A judge, a singer; a per­son who just liked peo­ple

Be­gan per­form­ing as a child at the Palace and Capi­tol the­atres

The Hamilton Spectator - - LO­CAL - JOEL OPHARDT jophardt@thes­pec.com 905-526-3408

More than 65 years ago, a young Tom Suther­land could be seen wheel­ing his wagon from his par­ents’ rented home at 163 Vic­to­ria St. to the for­mer Spec­ta­tor build­ing in down­town Hamil­ton.

Re­turn­ing for re­fills as many times as nec­es­sary, he crammed the pa­pers into his cart and headed for his prized ter­ri­tory — the cor­ner of King and James.

That job, like many that would fol­low, cap­ti­vated him to the core — to the point where he could be heard shout­ing “Spec­ta­tor” in his sleep.

“He could call ‘Spec­ta­tor’ so loud you would hear him a block away,” said his younger sis­ter, Loretta Ward. “We would be at the mar­ket and mom would say, ‘lis­ten, that’s my Tom.’”

That bois­ter­ous voice, fa­mous to many in the Hamil­ton and Burling­ton ar­eas, emerged at a young age. Suther­land’s mother, Rosa, a metic­u­lous penny pincher, put many of her six sons and five daugh­ters to work at mu­si­cal per­for­mances across the city in the 1940s.

From an early age, Tom, the sec­ond youngest in the fam­ily, and Loretta, a year and a half younger than Tom, would of­fer song-and-dance rou­tines chore­ographed by older sis­ter Co­lette in lo­cal the­atres.

Long for­got­ten the­atres like the Palace and the Capi­tol on King Street, the Cen­tury on Mary, and the Savoy on Mer­rick all fea­tured per­for­mances from Suther­land kids.

“You Are My Sun­shine” was a favourite, along with “The Dark­town Strut­ter’s Ball.”

Loretta and Tom would start singing in uni­son, while she tran­si­tioned into tap danc­ing and Tom car­ried the melody.

Loretta went on to per­form pro­fes­sion­ally, while Tom lever­aged his work ethic, wit and stage charm into a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a keen lawyer, beloved Burling­ton al­der­man and Hal­ton coun­cil­lor and friendly judge. He was af­fec­tion­ately known as “the singing judge,” serv­ing as On­tario Civil Court Deputy Judge for Guelph, Burling­ton, Bramp­ton and Mil­ton.

On Jan. 15, the singing judge sud­denly died of a heart at­tack. He was 79. He is sur­vived by his part­ner Ju­dith Arm­strong, his three chil­dren and their mother, Fran Suther­land, and four grand­chil­dren.

“He grew to re­ally love Burling­ton, and every­thing it rep­re­sented,” said Loretta. As an al­der­man, Suther­land’s love of the arts was un­matched. He served on the board of the Burling­ton Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre, and he con­tin­ued to per­form, singing at the Burling­ton Le­gion, and even play­ing the role of Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt in a Hamil­ton pro­duc­tion of “An­nie.” But his po­lit­i­cal pop­u­lar­ity was also fed by his in­volve­ment in the com­mu­nity; he served on the board for the Big Brothers As­so­ci­a­tion and the Sal­va­tion Army of Hamil­ton and District for 30 years.

To his son, Derek, Tom’s en­gag­ing pub­lic im­age was not an act.

“We didn’t spend too much time to­gether, but the time we spent to­gether was re­ally high-qual­ity,” re­calls Derek, 44, mid­dle child be­tween older sis­ter Kirsten and younger brother Matthew. His fa­ther passed on his love of fish­ing, even tak­ing him out of school for a trip north of Wawa.

Af­ter his dad’s re­tire­ment from the bench around age 75, Derek hired him to help out with his min­ing busi­ness. Derek val­ued their abil­ity to work to­gether and his fa­ther’s rep­u­ta­tion as a charmer.

“He would walk into a stale room, and af­ter about 15 min­utes there would be a buzz.”

Usu­ally, the re­tired judge would have no idea who he was talk­ing to, but at the end of the night he would have the busi­ness cards of the big­gest names in the in­dus­try.

“He wasn’t in­ter­ested in the money, he was in­ter­ested in the peo­ple,” said Derek. Though he would “shoot the (breeze)” with the likes of Lin­coln Alexan­der early in his le­gal ca­reer, “It wasn’t just with prom­i­nent fig­ures — he had time for ev­ery­one, and that’s why they liked him.”

That was ev­i­dent when Suther­land cam­paigned against Bill Kem­pling in 1979-80 for a seat at the fed­eral level, Derek said.

“We are here to pick a win­ner,” said Tom af­ter his 1978 Lib­eral nom­i­na­tion. “The best per­son with the strength, drive and abil­ity to un­seat the in­cum­bent. I am the most qual­i­fied.”

Though he lost, Tom felt he led a good cam­paign in a rid­ing dom­i­nated by the Con­ser­va­tives for decades, said Derek.

“His big­gest strength was can­vass­ing all day, all night, bang­ing on doors,” said Derek. “They called him ‘the en­er­gizer rab­bit.’”

Suther­land’s fa­mous work ethic was im­parted by his mother, who had fallen out of favour with her hus­band’s Protes­tant fam­ily, the own­ers of re­gion­ally pop­u­lar Suther­land’s Gin­ger Ale, which was later sold to Coca-Cola.

En­ter­tain­ing was char­ac­ter­build­ing for Suther­land, but it was also done for money. This drive was some­thing he car­ried through all of his child­hood jobs — in­clud­ing sell­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dias to fi­nance his univer­sity de­gree.

Hav­ing to pay for the en­cy­clo­pe­dias up front, there was a lot of pres­sure, said Derek.

But his fa­ther even­tu­ally won top sales­per­son of the year, grant­ing him a path to ed­u­ca­tion de­spite his fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial lim­i­ta­tions.

At univer­sity, he thrived, lever­ag­ing his de­gree not just for a ca­reer, but for build­ing mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships with the likes of fu­ture prime min­is­ter Paul Martin.

In an in­ter­view, Martin de­scribed Suther­land as a good friend who was “smart as a whip, a first class mind.”

The two friends at­tended St. Michael’s Col­lege to­gether and even had a run-in with the law. Martin fondly re­calls a big po­lit­i­cal rally at Massey Hall, where his fa­mous fa­ther was a star at­trac­tion.

Af­ter they left, Suther­land, in his typ­i­cal fash­ion, was let­ting him­self be heard by blow­ing a bu­gle with a group of fel­low stu­dents fol­low­ing.

“The po­lice came by and said, ‘you guys move on, you can’t make noise here,” re­called Martin.

The young law stu­dents stood their ground, how­ever, as­sert­ing their right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion in po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tion.

When the po­lice pointed out that the 300-odd peo­ple be­hind them had left, they were thrown into the po­lice wagon — much to the ire of Paul Martin Sr.

Later in his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer Martin would stop by to visit his old friend.

And when he wasn’t in the area, he would still phone him to chat about pol­i­tics.

“I would give him a call, and we would solve all the prob­lems of the world,” Martin joked.

More im­por­tantly, says Martin, Suther­land’s draw was his abil­ity to stand up for what he be­lieved in.

“He was hon­est and called it like he saw.”


Singing was per­haps the thing that Tom Suther­land loved most. He is shown here in June 2010, singing “Night and Day.” He had many friends, in­clud­ing from his early school days Paul Martin, later to be­come prime min­is­ter.


Suther­land, cen­tre, per­form­ing with the Matt Kennedy Trio.

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