18 in the coffin and that they had killed him, shot him because (they said) he had grabbed for the sawed-off shotgun he was carrying in his guitar case along with the $6,900 stolen by two robbers minutes earlier from the Imperial Bank of Commerce at Shoppers’ City plaza next door to his high school?
Later, it turned out the men weren’t the detectives and the speculation had been idle.
“I’m glad he was caught. He broke the law and when you do that you should be punished. He knew that. He was taught that by his dad and me all his life.” Maureen Donovan, his mother, is 40 and after eight children (six living, one stillborn, one killed by police) she remains a handsome woman. She’s wept a lot over her eldest, but mostly in private, and she harbors no bitterness about the law or the detectives or the society that — somehow — made Gerald Patrick (Paddy) Donovan turn armed bank robber. There is, however, much anguish about the things she doesn’t understand.
“I don’t understand almost any of it, but I really don’t understand the guns.
And as for trying to shoot the policeman . . . Paddy wouldn’t have shot him, you know. When this sort of thing happens you can’t be sure of anything any more, but I am sure of that. He couldn’t have shot him.
“I know all parents say it, but he was a good boy. Some kids are all mixed up with drugs and drink, and he was mixed up, too, but not like that. In fact, he was a nut about physical fitness and he used to make sure I had enough protein in the food. If I gave him macaroni-and-cheese, I had to add tuna to it because he didn’t think it would have enough protein otherwise.
“It’s not that we can’t understand why he would do it. We can’t believe he would do it. It just goes round and round in your head until you think you’re going mad.
“Yes, I know they talk about him rejecting The System. I don’t know about that, though he didn’t like us not being able to build a new house after working and saving for years just because of mortgage-company rules. But you’ve got to live with the system. You can’t change it. We’ve always believed in work, and maybe that was wrong, too.
We always said if you don’t get your grade 13 you are useless to society and you can’t get a good job. Paddy always wanted to go to university, but we were always short of money and it wasn’t until this June that we knew we couldn’t build the new house and could help him. He applied too late for the scholarships, but he thought he could earn enough playing his guitar.”
Maureen and Gerry Donovan knelt at the front, near the altar and the life-size alabaster-white figure of Christ on the Cross, their six remaining children beside them. This service would be the only farewell to Paddy. There would be no wake, and only a couple of very close relatives had first gone to the old house on Limebank Road — the home more than 10 miles from downtown Ottawa, which the Donovans, childhood sweethearts from an Ottawa city street, had bought 18 years ago so they could raise their children in the clean, healthy air of the country. Since at that time only Paddy had been born, it was for him they moved. It had been too small a house for some years: three bedrooms, a big living room, combination kitchen-anddining room and nine people. In winter it grows really cramped.
They were all in the same pew now. The four girls, Jamie, 17, and Stephen, nine. Gerry Donovan, deep-furrowed bald plate proffered to the altar and with this new worry, looking older than 43, gazed down at the hands that could never be entirely free of the grease in which a mechanic constantly works. Beside Gerry, Maureen trembled. Alongside her was Stephen. Was he really too young to understand? Perhaps he was thinking about his tree.
Each Donovan child has a tree in the garden — except Stephen. The four girls each have a poplar. The half-grown weeping willow at the left-hand corner was planted by Paddy, and the night before the robbery Paddy carefully took a cutting from his willow and put it to soak so that, after a week or so, Stephen could plant it. Paddy liked kids. He used to say, in those 2 a.m. talks teenagers are addicted to, that “society is a lost battle because kids grow up like their parents.” Once he wrote in a notebook: “Just do what you want, but don’t do the children. Help yourself, but don’t help the children. Eat what you want, but don’t eat the children.”
The car they stole was a blue 1967 Chevy. It scorched into the wasteland parking lot of Shoppers’ City, swirled around the western corner of the hangar-sized plaza building to stop at the bank. The robbers, heads shrouded in pillow cases, leaped out, crashed back the bank’s swing doors and stood menacing staff and eight customers, including a small child, with businesslike sawed-off shotguns. “Stand still. Put your hands above your heads.” They yelled loudly, perhaps in fear, perhaps to disguise their young voices. The child began crying. Unnoticed, Mary Langlois, a teller, pressed the button that gives the alarm at the police station several miles away.
