By Tara Tosh Kennedy –
Some people make you feel more grounded when you talk to them, more aware of what it means to live in the moment. They remind you of what’s important. Westboro resident Rolph Almstedt was one of those people.
Rolph died unexpectedly on December 19 after heart surgery at age 75. Usually in good health, he noticed his ankles were swollen about a year before. It was something to keep an eye on, said his doctor. His left ventricle. A leaky valve. Nothing too dangerous. But in the fall he needed surgery.
After the November operation, Rolph was back on his feet in a couple of days. But there were complications. Water started to accumulate between the layers of membrane that lined his lungs and the inside of his chest cavity — a condition sometimes called water on the lungs. There were blood clots. And pneumonia. There was talk of amputating his legs.
“He never complained,” recalls his brother John, six years his elder. John lives spitting distance from Westboro Beach, where he and his wife, Diane, raised Rolph’s three nephews. It’s startling how much John looks like his brother. The same light eyes. Facial expressions. Skin tone. But where Rolph’s manner was slower, John’s is quick and academic. Still, both shared a sharp memory and a blazing smile.
Rolph’s childhood in the community of Lansing within North York centred around steady homeschooling by his mother, Martha. The family never really knew why Rolph had intellectual challenges. “Our mother was determined he wouldn’t end up in an institution,” remembers John. There was always a German shepherd in the family home, and their playground was a field near their house, now taken over by the 401.
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Rolph’s connection to dogs was instant, adoring and lifelong. “They never had a problem with him,” says John of the family’s pets. “They let him do whatever he wanted to. He had a gentle demeanor, and the animals picked that up.”
When Rolph became a teenager, the family moved north of Toronto to a rural community where Rolph had more opportunities to bond with animals. He began to help out local farmers. One in particular had horses. “They were touchy animals,” recalls John. He shakes his head in wonder. “But to everyone’s amazement, Rolph could muck out the stalls and walk behind them and they never even tried to kick him.”
Rolph’s family helped him launch a rabbit breeding business. At one point, he was in charge of more than 100 New Zealand whites, a breed known for having albinism that presents itself in fur like a thick snow drift and jewel-pink eyes. Rolph did the day-to-day husbandry. He took notes, did sums, and met with customers. The business was a success for five years.
In 1975, about six years after his father Gus died, Rolph and his mother moved to Westboro into Plaza Towers, where he spent the rest of his life. Her steady optimism and love of gardening, both of which she passed on to Rolph, continued. Their apartment balcony was stuffed with blooms. They soon became acquainted with Frances Rochester, who lived quietly in what is now the Keg Manor until the late ’80s.
The historic Maplelawn walled garden beside the house became a part of Rolph and his mother’s regular routine. They would deadhead the flowers. Prune. Do the best they could to keep it in good shape — Rolph was taking care of Maplelawn even before the volunteer-driven Friends of Maplelawn kicked off in 1993. The volunteers embraced him straight off, with Eileen Hunt and Helen Brown becoming like second mothers to him.
Before boutiques and coffee shops appeared on Richmond Road, Rolph was known for helping his neighbours with their lawns, snow shoveling and dogs. He helped some seniors stay in their homes longer than they might have, navigating trips to the grocery store to buy their groceries and helping them with chores.
John gives Newport owner and local philanthropist Moe Atallah a lot of credit in connecting Rolph to local businesses. When Newport was still at the corner of Richmond and Churchill, Moe taught Rolph how to make runs to the local bank to top up the change in the cash register. Rolph was well known at the restaurant and often sat at the end of the bar when he stopped in for a snack.
Making bank runs was a skill Rolph later offered to Westboro’s pet boutique Masters ’N Dogs (formerly known as Bark and Fitz). He walked the staff’s dogs and spread the word about their dog-centred photo shoots, recalls store manager Carly Morgan. “He’s a dog whisperer, that man,” she says. “The dogs loved him. They immediately knew to be a little bit gentler with him. When he’d give the good scratches behind the ear, they’d lean into it.”
The store’s previous manager, Jasmine Bencke, first met Rolph when he walked in during her initial job interview. He would soon take her dogs out regularly, and they’d get excited every time she said his name. “He just had this love,” remembers Jasmine. When she travelled to British Columbia for eight months, she made a photobook of her dogs’ adventures and sent it to Rolph to put a smile on his face, because that’s what he did for others.
Heather Pardon met Rolph when she worked in Bridgehead’s first coffeehouse on Richmond Road in 2010. He came in every day for coffee. He took it upon himself to collect the cups and dishes that lingered on the tables. He became friends with the staff and dropped off recipes from the Superstore’s cooking classes he loved to attend. “He was a beacon of what humanity should be,” Heather recalls. During a federal election, the Bridgehead staff wrote “Vote for Rolph” on the store’s sidewalk sandwich board. He loved it.
“He had a gift in that he lived his purpose,” says Heather. “He was a little bit magical.” She was so moved by his spirit that she incorporated him into a book she was writing about finding happiness. At the book launch, Rolph loved showing people where his name appeared in its pages. It was the only book Rolph ever read in its entirety.
Former Bridgehead manager Tammy Germon’s voice gets tight when she describes what she’ll miss about Rolph. “His smile and his genuine joy,” she says. Tammy made a special binder to collect the recipes he would share with Bridgehead staff. They hosted a party for his 70th birthday and gave him a page-a-day calendar featuring dogs, which he loved so much he couldn’t bring himself to actually tear off the pages.
“When he walked the dogs, he used to bang on the coffee shop window so we would come out and see them,” Tammy recalls, laughing. “It didn’t matter how busy it was. At least one of us would go.”
One look at the online remembrance page for Rolph, and it’s clear he was welcome at so many businesses. He’d distribute flyers for Pharmasave and return wayward shopping carts for Shoppers Drug Mart. He was known to stop in at the Westboro Legion and he raised money for the Ottawa Humane Society, The Terry Fox Foundation and B.A.R.K. (the Bytown Association for Rescued Kanines). Not just pocket change — thousands of dollars.
But Rolph’s life wasn’t just a story about an endearing man and his endless good nature, says his brother. It’s also a story about a community that received him with hundreds of open arms, particularly after his mother died and he began living on his own. With the support of the neighbourhood, he thrived.
“My mother and father would be ecstatic — it was always a concern, what was going to happen to Rolph,” says John as he watches the snow fall outside his home. “It’s a tribute to the people who live in Westboro. This was a very happy story.”
Rolph’s contribution to the Maplelawn garden was commemorated last summer when a bench bearing his name was installed there. The garden will serve as the location for his memorial on May 11.