It’s hard to live in St. John’s and not know Noel “Derm” Dobbin.
Derm was born in the capital city on December 27, 1940, one of 11 children to Rita (Power) and Patrick. He grew up on King’s Bridge Road, where he famously burned down their family home by playing with matches as a child.
He met Ethel Power when he was 17 and she was 13. He was immediately smitten and Ethel was captivated by his charm and joie de vivre. They married in 1967 and had three children: Bradley, Gregory (Gig) and Julie.
Derm spent one year studying torts at University of Ottawa and decided he’d much rather be an entrepreneur. In 1973, he started a construction business in Saint John, N.B. But, like many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, he felt the call of home.
He moved N.D. Dobbin and the family to St. John’s in 1981 and specialized in the general contracting business. Over the years, the company expanded to include a hotel, a painting company, property management, and various real estate ventures.
Through the ups and downs of the life as an entrepreneur, Derm always remained relentlessly optimistic. He believed a chuckle beats a sigh any day of the week. In fact, the family thinks he was an unwitting early adopter of Oprah’s power of positive thinking. No matter what happened in the industry – contracts cancelled or missed opportunities – he’d shrug: “Another bus is always around the corner.” The only negative thought he conceded is that “this aging stuff is for the birds.”
At one point, he was convinced to start a high-end restaurant called The Vault that wowed national food critics but was short-lived. And he, and his brother Craig, made headlines when they bought a Major Junior Hockey Team, and named it the Fog Devils, in an effort to boost community pride and the sports scene in the province.
Many have noted that Derm always seemed larger than life. This is true. The family has appreciated hearing the many stories, like when he served up Caesars from the trunk of his car early morning on the Bell Island ferry during the Dobbin family reunion, or the time he streaked through the streets of Las Vegas. He magically seemed to be able to get tickets and front row seats to any event.
The kids had a wonderful childhood. They travelled, often at the last second, to visit cousins and friends in Florida, New England and other places. Derm would coast over every speed bump and hill, ignore every rule of the road and charm every police officer. In fact, a police car even escorted the family to Disney after Derm was stopped for driving on the shoulder of the road to get around heavy traffic on the highway. His driving only got more colourful when Uncle Jay deputized him and gave him a badge.
Derm and Ethel were known for their famous parties on Tonbridge Place. And, as the kids grew up, this house became a welcome haven for the kids and their friends. Tonbridge Place was always full of teenagers. Derm once offered his car to one of Julie’s friends to pick up someone. He replied: “Mr. Dobbin, I am 14.”
He also held a special place in his heart for all his nieces and nephews. He picked up his godchild Tracey from school every year on her birthday to bring her to the best or newest restaurant in town for lunch. (No matter if he was late getting her back to school.)
Derm and Ethel later separated but their bond never wavered. He relied on her advice (and sharp zingers) to guide him through all aspects of business and life. They talked all the time and often had dinners together. The kids always thought they might eventually find their way back together and it was ironic that they spent the last few weeks of his life at Kenny’s Pond under the same roof. He visited her room recently and quipped: “Move over and make room for me in the bed, Eth!”
Derm enjoyed meals with Gig and Julie’s cuisine, and watching his beloved basketball with Brad, even going to the Big East with the Ashe family or games in Toronto. He loved Sunday gatherings at his place. He loved his grandchildren, Lucy, Katie, Molly and Maggie who have such happy memories of afternoons at Papa Derm’s pond on Old Broad Cove Road. He welcomed all their friends to his home and he was thrilled that they also called him Papa Derm.
The only time his home was off limits was during his weekly Friday afternoon card games with the same motley crew he played with for more than 40 years. The card games always led to trouble and Derm was known to cancel his business trips early to make sure he arrived home in time for the party.
He also loved golf, spending much of the winter in Florida, and catching up on the political scene. Everyone liked to be around him and he often ended chats with: “I enjoyed your company today.” Walking with him on the street was like walking with a celebrity. He stopped to talk to everyone – “Nice to see you, my man!” “How are you, young lady?” (no matter what the age) – and was a favourite patron at many restaurants around town. He even created his own parking space at the former Newfoundland Hotel. The staff eventually stopped planting flowers in that spot. He treated everyone with great respect, from the ushers at Mile One to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Papa Derm was universally known for his joyful nature, kindness and sense of fun. Many of his business contacts became life-long friends. He was generous to a fault and gave many people new starts and opportunities. He paid for his employees to get medical treatments off the island with unlimited time off. He helped support new ventures and businesses. If you came to him with a problem, he’d say, “Leave it with me”.
In 2015, he sponsored a family from war-torn Syria to the safety of St. John’s. Zaid, the little boy, then two, has hemophilia and would likely have died in a camp if they hadn’t moved to Canada where he now has proper treatment.
More than once, Derm rescued his own kids from various misadventures in their youth. Even as adults, they knew he was always there for them no matter what. It’s impossible to believe that he is gone.
Papa Derm will be greatly missed and fondly remembered by so many.
He leaves to mourn his wife, Ethel; sons Brad (Susanne) and Gregory; daughter Julie (Glenn); grandchildren Lucy; Katie, Molly, Maggie; sisters Marion (Dr. Walter Tucker), Rita (Edwin Dodge), Margo (William Stinson); brothers Basil (Jenna) and Barney (Elizabeth): as well as a large number of nieces, nephews, cousins, dear friends, business colleagues and employees.
Derm was predeceased by his parents, Rita and Patrick; in-laws Greg and Mary Power; and siblings Patrick, Dennis, Craig, Maureen and Judy.
Visitation will take place at Carnell’s Funeral home on Monday, April 26 and Tuesday, April 27 from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. and will follow public health protocols. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a private funeral mass will be live-streamed on Wednesday, April 28 at 9:30 a.m. by viewing this link: https://tom0349.wixsite.com/streamingservices/carnells
A celebration of life will take place at a later date when family can safely travel home.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Association for New Canadians, Choices for Youth, or a charity of your choice.