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A bench of his own: neighbouring community honours homeless man

Orphee Martin poses for a photo on the granite bench that was installed Friday at Sunnyside Lawn Cemetery in memory of her brother, Ryan Ashe. - Tracy Holmes
Orphee Martin poses for a photo on the granite bench that was installed Friday at Sunnyside Lawn Cemetery in memory of her brother, Ryan Ashe.
— image credit: Tracy Holmes

After more than two decades of shuffling from bench to bench in White Rock, Ryan Ashe finally has one entirely his own.

Friday, the granite tribute to arguably the city’s best-known homeless man was installed at Sunnyside Lawn Cemetery in neighbouring South Surrey – four months after Ashe’s death from cancer at age 56.

“He’s going to be so happy to have his own spot there, forever,” said Orphee Martin, Ashe’s sister, admiring the gesture inspired by word of her brother’s impact on the community.

Ashe was somewhat of a fixture in White Rock’s uptown core, often seen rolling a cigarette or chatting with passersby at whatever bus stop or bench where he’d set up camp. Always, his tarped cart of belongings would be parked nearby – the thought of leaving ‘Dolly’ behind was a big reason behind his repeated refusal of offers for shelter over the years, said White Rock Coun. Helen Fathers, who met Ashe when she emigrated from England.

Ashe became the centre of a controversy in the spring of 2012, after city officials, prompted by complaints, said he would have to move from his settlement at a bus stop on Johnston Road. He shifted to a nearby bus stop on Thrift Avenue, then into the Good Shepherd Lodge that October. Hospitalized last summer, he died in Surrey Hospice on Aug. 13, surrounded by people who had come to know and care for him over the years.

At a celebration of Ashe’s life in September, attendees described a kind, well-mannered man with a “pure heart” who – despite a harsh life on the street – taught them what mattered in life.

Friday’s installation was arranged by Anna Terrace, Surrey’s cemetery services manager.

Terrace – a funeral director for 19 years before taking over the role of running the city’s cemeteries a year ago – said she never met Ashe but was moved to act after hearing his story.

“I was just so touched by how many people he touched,” she said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

The bench was one of eight Terrace had purchased for the community and she had been wondering where to put it. Placed under a dove tree, she said it marks the first time the city has dedicated a bench to a specific person.

Engraved by Surrey carver Ves Vukovic, it bears Ashe’s full name, birthday and date of death, along with the words:

A kind soul with a radiant smile,

And a community of caring friends.

A bench was his home,

Finally, a bench of his own.

Terrace said standing in the icy wind as it was installed Friday almost brought tears to her eyes, thinking of all the days and nights that Ashe endured worse weather, seemingly unfazed.

“It’s my understanding that he always had a smile on his face,” she said.

Martin brought her brother’s ashes with her to mark the occasion. She placed the wooden box on one side of the engraved message while she sat on the other with a framed photo of Ashe.

It’s “a great spot,” she said.

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