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Orillia mourns loss of legend, 'small-town boy who made it big'

'Today in Orillia, our community is mourning together along with the rest of the world,' mayor says, calling Lightfoot 'an incredible artist'

The morning after folk music legend Gordon Lightfoot’s death, people from around his hometown of Orillia have begun paying tribute to him and mourning his loss.

Local fans left bouquets of flowers at his Tudhope Park monument and at the bust outside the Orillia Opera House. They recounted their personal experiences with Lightfoot and his effect on Orillia, Canada and the world.

“He’s a big deal (here), but I think he means more to Canada than he does to just one town — a small-town boy who made it big and represents the country really well,” said Orillia resident Al Byrnell, who was outside the opera house taking photos of Lightfoot’s bust Tuesday morning.

“He’s an icon in the country itself. Elvis Presley performed his songs, (as did) lots of other people, Bob Dylan — just everybody had tremendous respect for him and his ability to write music.”

Byrnell, a lifelong fan, recalled studying in university when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in 1975, and how well Lightfoot captured the tragic loss of the 29 souls on board.

“I remember the night when that happened because I was in university, and I was sitting at my desk with the radio on and they kept announcing the situation that was happening out on Superior,” he said. “Then he wrote the song afterwards and it was so appropriate, like he really nailed it.”

Although Lightfoot achieved international fame in his illustrious career, he carried an approachable demeanour and made a point of acknowledging and helping out his hometown, residents recounted.

“For someone of his stature to always acknowledge that he came from Orillia is huge. A lot of performers don’t do that,” said Orillia Opera House general manager Wendy Fairbairn. “A lot of performers don’t look back on their cities and acknowledge them like he has. As part of his CBC interviews — everything — he’s always acknowledged the fact that he’s from Orillia.”

Fairbairn recalled the last time Lightfoot performed at the historic downtown venue in the main auditorium that is named after him.

“He celebrated his 80th birthday (the) last time we had him here at the opera house, which was just a beautiful ceremony,” she said. “He came out and stood up on stage and performed, and we all sang Happy Birthday to him in the audience. It was just a lovely event, and he’s just such a lovely man.”

Although the crowd sang Happy Birthday to him, it was Lightfoot who gave the city gifts that year.

“Fifty per cent of the ticket sales went to the Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital and 50 per cent went back to the opera house for restoration purposes, so he paid for his band to be here. He paid every cent. (He was a) very, very generous man … and he loved his city. He loved Orillia.”

Resident Don Cook, similarly, recalled how Lightfoot supported the city.

“He would show up for these things,” Cook said. “We had Hockey Night in Canada come up here … and they put up the statue in front of the (opera house). Sure enough, he was there for that. He showed up for these things every day, and just didn’t mail in a video or something — he showed up in the city.”

Cook noted Lightfoot was not a scheduled performer at the Mariposa Folk Festival in his twilight years but would often show up to give a surprise performance.

“I remember about five years ago, they were doing a tribute … and Gord just comes waltzing in with his guitar,” he said. “He comes walking up on stage and these young performers are singing Gordon Lightfoot covers, and he says, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’”

Lightfoot did not want to steal the tribute band’s thunder, so he sang one song with the group before sitting down to enjoy the festival.

“That was just the type of guy he was,” Cook said. “He didn’t want to take over their performance. He just wanted to be there and enjoy the crowd.”

For Jocelyn Coleman, all it took was meeting Lightfoot to make her a lifelong fan.

“I walked into McCabe’s one day and he was at a birthday party, and his nephew was playing at the same time, and I just got introduced to Gord that way and I’ve been following his music for a very long time,” she said.

“He was a great guy: funny, nice, charming. His music has held me up since I found out about his music ... and he’s been a legend and a very lovely guy around here.”

Lightfoot was born Nov. 17, 1938, in Orillia, and he is often referred to as Canada’s most gifted songwriter.

His publicist announced Monday night Lightfoot had died of natural causes at a Toronto hospital at 7:30 p.m. He was 84.

The Orillia Opera House has set up a guest book for residents to sign in memory of Lightfoot. It is available until 8 p.m. Tuesday and 12 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“You get an opportunity to stand on the stage that Gordon has stood on, write your thoughts, your stories, your history, what you feel for Gordon and how he’s contributed to your life,” Fairbairn said. “Just come in and be here. We have this piano from his school teacher, who donated it to us a number of years ago, and it’s on stage. Although it’s not play-worthy, it’s still on stage as part of his history.”

On Thursday and Friday, the book will be at the Orillia City Centre.

Mayor Don McIsaac referred to Lightfoot as “an incredible artist.”

“Our community is deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Gordon Lightfoot. Mr. Lightfoot was highly regarded in his hometown of Orillia and has had an immense impact on our community,” he said in a statement.

“His deep roots in our city are woven into the fabric of Orillia with tributes from the Gordon Lightfoot Auditorium stage and his bust at our iconic Orillia Opera House, to the Lightfoot Trail and to the Golden Leaves series of bronze sculptures within J.B. Tudhope Memorial Park.

“Many of us who knew him will remember his soft-spoken demeanour, generous personality and infectious laugh.

“Today in Orillia, our community is mourning together along with the rest of the world.”

The city has lowered its flags to half-staff in honour of Lightfoot.

A Lightfoot tribute concert will take place at the opera house Saturday, with tickets available through its website.