It was 2.25 p.m. One robber stayed at the door, gun ready. The other took a green-plastic garbage bag to each of the two tellers, yelled at them to hurry up, kept yelling, “Don’t forget the hundreds.” Within 30, perhaps 40 seconds, they had gone, the Chevy’s tires squealing. At least 15 people had the license number. Two more gave tentative chase. Bank manager Joseph Chapman thought it over and said, “I know damn well that if anyone had pulled a gun on them in the bank, they would have shot someone.” He also said, “They had it well planned and carried it out extremely well.” In that planning, Paddy had visited the bank a day earlier to gossip with a clerk, a former classmate. Answering the radio call, Detectives Bowles and deGrandpré passed a blue Chevy as it headed toward the National Research Council. At the bank, they got the description and went looking for that Chevy. They found it abandoned in the Research Council parking lot. They saw two kids, the bearded one carrying a guitar case, just miss the 2.30 bus for downtown Ottawa. They watched the kids go to the gatehouse to wait for the next bus. It didn’t seem very likely, but there was no one else to question, so . . .
continued on page 53
PADDY DONOVAN continued
'He seemed to want to make sure that people would remember him*
Later, when she thought of it, Maureen Donovan was pleasantly surprised that so many neighbors had attended the funeral, because they had had so little to do with them, there being little in common between farmers and a city mechanic and his family. But halfway down the church was Mrs. Gordon, wife of farmer Burton Gordon for whom Paddy had worked two summers. Mrs. Burton was there because Paddy had, after all, eaten with them, and had baby-sat and played his guitar for the children. And she always remembered the day he had fallen from the hay wagon and had rolled to the centre underneath so that the wagon passed safely over him instead of killing him. “I had it planned, Mrs. Gordon,” he explained quietly. “I had thought of what I would do if I fell off, so when I did, I knew just how to save my life.”
Depending on who you were and what your problems were and what he thought of you, Paddy Donovan appeared to walk alone, or be aloof, or shy or even damned arrogant. “He had a quiet voice and when you met him, you’d probably think him a nonentity, but anyone who knew him would give him a triple-A for character, intelligence, friendliness — those kinds of qualities,” says history teacher John Reeder. He was five-foot-10, bespectacled, brown-haired, with an air of abstraction, or detachment or, some say, melancholy. In the last six months, he wore a beard, which he kept as neatly trimmed as his hair. His mother was proud of that.
Lately, he had also developed some disconcerting habits. Bob Osborn says he might walk up to someone and place a
hand on his chest and just stare at him to see who broke the silence first. Lately, he had another trick on meeting people, contemporaries at least. He would set his face in a false grin and make his eyes bulge and give a laugh that was more of a bellow, and finish it by sucking his breath in with a drawn-out sobbing sound. “He seemed to want to make sure people remembered him, even if they didn’t like him,” says Bob Osborn. “He came on repulsive, and if they liked him after that he figured they could put up with him being normal.”
In his last year, he caught the school bus at 7.15 a.m. every day, just as he always had, and rode the 14 miles to Gloucester High. But he actually went into the school only one or two days a week: grade-13 students have freedom of choice. Paddy chose to sit and talk in the Shoppers’ City cafeteria (“He was a nice kid, not fresh or anything,” says a waitress), or he went to the city library, or he might ride a bus to the Sparks Street Mall in downtown Ottawa and hang around with the hippies who haunt the place. “He thought being a hippie was stupid,” say his friends. In the end, his year’s school work was so good he was given a 72.8 average and not required to write exams. “He didn't do a damned stroke of work,” says one teacher.
“He wasn’t alienated, just turned off from the system,” says history teacher Reeder. “He was an outstanding student. For instance, most kids of his age are slaves to the facts, but he was intelligent and mature enough to make the facts serve him and relate the material to the world and himself.”
