Barrie’s lost our own Rex Murphy

Harris Steele loved to win. He loved to sail and win. He’d take off his shirt during a race to feel the wind & brace for the race… the quickest way to win!

In fact, Harris Steele did everything the quickest way possible! He ran everywhere, energy thrumming itself through his body and out through twinkling eyes. He connected with people. In fact, Harris lived with his heart in high gear all the time.

Barrie’s resident “newfie,” Harris was a proverbial fountain of knowledge when it came to fine china and crystal. He arrived in Barrie with his parents in 1947 (from Brigis, NF) and after finishing at Barrie Collegiate, dove immediately into the family china business. In the 50’s and 60’s, Americans and Torontonians were driving right through Barrie to summer places in Muskoka and Wasaga Beach. They drove right past Steele’s China and Gifts, and they stopped and went in to this mecca of finery. Those were retail heydays for a downtown shop like Harris’ and he rose to the occasion.

In fact, for his entire life in Barrie he remained a champion of downtowns, calling them the true heart of a community. In many ways, Harris Steele was the true heart of this community. He took a huge financial risk in the late 70’s when he and Millet Salter, Jack Wallwin and Doug Stewart plied their vision for a Downtown Square. What they envisioned then is happening in communities today, 30 years later. Carefully the four entrepreneurs planned a downtown shopping mecca to run behind and link into Dunlop Street stores, keeping retail activity downtown while retaining our historical buildings. They began buying land, starting with the Downtown Centre. Millet Salter remembers, “Jim Murray, editor of Canadian Architect said later it was the best development scheme ever presented under the downtown renewal plan because we were preserving and reinforcing the main street.”

Harris was a risk taker in so many ways. He joined a number of his friends in the late 60’s and early 70’s and they formed Kemp Bay Developments. They built office buildings for people, starting with the plant for Chrysler Marine. An interesting group… Jack Wallwin, Charlie Wilson, John Cockburn, Jack Hiscock, Millet Salter, Ron Stewart, Willard Kinzie, Horace Pratt, Bob Angeloff, … each brought a different talent to the table. They formed an association that was to last 40 years and in its tenure build some of Barrie’s best office buildings.

Harris didn’t stop there. He shared an ownership of Horseshoe Valley with a group of friends at one point. He was a founder of the Barrie Yacht Club. He road a motorcycle with the same enthusiasm that he took to his sailboat.

He loved antique cars and joined the Barrie Antique Car Club, linking enthusiasms with Dave Hill, Don Hanney, Peter Dean and Val Brucker.

Harris was pleasantly political. Millet Salter remembers getting a call from Harris to join him for food and libation. He wanted a few of his friends over to meet his good friend who was visiting. Joey Smallwood was staying for the night. Smallwood became a longtime premier of Newfoundland, bringing the province into confederation. Yes, Harris’ roots ran very deep.

Like most islanders, Harris loved to sing. He made song his gift to the choir at St Andrews Presbyterian Church and at weekly Rotary meetings. Peter Dean remembers his year as President of the “old” club with Harris as his sergeant at arms… “They called us Stainless and Painless.”

Harris lived a modest life, a block from the water which held his soul. He owned a dory repair shop in the maritimes. It was his maritime roots that connected him to Kevin Carroll, Rotarian, lawyer, maritimer. The Steeles and the Harrises were good friends. Once Harris’ three daughters were grown and Harris began living his life separately from their mother, Harris stayed permanently fixed to the Carrolls. The calls, the connecting and checking in were daily rituals. Harris and Kevin raced sailboats together. They went hunting together. The camped. They fished, culminating in four glorious days of fishing in the Churchill River in Labrador a few years ago.

And they sailed. “I’ve been racing sailboats since I was 15 and he is absolutely the best, most focussed skipper I ever sailed under.”

Harris was larger than life. He lived that life at full speed. His heart was bigger than his body. He gave his heart to people who needed it… a young couple who came in to pawn a piece of heirloom china because they’d just lost their jobs and had nowhere to live. Harris took them upstairs above his store, settled them into an apartment, found furniture for them, made a few calls to find jobs and made them keep their heirloom. And Harris gave, without ever looking back in expectation. He was a true example of ‘pay it forward.’

Today, the pews at St Andrew’s Church were full. There was one voice missing in the choir. The air was still. Harris friends were still, wondering what life is going to be like without him. The man with the big heart got a second chance last week with quadruple bypass surgery. The surgery went fine and he came to his daughter’s home to recuperate. Last Friday night he ate his favourite supper with his favourite dessert. He did not eat his normal favourite bowl of buttered popcorn late that night. But everything else was just about perfect. And then he went to bed.

During the night, Harris suffered a stroke. He did not regain consciousness and took flight on Sunday. The mighty train, with its incredible spirit, love of people, generous nature, has come to a full stop. In its wake is an individual who lived life fully, using his heart in every sense, filling each moment like it was his last. Harris left no promissory notes… only deed.

Who is left? His three daughters, katherine, Elizabeth, and Allison. Grandchildren Christine, Andrew, Taylor, Hayley. His good friend, Lorna. His ‘mates’ Jack, Millet, Peter, Willard, Ron, John, Kevin, Charlie.

Harris Steele’s generosity knew no bounds. He was a risk taker. But most important, Harris Steele led and lived with his heart.

Thanks, Harris.