Robert John Botterill was born on March 16, 1946, in Portage la Prairie, Man., to Edna, a schoolteacher of Scottish descent, and Arthur, a farmer who immigrated from Britain with his family in 1912, when he was five. Arthur’s family had been booked on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, but the luxurious ship had been oversold. The Botterills were refused boarding and left three days later. (When word reached their ship that the “unsinkable” Titanic had plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic, the captain reversed course for three days, fearful that a massive iceberg lurked below.)
Bobby, as he was then known, grew up on the family farm south of Newton, 55 km from Winnipeg, with his sister Margie, three years his junior. A round-faced boy with a twinkle in his eye, he had the “best collection of Meccano sets of anyone I knew,” says his cousin Ted Botterill, who grew up nearby. Ignoring the instructions, the pair built Meccano combines and plows, and drowned their Corn Flakes in Coca-Cola. They attended Elm River School, a one-room schoolhouse that seated 30, until Grade 8, and then Oakville School, in town. There were no school buses then. But the government gave a transport allowance, which, when pooled, was “enough to buy gas for the two of us to drive to Oakville and back each day,” says Ted.
After high school, Bob farmed with his father, and, in winter, worked as a welder for Canada Car & Foundry in Thunder Bay, Ont., and then the Inco mine, in Thompson, Man. When Arthur died in 1973, Bob took over the farm, and moved into the brown, two-storey family home. That year, he met Sheryl Williams—also from a family of farmers—at a social in nearby Oakville. They married in 1974; 10 months later, Todd was born, and then Niki, in 1978. By then, Margie had married and moved to Sherwood Park, Alta. Each year, one of them would cross the Prairies for a visit, family in tow. Margie recalls coming home, her legs “all shaky” as she got out of the car. Bob’s face would “light up with a smile, and he’d drop whatever he was doing, and scurry across the yard.”
Rich and loamy, central Manitoba soil is tricky to work with. Still, Mother Nature Bob could handle. But the 1980s—when grain prices plummeted and interest rates were sky-high—nearly flattened him. In 1993, he was forced to sell most of the acreage to pay off debts. “You couldn’t make money growing wheat in Manitoba,” says Mark Hughes, who farmed nearby. Bob, an innovator, whose farm peaked at 1,800 acres, tried onions, horseradish, cucumbers, sunflowers: “As a kid, I used to think he was really grumpy,” says Todd. “As you get older, you understand the stress he was under.” The only way he knew to get out of the trouble was to work harder. Mark recalls one spring day he hit the fields at 5 a.m. to seed. Bob, meanwhile, had been “going up and down the field” for an hour already.
Where Bob could be gruff, Sheryl was soft and warm. Both were deeply caring, and went out of their way to lend a hand. Though not a wealthy man, Bob helped fund heart surgery forthe Russian-born mother of a Newton local. When it snowed, he’d plow the driveways of his five nearest neighbours (unasked) and “almost break his neck,” to answer a phone—in case the person at the other end needed help, says Owen Williams, Bob’s brother-in-law. He even installed a ringer in the yard, in case the phone rang while he was working. He’d “likely done a hundred favours and only got one back,” says Owen. But he hated to ask for help—“his shortcoming,” says Ted.
In 2003, tragedy struck. Sheryl died from esophageal cancer, one month after diagnosis. The first week, Bob sat up all night, alone with the glow of the TV. “But he told himself he was not going to be that person,” says Margie. A year later, he started seeing Irene Peters, a Christian bookseller, who’d also lost her spouse. Before she died, Sheryl had told her kids she didn’t want Bob to be alone, says Todd—“Once we got over the initial shock, it was good.” “We were not replacements for each other’s families,” Irene says. “But it’s nice to have somebody to hang out with, when you’re alone.” They went old-time dancing in Carberry, and to harvest festivals in the Pembina Valley. Bob lost weight, and “seemed so happy,” says Todd.
On Feb. 21, Bob, working alone, climbed into a 10-m silo bin, to break up an ice crust. He slipped and was pulled, with the force of an avalanche, under 3½ m of seed oats, where it’s believed he suffocated. More than 80 volunteers from three nearby Hutterite colonies rushed to help, but it was too late. “He went in there alone, when he should have called somebody for help,” says Todd. But he was always reluctant to ask.