That may explain the respect, even awe, that most of his peers had for him. “High school is a way of life, and what you do and who you know there is all-absorbing,” explains Bob Osborn. Paddy read anything and everything — Nietzsche to gaudy-covered paperbacks about motorcycle gangs. “His ideas might sound old-hat to a lot of people,” says John Leavitt. “But somehow the way he expressed them was unique.
Look, if there were 400 religions, he’d probably read about them all and have an idea about the 401st that he wanted to start, taking a bit of all the others.”
Paddy wrote a remarkably detailed study of the harmonics of a guitar string for a physics project, and dreamed of doing a “wheelie” on the old motorcycle he drove in a field near his house. A “wheelie” is rearing the machine up on
its back wheel, and a good wheelie is being able to drive it in this position while going through the gears.
In grade-12 literature he was in a so-called Non-Contributors’ Group, 15 boys considered hard to teach because of their “attitude.” They were taught separately. Their first seminar lesson was with English-department head Glen Pettinger. Paddy made Pettinger so angry that he recalls it as an incident in which “I got so mad I damn nearly hit the boy.” Instead, he ordered him out ol the room. Bob Osborn says, “Pettinger’s lucky. I thought Paddy was going to hit him. He could have flattened him, with his karate, but he didn’t. He never used it.” Paddy would learn karate from a book, practise, then conduct the Gloucester High karate class after school.
Jamie Donovan — a year younger, a little taller and more gregarious than his brother had been — stood with his family in church and felt part of them again, more than he had since he quit school and left home a few months earlier because, as his mother put it, “we were getting on one another’s nerves.” He thought of Paddy, and he thought of the guitar.
He remembered that Paddy had wanted so badly a year or so ago to go off and make a living playing his guitar, but he had compromised and let his parents and friends persuade him to stay at school. Once, when the brothers had been talking, Paddy had said, “Why not go to university, as long as I can keep on playing? School work is fairly easy for me. I can probably get a degree without much trouble.” As Jamie saw it, the trouble was that no one — adults particularly — could understand that Paddy didn’t want anything he hadn’t got, except, perhaps, a bike. Their parents couldn’t understand how anyone would not want to go to university and be a lawyer or doctor or something, and Paddy wanted his parents to be proud of him.
As Jamie had told their friends, this business about Paddy being a rebel against The System had been exaggerated. He simply had a big thing about people being free to be themselves and not have to fit into some arbitrary structure or scheme of things. It wasn’t that he wanted to change the world; he just didn’t want to be part of it. He was different, and wanted to stay that way. He ► hadn’t even bothered to go see The Graduate.
PADDY DONOVAN continued
He wrote many songs but he never wrote one about being happy
The first guitar had been almost a toy; the second, a $39 music-store special; the third — two years ago — a $175 Epiphone. He taught himself to play so well that he gave lessons to earn money, and sometimes played at Le Hibou Coffee House on Ottawa’s Sussex Drive. He could play folk, classical, flamenco or jazz. His achievement in learning the guitar demonstrated a remarkable persistence. He wanted to ski—and taught himself with an old pair of skis from once-a-week lessons in the newspaper.
As a puny 16-year-old, he set up a rigorous program of body-building, and he died a fine physical specimen. He would learn a new piece of guitar music by playing a record, one or two bars at a time, painstakingly reproducing the sound on his own instrument. He wrote a lot of his own songs, many of them about loneliness and yesterday being gone forever, and heartache. Maureen Donovan says that it’s a difficult time, the teens. It is, she says, also hell on the parents. She says she couldn’t have understood Paddy as well as she thought she did, “but it takes two to communicate, and we tried.”
English teacher Glen Pettinger: “I admired his aloneness, his ability to be an individual and not accept group values and conformity. He had the courage to think things out and go his own way. His whole behavior had an arrogance about it, a complete rejection of the social values that are accepted. High schools, you know, are tailored for the average, which Paddy wasn’t.
Perhaps that will always be a problem.
He was, to the staff, an irritating enigma.”
One of Paddy’s songs was called Test Tube Cities—RIP, and went:
Young man, breathe while you can And if you can, save some air for me, If you please come rescue me— ƒ get so lonely, and that’s no way to be.
