The accolades for Ralph (Boonie) Lethbridge have been flooding in ever since the Clarenville man shaved his beard last Sunday to raise money for the ALS Society.
He has been praised for his “heart of gold” many times over.
And by now, folks also know him for his quick wit, thanks to the media attention.
There’s another story of Boonie, however, that may have dimmed with memory.
It’s a story of heroism that dates back 35 years.
And there’s a man in Clarenville — a longtime friend of Boonie’s — who can tell the tale.
Lorne Balsom has known Lethbridge all his life. Just five years separates them in age — Balsom is 76 to Boonie’s 71.
They’ve been buddies forever, says Balsom, who grew up in a house on Marine Drive, not far from Lethbridge.
“We grew up together. We were all buddies. I grew up out on the point and he grew up over in the cove,” Balsom told The Packet.
They hung around together as boys and hunted and fished together as men.
Balsom owes his life to Boonie, and to Boonie’s father, the late James Lethbridge.
It happened on a day in early March 1981, the time when winter is ebbing and the seabirds are flying to land.
It was turre hunting season and Balsom and two of his friends were in the area of the Horse Chops, off Port Rexton, in an open boat.
The weather was fair that March 2, says Balsom, but there was a heavy swell on the ocean and fog was drifting in.
“There was no wind, but the sea was like mountains,” he recalls.
Suddenly a wave struck their boat, capsizing it and throwing the men into the water.
“I don’t like to talk about that much,” Balsom says of the memory of that day.
The two men with him drowned.
Balsom survived by clinging to the overturned boat. Soaking wet, he hung on for about 3 1/2 hours before a boat broke through the fog and happened on the scene.
It was Boonie and his father, who had also been out hunting turres that day.
They hauled Balsom aboard the boat and began to search for his two friends.
The Lethbridges managed to find the body of one of the men. The swell was so high that they had to tow the body further out to sea before they could get it in the boat.
The Lethbridges continued searching for another half hour for the third victim, but had to abandon the search. Balsom was starting to show signs of hypothermia and they decided it was best to return to shore with him.
The body of the other man was never found.
Days after the rescue, the boat drifted ashore several miles to the East, in Chance Cove.
Two years later, in June 1983, Boonie and his father were presented with medals of bravery from the Governor General of Canada.
In addition to the years of friendship, Balsom and Lethbridge now share a special, yet unenviable, bond of a traumatic event.
And each March they get together to reflect and mark the anniversary of that day.
“Every March month now I generally go up to his place for a few swallies,” said Balsom.
As for his friend’s latest act of heroism and the good it will do for others, Balsom says that’s the way Boonie has always been, always willing to help others.
And for children, he added, Boonie has always had a kind heart.
“If there’s any youngsters around, he always got a handful of candy for them.”