He was a quiet man. Stern. Gruff. Piercing eyes. He didn’t often smile. He kept his lips pressed tight together but even that couldn’t extinguish a glint of humour, or perhaps it was mischief, that shone in his eyes. I always thought he knew some secret about life I didn’t know. The reality is, in his sixty-three years, he had learned lessons about living true to who you are that I still struggle to understand.
No matter his gruffness, however, everyone knew that beneath Russ Orum’s tough exterior there beat a heart of gold. A heart that would do anything to help his fellow man. A heart that drove him to quickly jump into any situation where he could lend a hand, make a difference.
He’d been a client of the DI for quite some time. It was the 90s. A time when labour jobs were bountiful. He’d work and lead his quiet life, coming back to the shelter at night to crawl onto a mat and grab some sleep. He didn’t ask for much. Always had a lot to give. He’d share his last cigarette if someone asked. A beer. His blanket if he thought someone needed it more than him. And always he’d volunteer.
As time moved on, his body grew weary, the harsh reality of work suited for a younger man mixed with the life of being homeless took a toll on his ability to sustain hard labour. At night, when he would drag his tired body into the shelter, he would move more slowly, with less confidence in his step. Eventually, he couldn’t do the work anymore, but he always volunteered. Always asked if there was something he could do to give back, to make a difference.
I knew him mostly from our kitchen, a place where his heartfelt giving kept the place humming. He would volunteer for eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week.
“It keeps me out of trouble,” he told me when I’d asked him about the long hours he put in. He paused and added, ‘And I like it here. They’re nice folk to work with.”
He was always there when I needed something. Always willing to pitch in to put together a food hamper, or a tray of meals for a workshop on the sixth floor. He didn’t care about requisitions or paperwork or even if the kitchen was swamped and staff and volunteers were running off their feet.
He always had time to help. “What d’ya need?” he’d ask whenever I appeared in the kitchen.
“I’ve got a course upstairs in the board room. Would it be possible to get a tray of snacks? Please.”
He’d stand with one hand on his hip, the other on the door to the walk-in cooler. He wouldn’t smile. Just look at me with those piercing eyes. “How many people?”
He’d nod his head. Up and down. Up and down. “Hmmm.” And he’d open the fridge and pull out a tray of donuts or muffins or cookies. “Do you need coffee too?”
“No thanks. I made some upstairs.”
He’d hand me the tray. I’d give him a big smile and thank you and he would nod his head in response. But, before I could turn and walk away he’d say, “Wait.” And he’d step into the pantry, pull down a box of chocolates or some other tasty tidbit and say, “Here. The guys will like these.”
He wasn’t much on acknowledgement. Pushed away thank-yous and words of appreciation and gratitude just as he pushed away touch. I gave him a hug. Once. He stood still. His arms by his sides.
“Thanks for all you do Russ,” I told him. “I really appreciate your support.”
Slowly he reached up with one arm and touched my back. For just a second. “Harrumph,” he murmured before quickly stepping back. “I’ll get you those snacks.”
I like to think he stayed a bit longer in the cooler that time before coming out laden with sweets the guys would like. I like to think my gratitude touched him as much as his helping hands touched my heart.
He was a man who made a difference. Determined. Proud. He didn’t gossip. Didn’t grumble. He simply went about his work. Quietly. Efficiently. Without any fuss.
He loved being in that kitchen. He loved the certitude of his role within it. He loved having a place to make a difference, to be of service. He loved having a placed that counted on him to turn up.
In his consistency of always being there, he taught the younger clients and staff the meaning of commitment. Of the importance of doing a good job, no matter what your circumstances, no matter how you felt. “You gotta always do your best,” he told me. “Always give your all. Never give up. Never give in.
Russ Orum never gave up. Never gave in. Until April 18th when the cancer that was eating him up from the inside took him from this earthly realm. Some say to a better place. Some don’t know. No matter where he’s gone, in his passing, Russ has left behind a better world and a legacy of caring in the thousands of lives he touched with his ‘how can I be of service’ attitude. He has left behind the commitment he brought to turning up every day and the memory of a man who when asked, always reached out to help.
In his passing, Russ leaves behind the truth about what it means to be a great man. Commitment. Passion. Generosity. Caring. He leaves behind the realization that greatness is not determined by status or title or wealth, it is determined by acts of service that make a difference.
You made a difference Russ. In my life. In the lives of everyone here at the DI. In the lives of all those you touched on your journey. You will be missed. You will always be remembered.