Community called on to pay tribute to the late George Gill

“Because he was a human being’’

Jim Day jday@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on July 26, 2014

Debby Hennessey and Bill McFadden are encouraging people to donate money to purchase a headstone for the late George Gill. Gill, a familiar character regularly seen collecting empty bottles in a shopping cart in Charlottetown, died in 2012.

©THE GUARDIAN/Jim Day, File photo, Nigel Armstrong

The barren sight of George Gill’s gravesite saddens Debby Hennessey.

A small, cracked black plastic label lying on the grass on Gill’s plot at the Union Road Community Cemetery is the only marker identifying the final resting place of one truly unique Charlottetown character.

Unlike the graves of his mother Mary and his father Walter, both buried beside Gill, no headstone exists to commemorate the late bottle collector’s life. As a result, Hennessey is left with a lonely, empty feeling.

She feels it just isn’t right for Gill to go without a headstone. Others share her view.

To help purchase a headstone, people have been dropping donations in a jar Hennessey has sitting on the counter at the Grafton Cafe that she owns and operates in the Polyclinic in Charlottetown.

Gill was a regular at the cafe. He always had one scrambled egg with a biscuit and jam.

If the small restaurant were filled with diners, Gill would still expect to be waited on as soon as he walked in.

“I would just say ‘George, you go sit down and I’ll be with you when I can.’ And he would,’’ she says.

Gill would emit what Hennessey downplays as “a bit of a fragrance’’ that would upset some of her other customers. She would be asked why she would even let Gill eat in her establishment.

So why did Hennessey agree to serve without reservation such a disheveled, social outcast at her cafe?

“Because he was a human being. I saw him as a human.’’

Hennessey’s connection to Gill goes back many years when he was growing up in a home just a short piece from the cemetery where his remains are now buried.

Hennessey knew all of his family. She went to school with his brother.

She knew Gill’s life was not an easy one, but she never really got to know the person until she bought the Grafton Cafe in 2005. She quickly felt a closeness to her oddball customer that would call people “cheeseburger’’ as a tongue-in-cheek put down.

She found him to be very intelligent. She also discovered in him quite a talent for drawing.

She believes many people do not understand the likes of a George Gill, a man that would daily push a shopping cart through the streets of Charlottetown loading up on empty bottles while firing off the odd colourful rant here and there.

Gill would encounter stares from the curious and receive nasty comments from people that saw him as different or perhaps even threatening.

One day, a somber Gill walked into the cafe, his ice-blue eyes tearing up.

“He looked at me and said ‘Why do people have to be so cruel?’ And I said ‘George, I don’t know. We have no control over what other people say. So just ignore them.’’’

Hennessey laughs at the time Gill stood her up.

Learning that Gill would be going to the soup kitchen on Christmas Day, she invited him to her home to enjoy a nice meal.

He reluctantly agreed, then the man with only two teeth informed Hennessey that he wanted mashed potatoes and gravy, mashed turnips and chicken, some dressing and lemon meringue pie. Not a problem, she told him.

When she called him on Christmas, Gill had a change of heart. He told Hennessey he would not be going, then abruptly hung up the phone.

He never would explain the snub, but he continued to be a regular customer at Hennessey’s cafe.

And when Gill died at age 69 on Feb. 17, 2012, Hennessey sure felt the loss, not so much of a customer, but of a special person she allowed into her heart.

For the next year, every time she scrambled an egg, all she could think about was Gill.

“There was a connection,’’ she says, standing under the shade of a tree at the Union Road Community Cemetery on a hot and humid afternoon.

“I don’t know why. I just really had a soft spot for him.’’

Local actor Bill McFadden, an eccentric character in his own right, gave Hennessey the nudge to start a collection to buy a headstone for Gill.

The thoughtful McFadden often chats with “the street people’’ in Charlottetown. He did his best to befriend Gill.

He describes the late Gill as “one of those touchstones for me.’’

He saw the man as principled — a person with a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong.

McFadden heard many nice stories about Gill. How he was quite an artist. How he was a really smart guy. He also heard how Gill had a tough past.

McFadden says getting a headstone for Gill’s gravesite is simply the right thing to do. Thoough the goodwill behind the gesture, he adds, is the true show of respect.

“It’s far more the whole process of the community coming together to do something for someone they knew rather than the stone itself being of any importance at all,’’ he says.

Perhaps the best tribute, suggests McFadden, would be for people to show greater compassion towards others who have a clear disconnect with society.

McFadden believes Gill was a big part of the community. He was seen often, by many. Yet few really knew him.

Some would offer him money, when perhaps the greatest gift would have been a genuine show of interest and respect.

“The best thing one can give is your own presence when you stop and you listen and you hear somebody and you talk to them and share their story because a lot of people do not have people to talk to,’’ says McFadden.