Remembering Father Bob Ogle
I was thinking over the Easter weekend of Father Bob Ogle, my late friend and political mentor. It was in April 1998 that he died at age 69 after more than a decade of serious illness. I wrote a brief piece about him for the Lives Lived section of the Globe and Mail and the article appeared in the newspaper on May 25, 1998. I am reproducing it here.
Father Bob Ogle. Priest, missionary, author, Member of Parliament. Born on Dec. 24, 1928 in Rosetown, Sask. Died of cancer in Saskatoon, April 1, 1998, aged 69.
Father Bob, as he was commonly called, was a renaissance man, if one may so describe a Catholic priest. He was raised on a poor farm during the Great Depression in a devout Irish Catholic family. He studied for the priesthood in London, Ontario, then returned to Saskatoon where he became an energetic parish priest and seminary rector.
Missionary in Brazil
Bob was a man of great energy and no small ego. He wanted to make a difference. In 1964, he volunteered as one of the founding members of a diocesan mission team sent to northeast Brazil. It was his first great Projecto Roberto.
He engaged in pastoral work, organized literacy activities, farming co-operatives and medical programs. In 1969 he co-ordinated a relief operation and house building program following disastrous floods near the mission.
Restless in Saskatoon
He returned to Saskatoon in 1970 and was installed in one of the city’s largest parishes. He was good at it, especially at getting people involved in projects, but he was restless.
In 1976, he took a sabbatical and travelled the world investigating international development projects. When he got home he wrote a book about it called When the Snake Bites the Sun.
The very night when he delivered the manuscript in September 1977 Bob received a call from a member of the NDP constituency organization for Saskatoon East, asking him to consider becoming a candidate in the next federal election.
He had never belonged to a political party, but he was ready for something big. He consulted with his bishop, with other priests, parishioners, friends, and even Otto Lang, the Liberal incumbent.
Eventually Bob decided to do it, and it was there that the Ogle legend really began to take shape. He was a creative campaigner. While Lang, then Transport Minister, travelled frequently on government jets, Father Bob, the missionary back from Brazil, rode around Saskatoon on a bicycle to do his canvassing.
It was at about that time that I first met Bob, and I recall him saying that Lang couldn’t win. Bob knocked every door in the riding, many of them more than once, and he used a low key, one might say pastoral, approach, asking people about themselves rather than telling them what to think or how to vote.
He did beat Otto Lang in 1979, entering the NDP caucus during the minority government of Joe Clark, and he won again in 1980. He served as health critic, and later as the critic for CIDA.
His own man
Bob steadfastly refused to follow his party’s position on abortion, explaining on the night of his nomination, “I believe that all human rights are of a piece: Ignore one right and you jeopardize all the others . . . If we are really pro-life. we have to protect human life from conception through death.”
Member of Parliament
Bob loved being an MP, and he approached that work on a pastoral basis as well, generally keeping a promise never to make personal attacks on political opponents.
By 1984 the Vatican had decided that parliament was no place for a priest, and Bob was ordered not to run again. He agonized over the order, but in the end decided to obey and he did not stand for re-election.
Bob was constantly ill during the last 14 years of life. Even before he left politics in 1984 he was suffering from serious headaches, and he developed a bleeding ulcer. About a year later he suffered a heart attack, and eventually he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour.
Those who knew him well said that his Job-like plague of afflictions often left him near despair, but he was a tenacious man who loved life and refused to give up. In these years he wrote three books, initiated a project called Broadcasting for International Understanding, and hosted a retreat series on television. He always had at least one Project Roberto to keep him (and his friends) going, and he never completely lost his sense of humour.
I was asked in 1996 to seek a political nomination for the NDP in Saskatoon-Humboldt, which contained a good portion of Bob’s old riding. When I went to tell him about it, he was supportive and enthusiastic, so I asked for his best advice.
“Do it,” he said, “but remember two things.” I was primed for profundity.
“When you’re canvassing, never walk on anybody’s grass,” he said. “And if they have a dog, tell them it’s a nice dog, even if you don’t like dogs.”
He came to meetings of the small group working toward the nomination, and although he had virtually to be carried up the front steps, he was one of the most creative people in the room.
His health continued to decline, and when we had a testimonial dinner for him in May 1997, just a few days before the federal election in that year, he could not rise from his wheelchair.
Now, less than a year later he is gone, but not forgotten.
Post script — Mary Lou Ogle
Any mention of Bob Ogle’s good work must also contain reference to his sister Mary Lou. A nurse by profession, she moved home to Saskatchewan from Alberta to work with her brother when he was elected to the House of Commons in 1979. She served as his office manager in Saskatoon and later as his administrative assistant in his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa. After he was forced to resign, she continued to work with him on a variety of books and television projects. She was also a dedicated community volunteer in Saskatoon. Mary Lou died in June 2006.