Peter’s legacy is one of kind tenacity and gentle persistence

Buying your first house may be one of the most exciting times in your life. It sure was for my first husband and I, back in 1973. Some time ago I wrote about our incredible experience with our real estate rep, Irene Forbes.

Well, in those days (early 70s), Barrie’s northern boundaries were Cundles Rd. The southern part of the city trickled after Minet’s Pt until you reached Painswick at Big Bay Pt. And east… well, Barrie ended at Thunder Bridge on Shanty Bay Rd and there was virtually no residential development west of Highway 400.

Back in 1973 when we bought our house, the bank required 25% down payment and a good interest rate was in the 10% range.

So, we found our little piece of Canada on Penetang St and joined neighbours who had built their own homes after the war, living in tents as they built. And I guess because we were sincere and were working hard (each of us had a job and a half), our lawyer, Peter Mills, called us in to discuss our purchase and its financial ramifications.

Just for the record, purchase price for our 1/3 acre lot and our 900 square foot house and 1200 square foot garage was $28,800. We put $4,200 down, more than an entire year’s income. We were looking for a mortgage and hoped we’d get it from a bank. But, no. Peter Mills had a client who was looking to earn stable interest and would like to offer us a mortgage. She lived a few blocks away on Melrose. Would we be interested? We could pay off as much as we liked when we liked as long as we covered our basic monthly payment. We jumped at the opportunity and in the process we got to have a monthly visit with the senior citizen who held our mortgage.

As I write this, I realize in these days of faceless, impersonal, internet banking that my story sounds like pure fiction. I mean, who really does that?

Peter Mills does. Peter has always had the pleasant knack of bringing people together. And it works because Peter’s basic tenet is trust. He has a gentleman’s approach to things legal.

This week, Peter packed up the last of his law books, shredded what could be shredded and sent the rest to archives. He and his long, long, longtime assistant Linda Griffiths, deleted their voice messages. Peter–and

Peter Mills was 27 years old when he decided not to join his father’s and uncle’s law firm of Mills & Mills. Instead, he struck out on his own for the small town of Barrie and applied to the firm of Stewart, Esten. Tucked into a warren of rooms in an old building on Owen St, the Stewarts (father and son) had merged with the Estens (father and son) after World War Two, giving the firm both litigation and corporate expertise.

Young Peter arrived in 1956 with his wife, Dana, and as they built their lives in Barrie, they added four children (and now nine grandchildren) to their family unit.

A few young lawyers were attracted to the firm in the 60’s, and 70’s, notably, Gordon McTurk, Paul Hermiston, Alf Dick, David White… the size of the sign grew and the letterhead stretched across the page… Stewart Esten McTurk Mills Dick & Hermiston. Wisdom dictated a move back to Stewart Esten and there it remains.

Bill Leslie is now the firm’s managiing senior partner and he well remembers meeting Peter in the fall of 1975. As a recently graduated lawyer Bill had applied to Stewart Esten and Peter invited him up for an interview. Maurice Esten was there, too, on reduced hours, having given up his partnership and working as an employee. Peter insisted that Bill bring his wife, Cathy, along for the interview. He spent as much time talking with Cathy as he did with Bill, and he escorted them around Barrie’s residential areas, and took them for dinner as he took time to acquaint himself with his potential colleague.

“Family mattered to Peter. I guess we passed the test.” Bill comments that both Carl Stewart and Maurice Essten were real gentleman lawyers… Peter Mills has entrenched that legacy into the firm. David White joined Stewart Esten in the 70’s and even though he later left to pursue real estate interests and set up private practice, his relationship with Peter has never dimmed. David dubbed Peter ‘the gentleman lawyer’ as he remembers years of professional relationship where never a voice was raised nor anger expressed.

It was David White and Peter Mills who worked with Millet Salter to build a traditional building in which to house their law firm in 1978. It was a long project that was well thought out and the firm’s 100 Collier St address has served them well. “Being associated with somebody who’s so kind and such a gentleman gives you an outlook on the profession,” says David.

And so, here is Peter Mills, 50 years after starting his career, taking a break and moving to other things. At nearly 77 years old, he’s carved a path of service that not only includes his corporate clients, but also community service. He’s been on the Board of Stewards of Burton Ave United Church since 1957 and sung in the King Edward Choir for over 30 years. He gave as much time as a judicious member of the City of Barrie’s Committees of Adjustment and Land Division. He’s also served on a similar committee for Parry Sound Township for seven years, making a contribution to his cottage area.

He was apppointed Deputy Judge for Small Claims Court in 1962 and continues to sit in that capacity. He’s a former bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada. He served two terms on the Simcoe County Board of Education. He was the first chairman of Gryphon Theatre’s Board of Directors, a former director with the Canadian Cancer Society and a former member of the Canada Pension Appeals Board.

Long, sturdy, steady, committed contribution to a community he chose. Peter and Dana’s kids have grown to embrace their communities wholeheartedly as well. Son Alex is a lawyer here with a phd in Zoology, and is the father of two; Rebecca has a phd in clinical psychology and lives in Fredicton. Son Tom is a medical doctor practicing in Barrie and married to lawyer Jeannie. They have four girls. Son John, father of three boys, lives in the United States. Nine grandchildren occupy Peter and Dana’s enthusiasm year round.

As time went on, my husband and I paid off that first mortgage and moved four blocks east, just doors away from Peter and Dana. As I walked Kid Two to school we noticed an old wreck of a wooden boat sitting in Peter’s driveway one day. “I’m going to restore this,” Peter announced. “It’s a project I’m doing with my grandson, Austin.” Austin was pre-school at the time.

Well, he did. With the same gentle, painstaking, detail-driven attitude that has forged a career of legal excellence, Peter’s hands and heart and tools (and Austin’s enthusiasm) did restore that boat until a few summers later it gleamed in the garage, doors open to the sunshine.

That boat probably demonstrates more about Peter Mills than the rest of it put together… he did it with family; he completed what he started; he knew it would take a long, long time. He knew it was worth doing.

Our community is richer because this fellow decided to move to Barrie. And as he turns in his key to 100 Collier St., the building he helped design and construct, it will be to move on to other interests. But we know he’ll look back. Now and then.

Thanks, Peter.