So far as anyone knows, Paddy never wrote a song about being happy.
He used to talk about his ideal girl; he called her Miranda, or sometimes Melissa. “She was a beautiful girl with a good mind, who understood him and loved him. He could talk to her,” says Jamie. He didn't have much to do with girls. Meri Dalkowski, now at university, says, “He hung around with a crowd that
didn’t have much time for girls: they thought they had better things to do.”
But there was a glossy blonde cut out of a toothpaste ad pinned inside Paddy’s school locker. He said it was his Melissa, or at least what Melissa would look like.
Gerry and Maureen Donovan had never met Sonja Hogue, the pretty-plain girl with spectacles and brown hair, so that when she cried, standing there at the rear of the church, it was something of a mystery to them. Sonja herself was surprised. The thing between Paddy and herself had lasted only three months and had ended nine months earlier, when an old flame came back to town to claim her affection.
She had always thought Paddy didn’t want people to know him because he was afraid of being hurt. Like lots of boys, he had carried a knife he was proud of, but had thrown it away when she objected to it. He did a lot of things for effect, as when he and his friend Randy Graham ordered $10 worth of food in the Arcadia Restaurant, then paid for it and walked out without touching it, saying, “Send it to Biafra.” He once planned to work hard, be Gloucester High's top boy and tear up his diploma in front of the convocation to show them what he thought of it. He changed his mind and thought that maybe he wouldn’t tear it up because he wanted his parents to be proud of him. Once he explained the sudden acquisition of the price of a movie by saying he had sold a bag of pot, but she knew he didn’t smoke it — though he’d tried it; who hadn’t?
Another time he said, “I could walk away from you right now and it wouldn’t bother me.” She had said, “Why don’t you then?” And he’d slouched along a bit in silence and said, “I can't. I don’t know why I said that.”
Standing there in black, Sonja remembered the little thing she had with Paddy when conversation lagged. He would say, “Yes, well . . . ,” and she would reply, “But ...” He would say, “On the other hand . . . ,” and she would reply, “Four fingers and two thumbs,” and then they would both break up.
It was Jamie who told his mother that the girl who cried was an old flame of Paddy's. It had upset him when she broke it off, but then last spring she had called Paddy and they had gone out on a date again. But Paddy didn’t call her back.
Jamie said that he thought Paddy’s song Melissa might have had something to do with Sonja Hogue.
The last time I saw Melissa she didn’t even say hello
1 guess I tried too hard to forget her
— / left her much too long ago
It still don’t feel right to be lonely, but that’s how it’s got to be It’s lonely without Melissa at my side
— she don’t even remember me
I can remember the days beside the river
When for her pleasure the sun shone; It’s too bad the sunshine don’t mean much any more Melissa is dead and gone.
The question Why? haunted the funeral, as it will haunt the Donovans for the rest of their lives. Father Michael Hurtubise felt it, and when the Mass ended and he turned to speak about the dear departed he said, a little lamely, “There is mystery in everything.”
It was to the parents, the adults that Father Hurtubise was speaking. They didn't understand at the time, they don’t now and they never will. Perhaps the Why? is that generation gap that people on both sides of it are forever talking about. The local police chief talks about “the question that will remain unanswered in 1,000 years, just as no one knows the reason for the pointless violence all around us now.”
But on the kids’ side there is less uncertainty. Some even talk of the robbery with awe. What’s so wrong with robbing a bank? “Morally, it’s indefensible, but, intellectually, robbing a bank is a very pure act of rebellion,” says Henry Makow, who left Gloucester High a year ago. And after all, Paddy nearly made it. At least, the kids say he would have if that bus had been late leaving the Research Council parking lot, as it usually is. Jamie, his brother, Randy Graham, his friend, and Sonja, the girl, can all readily picture Paddy plotting the perfect crime, then being impelled to find out whether the plan would work.
“It is not for us to understand everything,” said Father Hurtubise. “There are times when the more we try to understand, the less we do.”
At the grave, as the coffin was being lowered, it began to rain, so Father Hurtubise cut things short and everyone hurried for the cars and drove away. □