Some guys drive a cab for a living. Some teach comp lit. Richard L’Abbé blows himself up. “It’s the ultimate high,” he says, and one wonders which gated facility he escaped from. In fact, L’Abbé, 41, is president of Med-Eng Systems of Ottawa, Ont., the world’s foremost designer of protective suits for bomb squads. He stands behind his product—inside it, actually. No trial dummies for L’Abbé; he has tested his 80-pound, $15,000-a-suit bomb wear personally—19 times. Each time, he says, is “like getting hit by a small truck.” That’s dedication.
A mild-mannered, married father of three, L’Abbé is hardly the archetypal action hero. Raised in Ottawa, the sixth child of Francois L’Abbé, 82, a building contractor, and his wife, Lucile, 78, he studied mechanical engineering at the University of Ottawa, then joined a firm that studied car safety and helped design bomb helmets for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. L’Abbé moved to Med-Eng and first tested a bomb suit in 1985 “to see what it felt like” and to silence skeptical bomb squadders. “Many of them thought of bomb suits as body bags,” he notes. Standing 25 feet from the explosive, he says, “I felt pretty lonely—and pretty stupid.” Though he has suffered only cuts and headaches, his wife, Francine, 38, is understandably anxious. “I don’t like it,” she says of his work. L’Abbé does have limits, discovered during a 1988 suit test for the Canadian government in which he set off enough dynamite to total a car. “That’s something I’ll never do again,” he concedes. “I got a pretty bad headache.” Wimp.