He loved the lake, and wanted authorities to mark or remove a large dangerous stump just offshore
Robert Case was born in Windsor, Ont., on March 7,1959, and grew up on Ducharme Street, in the city’s south end. He was a spoiled boy, probably because he was a late baby, born 14 years after his brother Gerald, and 17 years after his sister Sharon, to Alvin, a milkman who later became a police officer, and Opal, a homemaker. As a boy, Rob had flaxen hair and bright blue eyes. Although they later became estranged, he was Sharon’s darling. Rob graduated from Kennedy Collegiate Institute, on Tecumseh Road in central Windsor, where he played varsity baseball for the Clippers.
His heart, though, belonged to engines. He was always interested in fixing anything mechanical.
After high school, at 18 (about the same time his hair began to turn grey), Rob started working for a parts manufacturer, E.R. St.
Denis and Sons Inc., which supplied the Big Three automakers.
Often he was away from the shop, across the Detroit River at Ford’s Wayne Stamping & Assembly Plant or the Michigan Truck Plant. When Jaguar began installing car hoods made by E.R. St. Denis, Rob once travelled to England, a country he found weird, but beautiful.
Rob met Grace Ward, who was living in Detroit, on a bowling date in 1970 when they were both 21.
Grace already had two daughters—
Christina, who was just a baby, and Carrie, who was 4—from an unhappy first union. She and Rob lived together for years because Grace was leery of getting married again. Rob had always dreamed of living on nearby Lake St. Clair, a small body of water between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. In 1987, he and Grace bought a little house with front windows that faced the lake. His friend Pat Campeau, a construction and demolition worker, calls Rob the “king of the lake.” He knew every inch of the waterway, especially where the muskie, perch and pickerel could be found. He was happiest out on the water, says Jeff Gault, another close friend. “He liked it cold. He liked it warm. He liked it raining.” And if he could bring his dog along, all the better.
Rob’s dog was named Toby. He was a treeing walker coonhound with a white coat punctuated by large brown and black patches. For years, wherever Rob went—splitting wood, watching NASCAR on TV, cleaning his workbench in the garage or fishing on the lake— Toby followed. As Rob reeled fish out of the water, Toby would lean over the side of the Sylvan aluminum boat, snatch them in his
mouth and pull them up in his teeth. If Toby grew tired while they were out together, as he often did toward the end of his 16 years, Rob would pick him up and carry him home.
In 2002, after her daughters were grown, Grace finally agreed to marry Rob. Because she knew him as a casual dresser who usually wore a camouflage ball cap, Grace remembers being impressed with the effort he made on their wedding day. He walked into the Belle River United Church wearing black pants, a black dress shirt, and a white rose boutonniere. He was “a damn good man,” she says, and
always treated her daughters, who visited regularly from the U.S., like they were his own.
Since Grace and Rob were born 13 days apart, they celebrated their birthdays together. For the past few years, this meant dinner for two at Pickles Pub & Bakery in nearby St. Joachim, where they could get 20-cent wings on Tuesday nights. Rob didn’t care for expensive dinners, but he loved cooking over an open fire in his backyard Dutch oven or on the barbecue, often frying up a big batch of perch he’d just caught.
Three years ago, Grace says, a massive stump washed up on a sandbar several hundred metres behind their home. Its presence annoyed Rob. From the day he first saw it, Rob repeatedly called the Essex Region Conservation Authority, a local body that manages the county’s natural resources, and asked them to remove it. “That can’t stay in the lake,” Rob told them, according to Grace. “It’s too big. We’ll have kids on Jet Skis getting killed. Paint it orange. Do something.” But ERCA said it didn’t have the funds to remove it, Grace recalls. ERCA says stump removal along the shore is not its responsibility.
After Toby died nine months ago, Rob, who started work every morning at 7 sharp, began taking on overtime, sometimes putting in 15or 16-hour days and often working seven-day stretches. There were always bills to pay. “We had just got all caught up this month,” says Grace. Rob had the time to go riding on his 1986 Ski-Doo Formula he called “Never Enough.”
Friday, Feb. 2, was crisp and cold. “It was the kind of cold that would bite you,” says Grace. The snow was hard-packed and felt like cement when Rob and Jeff rode off, side by side, to take one more turn around the lake just before midnight. Rob drove right into the stump. He was flung from the snowmobile and died on the ice.
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