It was a common thing for Evelyn Burton to be with her husband downtown or at a mall and be approached by a perfect stranger who’d shake Ernie’s hand and say, “I appeared before you. Remember me?”
Ernie would always say, “did I let you off?” And in recent years he would not remember who his “client” had been.
For years and years, from about 1950 to 1980, Ernie Burton ran police court. He was the Justice of the Peace before whom all Highway Traffic Act charges appeared.
It was common practice in the early years for Ernie to get out of bed in the middle of the night, zip himself into his trousers and don a jacket, jump in the car to meet a police officer on Highway 11, or on Bayfield St. to remand a prisoner into police custody. In those days, someone committing a Highway Traffic Act offense was charged on the spot and remanded on the spot as well. And then they’d appear in Ernie Burton’s court.
And Ernie was careful in his summation of who and what appeared before him. He’d listen carefully to character references; he’d listen to tales of woe; he’d listen to charges and to police history; he’d listen to his gut. And Ernie’s gut instinct was pretty fine.
During his days as JP, Ernie worked with pretty well every police officer in the region… OPP, City Police, Innisfil Police etc. And while many of his days (and nights) were dealing with people charged with impaired driving, speeding, etc., his evenings and weekends were spent performing wedding ceremonies.
Ernie was paid per case from his swearing in as part time Justice of the Peace around 1950 until he moved into his full time position and his very first office in Simcoe County’s new Court House in 1975. Then he had a salary. He continued full time until he was 71 years old and officially “retired” in 1980, moving to three days a week.
But Ernie’s round face and quiet demeanor were attributes that few people ever forgot.
His route to the bench was a circuitous one. Ernie didn’t hang around long if stuck in a job he didn’t like. And that ensured that he had a working life that was full of great experience. He came to Barrie in 1938 as a new husband and new salesperson for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. He and wife Evelyn took an apartment on the second floor of a Dunlop St. shoe repair store (most recently housed by Harris Flowers) near Mulcaster St. While they were there, Ernie took interest in the bowling alley that was two doors away. Five pin lanes up and 10 pin lanes downstairs. And while he sold life insurance, he dreamed about doing something else.
Real estate? Tried it. Didn’t like it. And so he bought the bowling alley. He operated this for a few years and sold it to a Mr. Green just months before several stores in that block (including Eatons and the bowling alley) burned to the ground. Ernie moved on to become assistant town clerk, learning the municipal government business at the hands of clerk John Smith. And what a training that was. Barrie enjoyed a population of 7,000 in those days and Mr. Smith knew every single one of them. Ernie moved into the clerk’s position when Mr. Smith retired, and then progressed to become business manager and secretary treasurer of the Barrie School Board, which was then a municipal responsibility. He moved on to perform the same function with the Simcoe County School Board. It’s important to understand that in these days education was a municipal matter, not a provincially mandated ministry.
It was during his position with the County School Board when Ernie was approached to sit as Justice of the Peace.
Ernie was the kind of man who didn’t suffer fools. He also didn’t take his work home with him so Evelyn and their three children, David, Elaine and Donald, never really knew when and where Ernie was, what he did and why he made the work decisions that he made.
“He’d just make up his mind to make a change and after he did, he’d tell us about it,” remembers Evelyn.
Ernie had a strong charitable commitment and was a staunch member of a number of organizations. He also had a remarkable musical talent, having played cello with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra before moving to Barrie in 1938. Here he had little musical outlet but he teamed up with Examiner Publisher Ken Walls who was a credible pianist and they formed a trio with a violinist and played a number of gigs… auto shows, public events etc.
And until five years ago he and Evelyn lived in the Parkdale Crescent home that their neighbour Gord Pratt built for them in the 1950’s. When they sold it in 1996, it was to move to an apartment at the IOOF Centre in Allandale.
Ernie suffered in his later years from Osteoporosis and broke a knee when he bent over to retrieve his fallen mail one day. Admitted to Royal Victoria Hospital, he was discharged to a retirement home in Creemore. For the months he was at Creemore, Evelyn relied heavily on her son to get her to Ernie every other day. It was a great relief when last November Ernie was moved to a bed at the IOOF Home. And it was there that he died on the first day of this year, five months from his 92nd birthday.
Family for Ernie was really Evelyn and his three children. He was an only child and his Mom and Dad lived in Toronto and returned to England for a holiday in 1939. The War broke out and they couldn’t get back to Canada. And so the Burton grandchildren knew rare visits with Ernie’s parents.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Ernie Burton is how separately he lived his many lives. He loved to travel and cruises were his big passion. After retirement Ernie and Evelyn enjoyed cruises to Alaska, the Islands, Barbados, and twice through the Panama Canal.
They were married 66 years.
Hockey games were a big passion for Ernie and Evelyn and perhaps they brought back memories of the years Ernie ran the concession booth at the Barrie Arena, days when the Barrie Flyers’ roster boasted Doug Mohns, Don Cherry, Ron Stewart and Paul Emms and Hap coached the team to a Memorial Cup. During a television game they’d throw comments back and forth to each other. Evelyn finds herself doing the same things today. And silence is the response she gets.
But I feel certain that Ernie’s listening. It’s just his style.