Friends remember man who fell through river ice: ‘If you’re lucky, you meet one person like that’

EDMONTON — Candy Cane Lane has been lit up again – not by the Christmas lights it is known for but by candles and lanterns in memory of a neighbour who was “quick with a joke” and “constantly caring.”

Rob White is believed to be dead after he fell through river ice trying to rescue a stranger’s dog on Tuesday.

From their street, White’s neighbour of nine years could hear the sirens in Laurier Park that day, but didn’t learn until later it was her friend in trouble.

“It was really shocking to hear of something in the news and then to realize it was your good friend… and then to realize that the act of bravery that you thought was a stranger doing it, that was actually your friend doing it, and all you think is: That’s so him,” Cynthia Strawson told CTV News Edmonton.

“That’s so Rob to do something like that.”

She said White had a natural confidence that made everyone feel like a friend, no matter how little they knew him.

“He was always funny and always loving and stood right in this spot right here and asked, ‘How are things going?’ and I would ask him the same,” Strawson recalled, standing outside her home, wiping tears from her eyes. “We shared stories and dreams and lived our lives side by side. He’s very much like a brother.”

She also said he was hardworking – he would get up at 3 a.m. to work out before a 5 a.m. shift – and creative – he sculpted and wrote and played music.

Laughing, she recalled him one day asking her to read a draft of a book he had written.

“I said, ‘Sure,’ and he said, ‘OK, it’ll take me a while to print it off because it’s 1,500 pages long.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, Rob,'” Strawson rolled her eyes.

“There’s a thousand Rob stories.”

‘HE WOULD HAVE GONE IN FOR YOU’

To Chris Barrett, White was “the childhood friend that attends your adult grad.”

The pair met in the 80s, a period of time when both were jumping from one hot business idea (or so they thought) to the next. White’s involved a hot tub rental company.

“I said sometimes he was basically his own cartoon. He’s his own comic book,” Barrett told CTV News Edmonton.

“In your entire life, if you’re lucky, you meet one person like that.”

But it was that passion and drive and joy for life that saw White sing an opening song for Iron Maiden in a local radio contest and spend dozens of hours on his Candy Cane Lane display.

One holiday season, White turned the front window of his house into a showroom, and built a platform from the street so people could walk right up. When Stephen Mandel dropped by, White pulled him inside for a tour of his workshop.

“Everybody is, ‘Stay away from my house,’ putting up their alarm signs, ‘Get off my lawn.’ Rob is building a pathway onto his lawn, going, ‘Come, come up, come and have a look in my front window.'”

Of White tying up his own dog and running onto the North Saskatchewan River to rescue another person’s pet, Barrett said, “Rob was embarrassingly kind, so there’s zero surprise he would do something like that.”

“When I say embarrassingly kind, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean, you look and go, ‘Wish I could do that.’ You know, what he can do so easily. Because he was so authentic.”

White, 56, had been laid off during the pandemic but had worked previously as an industrial scaffolder.

Barrett doesn’t believe White wouldn’t have made a calculation before running onto the ice. Whether that was foolish, as some have commented, isn’t the point, he said.

“That’s not the way to look at it. He would have gone in for you, your dog, your cat,” Barrett said.

“That’s the calculation we all think we could make. Hope. Lots of people go through their entire life going, what would I do in that situation? He tells you what he would do. He did it.”

‘THE KIND OF DAD WE ALL WANTED TO BE’

Earlier in the week, Strawson received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. It was her mailman, checking she had heard the devastating news and also of the gesture being made by the community.

Emily Berg Noskiye said it was her mom’s idea to put out candles.

“We wanted to do it… so that his family knew that they were supported,” Berg Noskiye told CTV News Edmonton.

She had only spoken to White a few times. Once, his dog had run out of the house when no one was home, so Berg Noskiye took him on a walk with her own dog and brought the pet home.

“When I would walk home from school and he was out on his yard, he would again thank me, tell me how grateful he is,” she said.

“It’s just so moving and so typical of this street, which I think the street is probably more of a community than most others because this is Candy Cane Lane,” Strawson said of the vigil.

“There’s 300,000 people that see us for three weeks of the year as a place that puts up the Christmas lights, but for the other 49 weeks of the year, we’re still in it together. And yeah, you can see that.”

Barrett thinks it is White’s shining genuineness that has captured the attention of so many people following his story.

“When I think about today, and when I look around social media, and I look at what people are focused on, with whatever’s going on – you know the whole country is grieving right now over the last couple years, for example – why does a story like this stick out the way it is? It is because there is nothing else other than a guy who was an amazing person who just did that. Just gave it up. That random act of kindness. How can you not be interested in that story?”

When asked what he wanted others to learn from his friend, Barrett said, “Hug your kids a lot. That was his best lesson.”

White’s two sons are in their 20s.

“I’ve seen him so many times where he was always going to do the right thing and didn’t need prodding. He’s the kind of the dad we all wanted to be.”

Another community member has created a fundraiser for the White family.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Sean Amato and Dan Grummett​

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