AMHERST - There’s a lot of love for Springhill and its coal mining past in Brantford, Ont.
If you happen to be driving down Superior Street, one particular property stands out.
Half the front yard is a large Canadian flag composed of mulch and stone. The other half is a tribute to Springhill and the 60th anniversary of the 1958 mining disaster. It’s made of mulch and coal from the creator’s hometown.
“I thought of this two years ago,” Al Ruddick said.
The son of Alder and Marilyn Ruddick, Al is also grandson of the late Maurice Ruddick whose story of being trapped underground for eight and a half days with six other miners is remembered in a Canadian Heritage Minute.
When Al and his girlfriend moved into their home, the yards were in need of some care.
“I do landscaping on the side and every yard was weeds, so that wasn’t going to do,” Al said.
Preparing for Canada’s 150th in 2017, Al spent 20 hours turning his front yard into a Canadian flag. But that was only the first stage. When his mother was making plans to visit last year, Al had a special request.
“I knew what I was going to do, so I asked her to bring me some coal,” Al said. “I figured it would be 60 years since my grandfather getting trapped, and I’d do something.”
With his father handling coal collection and his mother, delivery, Al got to work in the spring and immediately drew attention.
“The neighbourhood love it,” Ally said. “They stop and ask questions. One couple from Cape Breton stopped and the guy said, ‘I was a coal miner, too.’”
Al was only seven when his grandfather died and says he was too young to understand the perils and hardship his grandfather faced.
Maurice is not only remembered as the “Singing Miner” he added a historical footnote to the civil rights movement of the day. The miners and their families were invited to a resort vacation in Georgia by the governor, however the hosts were unaware of the Ruddick family’s African descent. Maurice, his wife Norma and their children agreed to be segregated according to the State of Georgia’s laws. The segregation proved a public-relations nightmare for the governor and drew international scrutiny.
Maurice would be named Canadian Citizen of the Year in 1959 by the readers of the Toronto Telegram.
For Al, making the extra effort to bring a smile to someone’s face is a family legacy he’s happy to carry on.
By his own account, Ruddick was a tough guy growing up in Springhill.
“Anyone who remembers me would be surprised,” Al said. “I’m not the same guy anymore.”
But from a young age, he had an honest passion. At home Al would imagine himself as his favourite World Wrestling Entertainment stars, posing in front of the mirror rehearsing their signature moves and imitating their catch phrases.
“I used to watch it as a kid and I was actually pretty good at voices,” he said.
As he grew older though, Al felt he was on a path to one of the institutions that replaced coal mining in Springhill – the prison.
He decided to seek happiness in Ontario. It was a good decision, though it took a bit to settle in. A close call with death eight years ago sealed the deal; Al wanted to live an honest life.
His girlfriend, Terri Andrews, encouraged the change. They had been dating a few months when Terri suggested they go to Niagara Falls. Al wasn’t enthused, but gave in.
“After finding a parking spot we did some of the usual tourist stuff,” Terri said. “We started to walk down towards the falls and what used to be the WWE store. When Al went in to the store he was like a kid at Christmas time.”
Things snowballed from there. Al bought a few belts. Then some more, then figurines and posters.
Something was awakened in him. Today he feels he has the largest collection of wrestling memorabilia in the world, which includes more than 200 wrestling related T-shirts.
But it was his love of imitating his favourite wrestlers that took things to a new level.
“We were in Niagara Falls again on a different day and Al was wearing his John Cena outfit sporting the belt, of course,” Terri said. “We came across an Asian family and the father kept saying to Al ‘You’re John Cena.’ No matter how much Al tried to tell him, this guy would not give in and put his finger to his mouth as if to say, ‘I won’t tell.’”
Al started imitating more wrestlers as his collection grew. Soon he became a semi-professional wrestling imitator while adding a Canadian spin to such legends as Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man Randy Savage. Since then he’s been popular at parades and charity events, makes appearances at hospitals for wrestling fans and even attends wrestling events as a variety of characters.
Beyond that, some of his favourite wrestlers are now his fans.
“As comic-cons rose I started to go. Now some wrestlers come to see me,” Al said.
There’s a joy in Al’s voice when he talks about entertaining people while in character – and he is quite the character. At parades he hands out toys and at events he puts on a show, sometimes meeting the same legends who inspired him when he was a child.
Young Al may have been a tough-guy growing up, but he didn’t stay that way. His passion brought out the best of him and today he’s proud to tell his neighbours and fans about the town he grew up in.
And his town is proud to hear how well he is doing and, especially, how he is doing it.