Saturday, October 20, 2018

James Desmond ("Des") Houston, deceased (1933 - 2018)

Des Houston died on Tuesday, October 16th, 2018.  He was the former Clerk-Treasurer of the Town of Almonte, the former President of the Mississippi Golf Club and the former President of the Mississippi River Power Corporation. Those three hallmarks of association were for me and for many others the very foundation of the past, present and future of the area in which we all live.  If anyone were ever entitled to a showy send-off, it was he.  But typically for Des - and I have no doubt whatsoever that this happened entirely upon his unqualified instruction - there was no public service following his death.  That's just the sort of guy he was, exact and modest to a fault.

If you happened to meet Des for the first time you'd be assured to encounter a man who was both kindly and soft-spoken.  This however was a first impression which was soon dispelled. While he was certainly kindly he was anything but soft-spoken.  There was seldom any doubt about where Des stood on a particular issue. During his many years as leader of the Municipality, the golf club and the power corporation he hadn't any time for or interest in equivocation.  Ambiguity simply was not on the table for Des.

Permit me to share a personal anecdote.  When I arrived in Almonte in June of 1976 at 28 years of age for a job interview with the law office of Galligan & Sheffield, the partners and I met over dinner at the old club house (since destroyed by fire) of the Mississippi Golf Club in the Village of Appleton. Since that date I was a social member of the golf club until my retirement from the practice of law in 2014; and I continue to this day to frequent the club on a regular basis for breakfast.  Often I rallied there with Des and many of his cronies (with some of whom I also worked professionally).

When I bought my law office building at 77 Little Bridge Street in Almonte I proceeded to have the property "designated" as a property of historical value. The building had been the former residence of Doc Kelly. One of the advantages of having a designated building was that the Province of Ontario (through the auspices of the Municipality) would pay up to 50% of renovation costs to a maximum annual amount. I immediately entered upon a long-term improvement plan which included replacement of the windows and the front doors. The front doors were especially important to me because they were comparatively grand double doors. The normal approval process through the Heritage Committee (a group of local volunteers who reported to the Municipality) was for the property owner to submit an application based upon the original appearance of the feature to be renovated.  Unfortunately the original doors had long ago disappeared and had been replaced by something strictly functional.  But one could tell from an examination of the mouldings surrounding the entrance what might have been there.  I hired a local woodworker from the Village of Lanark to suggest a model and we settled upon a solid oak rendition of what we thought would have been the original doors.  The new double doors cost in excess of $5,000.  When I had the new doors installed I submitted my application to the Heritage Committee for approval in order to get payment of the 50% government compensation.  At that time the Heritage Committee was headed by someone whose name I cannot recall.  He reported to the Municipality that the Committee denied my application because I had not provided proof of the appearance of the original doors.  This offended me because my initial application for the grant made it clear that the original doors did not exist. To my everlasting relief and unfailing gratitude Des - as the Municipal representative with whom the final decision lay - decided to rise above the technical violation and approved the grant.

When years later I served on the Board of Directors of the Mississippi River Power Corporation with Des he exemplified the same plain thinking during the building of the new $20M hydro plant. I learned over time that Des had a notorious disregard for bureaucracy when it stood in the way of common sense.  Nothing infuriated him more than triviality.  By the same token he was uncommonly committed to sensibility and straightforwardness.

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