Irene Forbes taught me a thing or two about commitment

It was March, 1973 and as editor of The Banner I was “laying out” the news. In those days offset press was revolutionizing newspaper production and instead of setting rows of lead type into steel forms, we were putting wax on the back of paper columns of print and “sticking” them down to heavier which would eventually go on a printing press (that’s a compressed explanation).

The point is, I was standing at the banks of pages that had to be laid out by myself, news stories, headlines, photos. I was deciding what went where, which “good news” story was going to make the front page (I always tried to balance a “bad news” story with a “good news” story).

We’d lived in Barrie for three years at that point, and were renting the bottom floor of a house on Toronto St from Bud Noble. Bert and Win Empke were our next door neighbours, filling us in on “old Barrie” and Esme Whittaker was in the white stucco place next door. Muriel and Roy Yorke lived on the other side. Canadian Tire was on the corner at Dunlop St. Jack Willson ran his real estate office out of the coach house behind his home up the street.

And we were hankering for a piece of real estate of our own.

I wandered over to the classifieds section which Ev Johnstone was layiing out and there, in bold type, was a picture of a home on Blake St that looked pretty wonderful. Price tag? $36,500.

And that’s how I met Irene Forbes.

Irene was selling real estate for Jack Willson in those days and had the listing for the Blake St house. When I called, she agreed to take us through the house which turned out to be as wonderful as it looked in the picture.

We spent some time talking about the kind of house we wanted, not subdivision, older, fireplace, few bedrooms, large lot. Irene asked us about our current income. She took us around to see a few more places, and we started to get the “hang” of looking at property. We learned about foundations, about what might be hiding under insulbrick or aluminum siding. We learned to look at shingles on roofs and to ask about ages of furnaces. Irene was thorough.

We felt like we were getting nowhere.

One evening she brought us back to our apartment and sat in the kitchen with us. She asked us to outline all our expenses and our income and she had a good look. “You folks, on your income, should not be looking at anything over $27,000. You won’t be able to keep up with the payments.”

We were about to get an important life lesson.

As gently as possible, she looked at both of us and said, “the trouble is, you’re looking at houses that are as grand as what you grew up in. But your parents worked for years and years to be able to afford those houses. You have to start at something much more modest.”

She paused. We took this in. She was right.

“Now, of all the things on your list, what are the two most important?” she asked.

We thought about it. Well, we didn’t have a family (yet) so we could forgo the bedrooms. We’d like a fireplace, but… we guessed most important was an older street with a large lot and solid construction. Size and amenities weren’t so important, we guessed.

“Well, I’ve spent enough time with you to have an idea of what you like. And we know now what you can afford. You’re pretty comfortable here, so there’s no real rush. If you’ll trust me, I’ll stay on top of what’s out there and I’ll call you when the right house shows up. How’s that?” She looked us in the eye.

We were pretty eager. She was asking us to stop looking and wait for her to call. We did.

In August Irene phoned me at work. “I listed your house last night,” she said. “Want to see it?”

Of course we did.

And Irene Forbes was right. There it was on a third-acre lot on Penetang St. Three rooms on the main floor, a little porch to the side, a tinier one at the back, a bedroom on the second story with a single dormer window. Big trees in the front yard. An enormous willow in the back. Two apple trees. And a fairly new garage that was easily as big as the house. House built of poured concrete from foundation to roof. Not pretty but solid as a rock. Price tag? $29,900.

We needed only one bedroom. We could install a Franklin fireplace in the living room. And the man who was selling the house (who became a dear friend) would take back a second mortgage for two years.

We settled on $28,800 and in three months the house would become ours. We moved in with my husband’s parents to top up our down payment and Irene arranged with Bob Walton, our vendor, to let us start painting once he’d moved out. Every night we’d go to her house, pick up Bob’s key, paint away til midnight, drop the kay back off and repeat it all the next day.

Closing day was October 19, 1973 and Irene was there, her quiet smile and her arms full of flowers. She was as delighted for us, (and for Bob, too, I think) as we were.

We lived in that wonderful house for 18 years. We put two additions on it, front and side, adding two more bedrooms, a second bathroom, big decks. We covered the poured concrete with a stone face. We painted the trim. We loved that house.

And we loved Irene Forbes. She’d drop in to see each baby that we brought home to that house.

I never figured it out at the time, but Irene would have been in her mid-60’s when we first met her.

Last week, at age 93, she passed away. She’d lived at the IOOF apartments for some time and we always communicated at Christmas. As I sat at her funeral last Friday I reflected on her contribution to the world… a steady partner to her husband Bill; an unconditional mother to her three sons; no doubt a grandma that the kids loved.

But, for me? Irene Forbes was a lucky choice on our part. She was a real estate professional who cared as much about her vendor as she did about her buyers. She wanted to make a sale that would be good for everyone. And when she gave her word, she meant it.

I’ve thought often how fortunate we were to find that first listing with her name on it and find Irene. She probably didn’t make any sales records for Willson Real Estate, I don’t know. But she made a real record with me. She taught the three bywords that I believe are life’s motto: care, concern, commitment.

Thanks, Irene.