Family and friends said goodbye last Sunday to Johnny Evans: family man, entrepreneur, character. Others were there to say goodbye to “Rotten” Reggie Love of the hated Love Brothers tag team of the 1970s. Some only knew one side of him while others were fortunate to know both. While I thought I knew Johnny, it turns out I was woefully out of my depth.

Johnny Evans / Rotten Reggie at a Hamilton oldtimers wrestling lunch, Christmas 2007. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

The scene was the Royal Canadian Legion in Waterdown, Ontario, just outside Hamilton, on Sunday, January 28, 2018. The official starting time for the celebration of his life was 2 p.m. but people arrived early, in droves, and stayed right through the 5 p.m. supposed ending time. It was a tribute to a 90-year-old man who lived life to its fullest, “full of bravado,” until his death on January 7, 2018.

That line came from Cathy Evans, one of eight children — four boys, four girls — born to Johnny and Carol Evans.

“It’s a wonderful tribute to see so many people here today,” said Cathy at the outset.

She shared many tales, breaking for musical interludes, from a family friend and from a grandson.

Given that I’d known Reggie (I rarely called him John) for at least 20 years, I was surprised at how much I didn’t know. As I wrote in my tribute upon learning that Reggie had passed [May the one and only “Rotten” Reggie Love rest in peace], he was always cracking wise, so perhaps on some level that was a way to deflect from talking about himself.

He was born in Wales, to Dorothy and John Evans; John was a pilot in World War I and after the war jobs were scarce at home so with a sponsored job available at Stelco in Hamilton, they set off for Canada, taking the SS Montrose and arriving in Trois Rivieres, Quebec, on May 18, 1930. (Fast-forwarding to 1997, when Johnny turned 65 and applied for his Canadian Pension Plan payments, he was surprised to learn that he was not a Canadian citizen. It took nine years of paperwork until his landed immigrant status came through in 2006.)

John Evans Sr. had been a boxer and found the wrestling matches, usually held on a platform over the Municipal Pool during the winter, to be great entertainment and he took his sons. No one would have predicted young Johnny would one day be a wrestler — there were many adventures to come first.

School wasn’t exactly Johnny’s thing. He wasn’t committed to Hamilton Technical Institute, as Cathy put it, “his brother described him as ‘an occasional drop-in,’ usually with a forged note to explain his many absences.” He quit school after Grade 10 but never gave up on learning and kept a dictionary nearby and tried to learn a new word every day.

He knew the value of a dollar and tried to save. In the case of sneaking into a dance on a hall near the canal on Hamilton’s beach strip, it changed his life.

Cathy told the story, from 1947, of her parents meeting: “Johnny wanted to attend, but he never wanted to pay, so he tried to sneak in through a window. He asked a young woman sitting below the window to give him a hand. That pretty young woman was our mother, Carol McIntyre. She extended her hand to help him in, they both got caught and both of them got kicked out. The rest, as they say, is history. They were married in 1948 and were together for over 60 years until mom passed away in 2009.”

We often romanticize the pro wrestler, destined to enter the sport and showcase his or her skills to the masses but in Johnny Evans’ case it took a while to get there.

His daughter said Johnny held many jobs “that he was highly unsuited for” including working as a milkman for Silverwoods Dairy with a horsedrawn carriage. In that instance, he was fired after the first week because he knew nothing about horses and the horse kept taking off and running back home. He only lasted a couple of days at Stelco too. He painted houses, sold the Farmer’s Gazette to local farmers and even played professional lacrosse for Hamilton, Detroit and Boston; once scored nine goals in a game but always maintained that it was actually 10 goals.

This ability to spin a yarn was a Johnny Evans / Rotten Reggie trait. “It’s no surprise that Dad was known to recycle his stories; there was mostly truth in all of them, but you never knew which parts were actually embellished,” said Cathy.

Alexander the Great (Alex Girard), John’s son David Evans, and referee Harry Demerjian.

