A judge, a singer; a person who just liked people
Began performing as a child at the Palace and Capitol theatres
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.