If you worked, shopped or owned a business in downtown Cloverdale, you got to know Shawn Friesen at some point.
It was an encounter you weren’t likely to forget. Gregarious, barrel-chested, nearly always smiling, he was among the most recognizable denizens of the business district, performing odd jobs but mostly stopping in at one of the local businesses that essentially adopted him.
Friesen recently passed away from a heart attack, according to several people who spoke with The Cloverdale Reporter last week, hoping to acknowledge his life.
“He’s been very much part of the fabric of the community and he was very visible,” said Paul Orazietti, executive director of the Cloverdale BIA.
Friesen had a number of people he visited on a regular basis, “and all of them cared for him in their own ways,” Orazietti said, whether it was giving him pop, spare change, or a small job to do.
He was missing teeth, which made him difficult to understand. He was also prone to telling tales, making it hard to discern the truth in his stories.
And when he was drinking, he wasn’t particularly welcome.
Friesen was a fixture in downtown Cloverdale for over two decades, working on a permanent, part-time basis for the caretaker of the old Cloverdale Mall until it was torn down six years ago.
He was born in 1965 in Swift Current, Sask., but his lifestyle aged him well beyond his 51 years.
Pastor Randy Emerson met Friesen more than 20 years ago when Cloverdale Christian Fellowship moved into the mall, where it eventually operated a soup kitchen, showers, a laundry facility and provided free clothing.
“He was a very good worker. Strong, diligent,” Emerson recalled Monday. “We really enjoyed that about him.”
Friesen was on social assistance, but “on and off, he was homeless.” He could antagonize landlords, or would have trouble paying rent.
“When he worked for people, he very often wasn’t paid cash,” Emerson added. “He lived a rough life. He slept outside our church many times. He felt safe there.”
[Shawn Friesen, left, with David Rattigan. Photo by Caitlyn Klostermann]
Friesen was “gruff and really ornery a lot of the time,” Emerson said. “That betrayed a gentle and kind heart. That was a method he’d learned to keep people away so he wouldn’t get beat up.”
Sometimes he’d come to church with black eyes or a bloody cheek.
Once you got to know him, you realized that rough exterior was a mask, he said.
“If I challenged him at all, he wouldn’t back down,” said Emerson. “If I would walk up to him and say, ‘Shawn, you know I love you,’ it would melt him and he would stop whatever he was doing.”
His unpredictable behaviour landed him in trouble with the law, resulting in a long criminal record for uttering threats and public intoxication, Emerson said.
“The police were absolutely wonderful with him. The RCMP in Cloverdale looked out for him,” he said.
It was hard to steward him, said Emerson, who accompanied him to court many times. “He would agree with you in the moment. You’d shake hands and agree and Shawn wouldn’t do a darn thing that we asked.”
Emerson thinks his family is from the Edmonton area. “We were never really sure. We never met his family.”
The person closest to him is probably Mary Blanche, a girlfriend who was more like a big sister figure who looked out for him in later years, Emerson said.
Friesen grew up at Woodlands School in New Westminster. The facility served as a psychiatric hospital and later a notorious institution for mentally disabled children and children in care. It was the subject of a class action lawsuit by hundreds of former students who claimed abuse.
Emerson tried to help him qualify for the settlement, but he missed the cutoff window for eligibility. “He still went through all the same stuff. He grew up in that terrible situation.”
Retired businessman Jim Mason knew Friesen for more than two decades, initially hiring him for some furniture assembly work in his warehouse, located at the mall. That’s when Mason realized Friesen couldn’t read or write – an eye-opening discovery that led to a deeper understanding over the years.
Mason said there may have been an abusive father in the picture, and a mother who fought her own demons, dropping him off at Woodlands.
“Shawn told me he was seven,” Mason recalled. “He said, and this just broke my heart, he said his mother dropped him off there because they were going to take care of him, and she bought him a bright red fire truck. He’s never seen her since. He said, ‘I cried every day.’”
His friend “Shawnee” was a regular visitor at Mason’s Cloverdale Home Furnishings, always arriving with a smile on his face. He could be quite lucid. Mason remembers more recently asking him what he wanted for Christmas.
“Jim, I’d like a pair of wool socks and some underwear,” he’d replied. (Mason gladly complied a few days before Christmas). “Sometimes, he would be around every day, and sometimes you wouldn’t see him for months. He was in and out of jail a lot.”
Whenever his boisterous behaviour would get him kicked out of the furniture store, he’d be back a few days later with a sincere apology. Mason always took it to heart.
[Caitlyn Klostermann photo]
“When people are having their worst day, all people have to do is look at Shawn. He was on the borderline. But, you know what? He was resilient. He’d make it through.”
Mason acknowledged the frustration shared by many in not being able to help Friesen.
“His life was horrible for him but he endured it to the best of his ability, with limited financial and human resources, and very limited ability. I admire him for getting through that. I don’t know if I would have endured as Shawn did.”
His rounds to the local business community “kept him going,” says Mason.
A memorial service for Shawn Friesen will be held 2 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 1 at Cloverdale Christian Fellowship, 102 17802 66 Avenue. Everyone is welcome.