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‘An Important Day’ in the Life of Bob Ethier

By Amaris Castillo, acastillo@lowellsun.comMay 26, 2019

LOWELL — Robert Phillip Ethier waits for the call in his brown armchair, in his third-floor apartment. He keeps his Mornings with Jesus Daily Bible on an armrest.

Shortly after 8:30 a.m., his cell phone trills.

“Hi mom!” Bob says loudly.

On the phone’s screen appears the face of Doreen Ethier, 72. She’s roughly 15 miles away in Nashua, seated in a wooden rocking chair in her cluttered kitchen. She has the same paperback Bible.

Doreen asks her son how he’s doing and if he’s dressed appropriately. He says he’s good. “Yep,” he adds.

“So, let’s start,” she says. “Our Father.”

“Our Father,” Bob repeats.

“Who art in heaven,” Doreen says.

“Who art in heaven,” Bob says.

After the Lord’s Prayer, Bob, 44, reads the page marked “May 16.” The passage is on the birth of Samuel. When his mom begins to reads Psalm 61:1-8, Bob appears distracted and closes his Bible. He settles into the paisley backrest and shuts his eyes.

Prayer with mom is how Bob starts his day. Always.

Much of what he does is routine. Bob is autistic, and says he has struggled with mental illness for most of his life.

For the past several years, Bob’s world has largely been his one-bedroom apartent in the Jaycee Place Apartments complex on Bowers Street. He watches the local news or the NFL Network. Sometimes, he goes on Twitter. Or he records a Facebook live video of himself to share on other social media pages. “How you doing? Bob Ethier here,” is how the videos usually begin. He likes to share what he’s been up to.

Bob will proudly list you his accomplishments, too. He’s been a Special Olympian. And on December 16, 2017, he was inducted into the Tyngsboro High School Wrestling Athletic Hall of Fame.

“He tried real hard, came to practice every day and he was always enthusiastic about the sport of wrestling,” remembers Jim Tansey, Bob’s former wrestling coach. “He can recall anything. He’s like a Rolodex.”

Bob has created fundraisers. He’s been to Finland. He’s acted at Witch’s Woods.

“I’ve done a lot of things that you guys never expected that a person with autism did,” Bob points out on this recent Thursday. “I’m a world traveler. A TV star.”

***

It’s late Thursday morning. Bob feeds his cat, Buttercup. Doreen says she got the magpie cat a few years ago for her son, to teach him how to nurture and to help keep him calm.

In the living room, Bob monitors a row of lit TV screens he keeps on a long table draped in a red tablecloth. Each one is turned on, offering different games. Bob calls it King Hezekiah’s Vault Arcade. He says he keeps the TVs on in case anyone from the apartment building wants to drop in and play a game.

“Only friends can come into my apartment because I don’t allow any strangers,” Bob says. “Because of apartment complex rules.”

He hopes a friend will stop by sometime. So far, he says, only his mom and visiting nurse have visited. The nurse drops by later to check on him and refill his medications.

Bob has somewhere to be today. He’s headed to the Renaissance Club. Located in Lowell, the nonprofit offers vocational and social opportunities to adults recovering from mental illness throughout Greater Lowell.

Bob has been a Renaissance Club member for about 20 years and says he has a meeting with staff to discuss the 16th annual Bowlathon, which is coming up on June 2 at the Wamesit Lanes in Tewksbury.

“I created it,” he says of the fundraiser. “It’s my baby.”

Bob puts on his brown Crocs and grabs his phone, earbuds, and keys. As he steps into the elevator, he bumps into his neighbor, Leila Berniak, 65. He says hello. His 5-foot-11-inch frame looms over her.

“I love him,” Berniak says moments later, after Bob steps out onto the ground floor. “He’s a sweetheart.”

Outside the complex, Bob plugs his earphones in. Sometimes he goes to the clubhouse on Walker Street by foot. It’s about a 17-minute walk from his apartment. But today he feels like riding the city buses.

“Would you hooold my haaand?”

Bob belts out the Eric Clapton classic as he shuffles down the street to the stop on Salem Street.

“If I saw you in heaven?”

On the bus, Bob mostly listens to the playlist saved on his phone. He notices a woman with what she describes as a service cat. He tells her about Buttercup.

As he passes Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus on Market Street, Bob points out that he gets the PB&J iced coffee when he has money.

“You know, peanut butter syrup and raspberry syrup?” he asks aloud. “PB&J.”

The bus continues down Market toward Central Street.

“Sometimes when I have the money, I go to the Mandarin Asian Bistro and have a lunch special with some drinks,” Bob says as they pass the eatery on the right. “Soda.”

After he gets off this bus, Bob waits for the next one. Well over an hour has passed by the time he’s done with the second ride.

***

Bob pads down the carpeted floors of the Renaissance Club and is soon met by Program Director Heather Gilbert.

“Hi Heather,” Bob says.

“Hey Bob!” she replies.

Bob meets up with Gilbert and Assistant Director Betty Vaughan in the recovery and wellness unit room. He says he wants to know how the planning for the fundraiser is going.

“Sometimes Bob will call us or drop in and kind of ask what the progress has been so far with the fundraiser,” Gilbert says. “He likes to make sure things are going smoothly, as he’s helped plan it quick a bit in the past.”

“Yea,” Bob says.

The Renaissance Club, a program of Eliot Community Human Services, has switched to a different Bowlathon venue this year. Gilbert says the day of the event was also changed to a different day of the week for financial reasons.

“Right now, I think we have a little bit less participation than we’ve had in years past,” Gilbert says.

“And that sucks,” Bob interjects.

Gilbert adds that they’re trying to get the word out about the event.

They chat a bit more and then Bob decides to go to the dining hall. Members are there, spread out across tables, chatting.

After getting two Gatorades and a small bag of popcorn, Bob sits at a table alone and plugs his earphones back in.

***

It’s now shortly after 8 p.m. and Bob is back at home, in his armchair. He says he socialized a lot with Renaissance Club staff earlier, and a van dropped him off at the apartment complex.

On his lap is a bowl of carrot cake Oreos. On the armrest, a tall cup of cold Pepsi.

He’s watching the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory.”

“I just wanted to see the end of all this craziness,” he says with a slight chuckle.

King Hezekiah’s Vault Arcade is shut down right now. Bob says he’s too tired to turn it back on.

A lot has run through his mind today. Bob says he’s disappointed that he can’t afford Lowell Spinners season tickets this year. And he’s been thinking a lot about the business he dreams of opening in his hometown of Tyngsboro.

He’s going to call it the Tigervision Palace Entertainment Center. The top floor will have two halls of fame, and the ground floor will have a museum, coffee room, function hall, and a sports beverage bar with four TVs. There will also be a basement, with a Hall of Fame locker room and showers, steam room and a hot tub for Tyngsboro High Hall of Famers, Sabertooth Tiger members, and the homeless.

“More on that later,” he’s written on a business plan he created.

“I need investors,” he says tonight. “Big time.”

Bob has had many dreams.

Later that night, shortly before 9:30 p.m., Bob records a new Facebook live video. The Sun reporter had been gone for about an hour by then.

Bob looks into the webcam. He wants to share details about his day. What he’s been up to.

“How you doing? Bob Ethier here,” he says. “Well, it was a good day today.”

He pauses, takes a few gulps of his soda.

“It was an important day.”

Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.

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