The gift of being famous... quietly

Originally published on May 15, 2004 | Winnipeg Free Press | written by Gordon Sinclair, Jr.

[RWF Note: Please read the whole article! I hope everyone who reads this is a fan of Robin Williams, because you'll feel so proud and good after reading this.]

THE package with the unexpected punch landed at the Free Press security desk Tuesday night. Inside were two copies of a book, self-published, called Soul Survivor. The surprising story that went with the books arrived the next morning via e-mail. The writer introduced herself as Marek Kutka.

The author of Soul Survivor was Tim Pechey, a good friend of Marek's and a fellow teacher from the old River East School Division.

"He began writing the book shortly after he was diagnosed with melanoma in the fall of 1995," Marek continued. "The book details his journey of faith and reflection based on living with cancer." He said one copy was for me and one for someone I was sure to know. Or at least know how to contact. But dropping off the books was really by way of telling a story that wasn't in the book.

A story he believed everyone should hear.

One dinner hour in the winter of 2000, when Tim's mother Doreen was visiting from Prince Albert, Sask., the phone rang at her son's house.

Tim wasn't in the mood to answer--besides it was dinner time so it was probably just another telemarketer.

"Tell them I'll call them back in half an hour," Tim told his mother.

"May I speak with Tim?" the man on the other end asked politely.

His mother didn't pick up on the "Tim," and how it was far too familiar for a telemarketer.

Besides, by her own admission, Doreen Pechey can be rather, shall we say, direct. Which is far from unusual for anyone dealing with an uninvited, unwanted commercial call.

Then there was the added aggravation.

Her son was dying.

Tim was having dinner, his mother advised. Call back in half an hour.

Half an hour later the phone rang again.

Tim answered it this time.

"Hello," he said.

At which point the caller introduced himself.

"This is Robin Williams."

There was a stunned silence as Tim collapsed into a nearby chair.

"You're kidding," he said.

What would Robin Williams be doing making a long-distance cold call in the middle of a Winnipeg winter to some teacher he had never met?

Yesterday, Tim's long-time friend, Los Angeles filmmaker Jim Helsing, answered that question.

"Tim never asked me to contact Robin--or any other celebrity. I did it because I knew he was a favourite of Tim's--especially his John Keating in Dead Poets Society."

At that time, four years ago, Jim was the director of research for Entertainment Tonight in Hollywood. So he had access to all kinds of people.

The way Jim recalls it he wrote a letter to Robin Williams' publicist explaining what his Canadian friend Tim had been going through since being diagnosed with skin cancer.

"Not long after sending the letter I received a nice call from an assistant asking for Tim's phone number," Jim recalled. "It was not long after that Robin contacted Tim."

So what could this Hollywood superstar possibly have in common with a dying English teacher in Winnipeg?

What could they have talked about?

Tim's mother remembers something Robin Williams asked her son.

He knew Tim taught junior high English.

And the actor wondered if Tim had used Dead Poets Society in his class.

Of course he had. For years.

The day after that call, Tim would sum up the rest of the conversation in an e-mail to Jim.

"We talked for 30 minutes about everything from comedy to kids, illness to film making," Tim wrote. "It was a riot. Thank you, my friend."

Later, Tim received a phone call from Robert Sean Leonard, who co-starred with Williams in Dead Poets Society and what Jim Helsing called "a very kind, supportive letter" from actor Liam Neeson.

Robin Williams made contact one more time with the teacher from Canada.

He sent Tim a package.

Inside were some videos featuring his new friend's stand-up comedy.

It was his way of trying to lighten Tim's load with laughter.

That was the winter of 2000. By spring Tim Pechey was dead.

He was only 48.

Robin Williams is in Winnipeg now.

Hopefully he will read this, because he should know how grateful Tim and his family were and are that he took the time to call.

And then to call back.

"He was just thrilled," his mother Doreen recalled yesterday. "We all were."

"It says a lot about Robin Williams' character. And just the way he must love people."

What strikes me about what Robin Williams did was how much more good he--and others from the celebrity galaxy Rich and Famous--must do anonymously. Far from the Entertainment Tonight spotlight.

And how he quietly uses his fame to do what he does so publicly with his talent.

Reach out to people.

And make them feel better.

I think that's what Tim Pechey was trying to do for others too, when he wrote his memoir about coping with cancer.

Which reminds me, that second copy of Soul Survivor is for Robin Williams.

I've made arrangements for it to be packaged up and delivered by way of a posthumous "thank you."

It's not stand-up comedy.

But I'm sure writing it lightened Tim Pechey's load, too.

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