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'He was Canadiana': Lightfoot's music, humility resounded loudly

'I really loved how authentic he was and how real he was,' says Karen Hilfman-Millson, a former St. Paul’s minister, who will be officiant at Lightfoot's funeral

As hundreds of friends and fans made a pilgrimage to St. Paul’s Centre on Sunday to pay tribute to folk music legend Gordon Lightfoot, countless memories of friendship and fandom emerged.

Orillia residents, Canadians from far and wide, and travellers from the United States came to bid the folk music legend a final farewell during a public visitation that ran from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.. By three in the afternoon, more than 1,000 people had already paid their respects to Lightfoot, who died May 1. He was 84..

Karen Hilfman-Millson, a former St. Paul’s minister and longtime friend of Lightfoot’s, has been chosen as the officiant of his upcoming funeral, a private function for family and close friends.

“It feels like such a blessing because I have this deep sadness, and almost like a wound at his death,” she said. “To have the opportunity, to think about who he's been in my life and in the life of Canada and the life of Orillia, it means a lot. It really does.”

Hilfman-Millson, who served as St. Paul’s minister for 17 years, had the opportunity to interview Lightfoot on numerous occasions.

She said she loved how authentic and humble he was.

“I really loved how authentic he was and how real he was,” she said. “He didn't want to be a superstar – he wasn't particularly interested in that. He was a very shy person; he was a very humble person, but he was very committed to his craft and his musical lyrical poetry.”

Recalling how Lightfoot began his musical career at St. Paul’s in the choir, Hilfman-Millson said it means a lot to know how much the church meant to him, and she said it signifies the impact the church can have on people.

“The whole idea of him choosing to come home to here for his visitation means a lot,” she said. “It just warms people's hearts, that this meant so much to him, and I think we begin to see the difference we can make as a community, both the church community and the Orillia community.

“He walked through that door a lot, and it made an impact on his life, so it's, it's very touching to be reminded how much of a difference that makes when we welcome people and we encourage their gifts, and we celebrate who they are,” she said. “It's a good reminder that as a community, that's what we need to be doing.”

Just as the church impacted Lightfoot’s life, so, too, did he impact the hundreds of people who showed up for the public visitation.

Siblings Fred and Lisa Krohn travelled all the way from Minneapolis to pay their respects.

Fred said Lightfoot was a key part of building his career as a music promoter in Minneapolis.

“He was the first artist that I ever promoted as live entertainment ... He sold out shows, and I stayed in the business,” he said. “The guy is a legendary performer and probably the best songwriter that I've ever had … Lightfoot outclassed them all, as far as I’m concerned.”

Through their friendship, Lightfoot penned the foreword to Fred’s book, Standing in the Wings, and became a family friend, as well.

“Our mom used to … bring Gordon and the guys brownies, and he called our mom ‘Mom,’ and he's known our family through Fred for all these years,” added Lisa.

When not involved in music, Lightfoot would often take to adventure, and his old friend Ingo Schoppel spoke of numerous canoe trips the two had been on over the years.

“We have a canoe group out of Cambridge, all kinds of prominent people – prime ministers, and so forth – have been part of it, and he was very enthusiastic. I did a bunch of trips with him up north and (in the) Northwest Territories,” Schoppel said. “(There were) some very long trips, longest one I did with Gord was 1,000 kilometres long.”

When you spend weeks together in nature, Schoppel said, you get to know someone fairly well.

“Gord’s music is fantastic, and when you have stayed some five, six weeks together in the bush alone, you know, you get talking with him and you have a fantastic exchange,” he said. “He was very persistent, very strong, never gives up.”

Others had more humorous memories of the late folk legend.

Orillia resident Peggy Little came out to pay her respects to Lightfoot, as she went to school with him once upon a time.

“We both went to ODCVI, and a chap called Terry Whelan, who has a beautiful Irish voice, he and Gordy sang together. I always called them the ‘Two Timers,’ but it was the Two Tones, because they were two timers,” Little said, stirring plenty of laughter in the lineup outside St. Paul’s. 

“I never went out with him.”

Jeff Day, former managing editor of the Orillia Packet & Times, recalled meeting Lightfoot numerous times in Orillia, as well as in his role as a journalist down in Hamilton.

“When Even Steven … came back to play after touring out west, Gord would come and listen to them at various bars in Orillia, including the old Howard Johnson's,” he said.  “The most fun part I remember about him, was he came one night … with his mom, Jessie, and she was just a riot. We ended up sitting with her. What a light she was.

“I got to meet him several times when I went to Hamilton as the entertainment editor at the Hamilton Spectator, so he played there several times, and we got to meet him again,” he said. “He was Canadiana. He's just ingrained in what we do and how we do it every day.” 

Orillia’s Andrea Town said her husband once gifted her a record of Lightfoot’s, and said she has been a fan for years.

“I listened to it all the time, and as I'm standing here in the rain, I'm thinking of "Early Morning Rain",” she said. “I don't have that record anymore, so I'm kind of sad about that, but I love his music. It's reflective. It's just a beautiful sound that he brings in every song.”

George Young, who travelled from Huntsville to pay his respects, said he became a fan of Lightfoot’s through his career in radio.

“Of course, when I started back in the ‘60s, he was one of the big singers of the time,” he said. “A lot of his stuff was local Canadian: history, people, personal, and he was unique in that way, and he wasn't afraid to sing it and express himself. I think that's what set him apart from some other singers.”

Edith Molnar, from Toronto, said she became acquainted with Lightfoot back in the ‘hippie’ days of the 1960s, as well.

“I was a hippie then, walking down Yorkville, and he was in the Riverboat Coffeehouse for 25 years, and he was like a staple down in the village,” she said. “We loved his music and I saw him at Massey Hall many, many times, and to me, he's like a Canadian icon.”