WATERTOWN — If you didn’t know him, you probably saw Damien M. LaBarge riding his bike around town, even during the north country’s brutal winters.
You also probably ran into him at the Sunoco, Stewart’s Shops and the Kinney Drug store on Washington Street and found him starting up a conversation.
Friends described Mr. LaBarge, 41, who died unexpectedly on Nov. 30, as a gentle man with a big heart.
He was known all over the city from his days as a Watertown Daily Times delivery person, getting hired in 2000 and staying until 2017. He often had three routes, including delivering papers to Public Square businesses.
District manager Michael P. Kiblin said the former Times employee made sure that customers always got the paper delivered. If he came up a paper or two short, Mr. LaBarge went back — even in the evening — to get a paper to a customer. And he was often on his bike delivering them.
“He was dedicated,” Mr. Kiblin said.
While his paper routes played a big part in his life, Mr. LaBarge was much more than that.
The Rev. Dominic Kriegbaum got to know him more during the last three years while serving as pastor of A New Way Assembly of God Church on Haley Street.
“He was a lovable guy,” the pastor said, “and was always smiling.”
Mr. LaBarge was the church’s greeter, welcoming church members at the front door when they arrived for services on Sundays. He often wore a set of headphones so he could listen to music.
“You didn’t know what he was listening to, but you heard him singing loud,” he said.
Mr. LaBarge was involved in the church’s Royal Ranger program. Similar to the Boy Scouts, the program helps boys learn about such things as backpacking and camping while earning badges.
The Rev. Kriegbaum remembered getting prank phone calls from Mr. LaBarge saying it was Fred Flintstone and getting texts of photos of his friend’s Clifford the Big Red Dog stuffed animals.
“That was classic Damien,” he said.
Every day, Mr. LaBarge made his rounds visiting a number of local businesses, his friends said.
“I think it was part of his routine,” the Rev. Kriegbaum said. “I think he was lonely at home. Absolutely, everyone knew him.”
Bob Bierce, the retired manager at the Rite Aid store on Arsenal Street, said that Mr. LaBarge shopped in his store for many years. He remembered his friend coming into the store and giving him big bear hugs that lifted him off the ground.
Sometimes, Mr. LaBarge rode his bike into the store and down the aisles yelling out “Mr. Manager, Mr. Manager.”
But the antics didn’t annoy Mr. Bierce.
“He was a character,” he said.
One Christmas years ago, Mr. Bierce recalled that Mr. LaBarge asked if the store manager could save a couple of toys for him until he got paid and he’d purchase them later in the week.
As it turned out, the doll and fire engine were for some neighboring children who came from a poor family. Mr. LaBarge was worried they would not be getting any presents.
“This was a guy who didn’t have much and he was helping someone who had less than him,” he said. “He was a big guy with a big heart.”
But life for Mr. LaBarge was not without difficulties.
Over the years, he was involved in a series of bike accidents that left him with a variety of injuries. He was forced to ride a bike because he suffered from seizures, caused by getting hit by a car when he was 9 years old.
In 2014, he was hit by a pickup truck on State Street. The $700 bike he was on ended up a mangled mess. He broke his pelvis and it took months for him to recover.
At the time, former Mayor Jeffrey Graham said on his “Hotline” radio show that people riding bicycles in the winter were a hazard and should be arrested, Bicycle enthusiasts objected to the comments. It also angered Mr. LaBarge, as well.
His customers, however, came together to buy Mr. LaBarge a new bicycle, Mr. Kiblin said.
This summer, he was involved in yet another bike accident. In another incident, his bike was stolen, Detective Lt. Joseph Donoghue Sr. said.
“He always did things for people,” he said. “He had a big heart.”
On Nov. 30, Mr. LaBarge was at home when he fell down some stairs. He died at his home.
“It took all of us by surprise when we heard we lost him,” the Rev. Kriegbaum said.
Family and friends gathered for his funeral on Sunday.