A memorial event for Roberta (Robbie) Thomas in St. John’s last week turned into a party, complete with laughing, live music and dancing — and that’s exactly the way she had wanted it.
Robbie had wanted to have a big send off in St. John’s that was less of a wake; more of a celebration.
“We felt, as did she, that it needed to be a big celebration of her life,” said her son, Louis. “We really wanted to give her the send off she deserved. She would have loved it — she would have been the last one to leave.”
Robbie lost her battle with bowel cancer Dec. 31, passing away at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax at the age of 66.
A native of the U.K., Robbie became an integral part of the arts community in St. John’s, through her work with Neighbourhood Dance Works, as operations manager at the LSPU Hall, as a painter, and an advocate for all local artists and arts communities.
Robbie’s career was as an archivist at MUN with a deep interest in Newfoundland and Labrador history, but in the 1980s, she also fulfilled her dream of becoming a restauranteur, opening up Continental Cafe on Water Street at a time when there weren’t many cafes in St. John’s. There, she was able to meet and interact with people, many of them members of the local arts scene.
“She had a love for just sitting down and chatting with people and getting to know them. A lot of people who met her even once felt they connected with her, even after just one sitting. She had a genuine interest in people,” Louis said.
Robbie was also a single mom who raised Louis and his two brothers, Danny and David (Lil) on her own, and instilled her love of the arts in them. The three boys, all music-lovers, eventually formed a band, Thomas Trio and the Red Albino, with Jody Richardson.
When Robbie fell on the ice outside her home one winter and broke her arm, Robbie was forced to take six weeks off work, away from the restaurant, ultimately leading to its closure.
She continued her work with the arts community, dabbling in theatre and film and helping to reorganize artists groups.
“Robbie was my former boss, a mentor and a dear friend, “ said Paddy Barry, local musician and photographer.
“As operations manager of the LSPU Hall, she hired me in 2004 to create a photo archive of the Hall’s then-30 year history. I collected photos, she instructed and pushed and encouraged me every day of the working week for 10 months. She challenged me to write, to go back to school, and to take photography seriously. It was a dream job for me, and she was my boss.
“Robbie had a wonderfully rich sense of fun and humour, grace and intelligence. She was a storehouse of knowledge, a network to friends and someone who influence those around her.”
Director Lois Brown, one of Robbie’s close friends, gave a sort of eulogy at the celebration of her life, telling anecdotes about Robbie’s passion for life, her determination and her sense of humour.
She tarred her own roof. She was critical of her own paintings. She loved crystals. She was a fantastic grandmother. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself, Lois said — even cheekily.
“The boys used to practice in the living room (of their Georgetown home) ... and one man called to complain about the music,” Lois said.
“He wanted to speak to Robbie. He said, ‘Mrs. Thomas, I work shifts, and I have to sleep in the day because I’m a doctor.’ She said, ‘Well, if you’re a doctor, why don’t you move to a richer neighbourhood?’”
Robbie was diagnosed with bowel cancer last spring, and went directly into a treatment plan. She and her family were optimistic she would recover, Louis said, and remained so until about a month ago, when her symptoms came back with a vengeance.
“There came a point where she just really felt like, ‘OK, I just want to be comfortable now, and I don’t want to play this game of ups and downs,’” Louis said.
Robbie passed away surrounded by family members and friends.
“On this Christmas Eve, I spoke to her,” Lois said. “I told her that if I lived her life, I would be very proud of myself. She was cautious on that — Robbie was never one for compliments, really.
“I said, ‘Robbie, wherever you’re going, I’m going there, too. And Robbie, I won’t be far behind.’ She said, ‘Lois, I’ll try and make up a bed for you.’”
Robbie’s family has established The Roberta Thomas Artistic Trust Fund in her memory, with the goal of providing artists of any discipline with a bursary to assist them in their work.
“Mom really felt strongly about that,” Louis said.
Anyone wishing to donate to the legacy fund can do so by mailing their donation to The Roberta Thomas Artistic Trust Fund, c/0 1674 Hollis Street, Halifax, N.S., B3J 1V7.