It soon became apparent Johnny couldn’t work for anyone else, so, with the support of his wife, he began a dizzying string of businesses. In no specific order, here are some of them:

  • a dry cleaning store on the beach strip in Hamilton, where the family lived in the back
  • making pickled eggs and sausages to sell to local bars
  • a diner on the beach (the opening of the Skyway bridge in 1958 destroyed all businesses on the strip)
  • owned a car lot
  • Hubcaps Bar on Kenworth St.
  • American Health Studios in Brantford
  • Rose & Sharon Nurseries in Burlington
  • an after-hours club at Main & Walnut in Hamilton
  • Pacific Prefab Homes in Burlington
  • owned a used furniture store on Ottawa St.
  • commercials and TV (“Last year, he received a royalty cheque for a rerun of The Littlest Hobo. It was for $2.38. He couldn’t stop laughing when I showed it to him. He told me not to cash it, just frame it.”)
  • he bought, renovated and sold 20 older houses, and owned property in many places

Hartford and Reginald Love with manager Al Costello in the IWA. Courtesy Chris Swisher

One of the property sales hit a snag, and jumps into his days as a Love Brother, but fits in here. Evans owned 150 acres on Lake Rosseau in the Muskoka area of Ontario but in the 1970s interest rates went way up so he tried to sell. The township blocked his attempt to carve up the land for sale so he sprung into action. With he and partner Hartford Love (Wes Hutchings) as co-hosts, he ran two Miss Nude World contest on the property “thinking that would change their minds.” Nope. Time to get really imaginative, explained Cathy. “When he still didn’t get severance, he had a phony offer drawn up by the Satan’s Choice motorcycle club in Kitchener and presented it to the council, letting them know that Satan’s Choice wanted to move their clubhouse there.” After 10 years of fighting, he got his severance … not knowing that today, 150 acres on Lake Rosseau would be worth millions and millions of dollars.

Through it all, though, Johnny never forgot what mattered — family.

Johnny Evans under a mask when he was starting up, at Benny Lima’s gym.

“Dad happily described us as the perfect family, four boys, four girls. Mom was just 30 and Dad was just 33 with eight children,” said Cathy. “He loved kids, he loved the beach and was always out golfing or playing with the kids, coaching hockey, baseball and generally hanging out on the beach.” An email from a niece in Hawaii described how much fun it was to visit with Uncle John and Aunt Carol, who would make a competition out of anything, just for kicks. But it was not helicopter parenting. “Dad’s idea of babysitting was having the youngest kids draw with a pen on his arms and legs as he slept in the sun,” laughed Cathy, praising his ability to “find humour in just about anything.”

Family friend Laura Lush of the University of Toronto’s English department was called to the stage and talked about the “mythical status” Johnny would have in the neighbourhood because he was on TV, as a pro wrestler and in commercials.

Long-time Hamilton fan Kevin Hobbs and Johnny Powers.

Following Lush’s personal tales, I was honoured to get to talk a little about Rotten Reggie and his legacy in pro wrestling. The greatest example was actually in the room — all the former colleagues who came out, spanning generations, including Johnny Powers, Bruce Swayze, Ernie Moore, Ron Doner, Big Mac, Alexander the Great, Roger Francoeur, Silent Brian Mackney, Bernie Livingston, Mark Robertson (son of Dewey “The Missing Link”) and referee Harry D. This was a part I knew well, having talked to Reggie so many times, spending time with him at events, lunches or even one memorable day just hanging out.

For those who are interested, I’ve posted the audio of part of my speech on YouTube:

Closing the event was Les Evans, the oldest of John and Carol’s seven surviving children (John III died in 1972). “He was born a fighter and a fighter he remained,” he said, trying to hold it together. But then, like his father, it turned a little lighter as he wondered about the dating life of his sisters. “It’s a miracle my sisters ever got a date,” Les cracked, referring to his father’s rules.

Apparently, Johnny liked to refer to himself as the “Great Procreater,” all part of his attempt at humour. “He was always trying to get a laugh out of someone,” concluded Les.

When it was time to go, it was actually hard to leave. I was having fun, visiting with my many friends in the business, and meeting people — especially John’s family, who I really had never met much beyond going to Carol’s visitation in 2009.

And having fun was what Johnny Evans — and Rotten Reggie — was all about.

Brian Mackney and Ernie Moore.

Roger Francoeur and Bruce Swayze talk.