Top News

Johnny Coombs had a thirst for knowledge right to the end of his life

Many Corner Brook residents of a certain vintage will recall seeing Johnny Coombs selling street copies of newspapers for The Western Star between 1979 and 1985.
Many Corner Brook residents of a certain vintage will recall seeing Johnny Coombs selling street copies of newspapers for The Western Star between 1979 and 1985. - Submitted

If the definition of a philosopher is a lover of knowledge, then Johnny Coombs would have to fall in that category somewhere.

Many would have known him as somewhat of an institution in downtown Corner Brook, often seen having a coffee at a local shop or maybe enjoying a cigarette outside.

RELATED:

'Corner Brook’s Johnny Coombs wins Laubach Literacy Council Student of the Year'

Many would not have seen past the obvious cognitive issues he had or the occasional loud and spontaneous vocal outbursts that made him distinct from just about anyone else.

What many people don’t know about the 61-year-old man who died last week was the determined journey he was on. His mission was not only to learn as much about the world around him as he could, but also to make friends with all the people he encountered in it.

Darlene Brown is the client services co-ordinator with the Humber Valley Community Employment Corp. She may have a thick file about Johnny and the four decades of interaction he had with such community support organizations in Corner Brook, but she also knew him as a neighbour growing up in the Broadway area of Corner Brook.

“I think his process was, he would see something on the news that would spark a topic he would become interested in,” she said.

From there, Johnny would hit the library in search of books on whatever it was that had piqued his interest. If the library didn’t have it, they would order in whatever books he needed to learn more about what was occupying his mind.

Chances were, said Brown, his subsequent research would lead Johnny to another subject too fascinating for his curiosity to leave unexplored.

His obituary referred to his thirst for knowledge. His stepmother, Linda Coombs, said that fire for information was still burning brightly in his final days.

She recalled a relative who had come to see him in hospital being asked by Johnny about her level of education. His eyes lit up when she told him about having finished high school and two years of college.

“He said ‘My, I would give anything to do that,’” said Coombs.

Johnny did have his own academic successes and held a job his entire adult life. He has certificates outlining his work in vocational preparation programs. This past fall, he was awarded the 2017 Student of the Year Award from the Newfoundland and Labrador Laubach Literacy Council for his dedication to overcoming his disabilities to improve his literacy and math skills.

Not just a voracious reader, he was actually writing a short book detailing his life story.

His life was a struggle socially, though he persisted at that, too. Around 20 years ago, he wrote a letter to the editor for The Western Star that expressed how he felt shut out by people.

He talked about how much he enjoyed being a street seller for The Western Star, a job he did from 1979 to 1985, because it gave him a chance to go around the community and talk to people.

“Now that I’m older, I feel people are more nervous around me because I talk to myself,” he wrote. “I wish I could feel more a part of the community.”

Brown said people who were hesitant to engage him misunderstood John Coombs.

“People may have thought he was a little bit aggressive and threatening, but he really wasn’t,” she said. “He was a bit of a frustrated soul because he just wanted to make friends and people kept walking away from him. But once the employment corporation and other organizations took on the role of educating people about individuals with disabilities, things changed for John and he had more friends than we knew.”

While his stepmother said not a lot of people came to see Johnny while he was ill, she knew he had still managed to connect with a lot of people during his interesting life.

That was clearly evident when, within an hour of news breaking that he had died, there were some 4,500 messages of condolence and stories of people’s experiences with Johnny.

“I never fathomed just how many people he knew or inspired,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe the stories we were hearing.”

Those anecdotes ranged from classmates of his saying he motivated them when they needed the encouragement to people who may have been feeling down about life until a chance meeting with Johnny put what was really important in a clearer perspective.

Coombs expects she will learn even more about the son she thought she knew everything about today when the Corner Brook Public Library hosts a reception in memory of one of its most faithful patrons.

Today’s memorial reception is scheduled for noon.

*****

A working man

A look at Johnny Coombs’ employment history:

The Western Star: from May 1979 to Feb 1985

Humber Gardens: 1985

Mount Patricia Cemetery: worked summers from 1985 to 2007

Quilty’s Janitorial: 2008

Snow Clearing: 2009 to 2017

Source: Humber Valley Community Employment Corporation

Recent Stories