Terry Lee Pettigrew was born in Brandon, Man., on Sept. 7, 1952, the third of seven children, to Marvin, a brakeman for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Helen, a nurse. In search of employment, Marvin moved the family “like gypsies” across Canada, all the while teaching his boys to play board games, fish, skate and camp. Seven years later, seeking permanence, the Pettigrews returned to Brandon, Marvin’s hometown.
Terry was a happy-go-lucky toddler like his older twin brothers, Garry and Larry, but couldn’t leave his terrible twos behind. As he grew, so did his temper. One day, when seven-year-old Terry was playing with the neighbourhood kids, he got hold of a small camping hatchet and in a fit took after one of his friends. Soon after, he threatened a different kid, this time with a rock. Marvin and Helen were at their wits’ end. They called social services, who advised them to place Terry in a group home. “That was about the only recourse I had, was to do something terrible to get something good done,” says Marvin. “Awful thing to have to do to get help, isn’t it?” Terry was eight when he moved into the home, where he stayed until he was 18. During that time, he didn’t see his parents once, and, even years later, never spoke with them about his time there.
But if Terry went in troubled, he came out smiling. With his twinkling blue eyes, straw-blond hair and lithe frame—he stood about five-feet-eight-inches tall—Terry took after his mother’s side: in his early 20s, he was the spitting image of granddad Harold Edward Appleyard, a jockey. After some stints up north working the oil rigs, Terry took a job as a groom at the Calgary Stampede race track. There, he met Bud Keizer, owner of a horse transport company in Calgary, in the late ’80s. “Some horses were very, very hard to handle,” says Bud, “he just seemed to do it without any problems.” For the next decade, Bud hired Terry as a truck driver transporting horses across Canada and the U.S. Often, Terry would have dinner with Bud and his wife, Patty. “I tried putting weight on him but boy could he eat,” says Patty. (Terry loved Patty’s fried chicken and befriended her two Maltese dogs). “I like people who like animals,” says Patty, “I think there’s a kindness to them a lot of people don’t have. He had a big heart, Terry did.”
In August 2007, after years working on and off at different ranches around Calgary, Terry, who never had a stable home, began living at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre (better known as the DI). Though Terry’s own family relations were checkered—he was married, albeit very briefly, in the late ’90s, was in and out of touch with his parents, saw his older brother Garry occasionally, his other siblings less, and hadn’t seen Larry in three decades—he found a family at the DI who loved the gruff, chain-smoking, denim-clad cowboy who took his coffee with two creams and two sugars: “white and sweet, just like my women,” he liked to say. “Everything he did with gusto,” says Louise Gallagher, a staffer and friend of Terry’s at the centre, “when he made a friend you were a friend for life.” Terry took new boarders under his wing. “He’d never had kids, but he took a real sort of fatherly role with them,” says Louise. Terry continued to work, landing gigs at cash corner, a downtown intersection in Calgary where employers hire under-the-table workers to do odd jobs. He didn’t make much, says Louise, but enough to buy his Viceroy smokes. In 2009, Terry’s health began deteriorating and he became a permanent fixture at the drop-in centre. All day, every day, he worked the elevators—a sort of pro bono liftman.
Earlier this year, Terry was diagnosed with cancer. In March, the DI staff threw him a Mardi Gras party—he’d always wanted to go, but now was too sick to travel—where he met Mark Horvath, a homeless activist. Horvath later shot a video of him. Terry had a comedian’s timing and an actor’s charisma. When the local media reported on the video, Terry became an unlikely poster boy for homelessness. After seeing a news report about him, his estranged brother, Larry, living in Moose Jaw, Sask., drove to Calgary to reunite with Terry for the first time in 34 years. “It was a meeting I’d been expecting to have for so long,” says Larry, “he accepted me, and we hit it off.” But their reunion was short-lived. The cancer was terminal, and on May 31, Terry died in a Calgary hospice with Larry by his side. He was 58.