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Humble but unforgettable client | Ken Hill

Tuesday, March 02, 2021 @ 1:23 PM | By Ken Hill

Ken Hill %>
Ken Hill
A short elderly man (one of the few I have met who could aptly be described as roly-poly) entered my office, accompanied by a faint odour of mothballs. I couldn’t have known at the time that I was about to meet one of my all-time favourite clients.

If you practise law long enough, especially in a small community, you get to meet some standout people, and you will be privy to the most intimate aspects of their lives. You are actually paid to listen to their stories, so what could be better? Fred (not his real name) was one of my most memorable clients.

He was a bachelor farmer who first came to me for the purpose of making a new will. To look at him you wouldn’t suspect that he not only owned a farm but had investments of $60,000 in each of the banks and trust companies in town. He explained that was because he knew that amount was the maximum deposit guaranteed by the CDIC. He hadn’t amassed this fortune through innovation or entrepreneurship; his assets were accumulated largely through frugality. He lived on the farm he inherited from his parents and on which he had spent almost his entire life, living in precisely the manner they had established. The sole modern amenity in his neatly kept little farmhouse was a telephone. He saw no need for electricity or running water. The hand pump, outhouse and coal burning kitchen stove were his only sources of warmth, hydration and sanitation. I asked how he stored food without refrigeration and he said,” Ken, there’s a cold spot in the corner of the basement and it keeps the milk and butter just fine.” 

Fred had a sister who had married and was estranged from him, and he had a brother, also a lifelong bachelor who owned a farm of his own not far from Fred’s. One November day Fred came to see me because his brother had died and left him the other farm. This necessitated some changes to his will and he asked me to be his executor, which was something I routinely discouraged clients from doing. Fred had no one else he trusted and did not want a corporate trustee to do the job, so I accepted the assignment.

When Christmas approached I was concerned that Fred would be alone on his farm in the festive season, so soon after the loss of his brother. I had gathered that he was a very private person and not wishing to offend him by treating him as a “charity case,” I used my children as a Trojan horse and asked him if he had any slopes on his farm where I could bring my young kids tobogganing. That would enable me to check on him and at least give him a little holiday company.

So, one snowy day I took my daughter sliding at Fred’s place and he invited us in to warm up by the kitchen stove. We had a nice chat and as the sun went down, of course it got dark in his house, so he switched on a battery-operated lantern and seemed to be quite comfortable and at ease in his simple home.

One day Fred came to see me because he had spent some time in hospital for heart trouble and he informed me that the doctors would not release him to live on his own. Clearly it would be a challenge to find a roommate willing to share his lifestyle, so he had to take a room in a very nice retirement home in town.

But such was his attachment to home and independence that he told me his daily routine was to go to his farm each day after breakfast, to return to the home for lunch, then back to the farm until it was time to come home for dinner. I can’t remember what work I did for him at that time, but I’ll never forget a conversation we had when he was in to sign some papers. I invited him out to lunch and his response was: “Oh no, Ken, I couldn’t. You see I’ve paid for all my meals at the residence.”

A frugal creature of habit to the end, Fred passed away peacefully and so it fell to me to administer his estate. His beneficiaries were all worthy charities so I was happy to proceed, but it turned out to be a bit of an adventure.

I had to sort through the old farmhouse, including boxes of documents, to catalogue what was there. It was chilly work since I was too chicken to try to figure out the coal stove, but there were some fascinating finds. Until that day I had never heard of, let alone seen a wind-up stereo system. Fred had a large collection of 78 rpm records and a wind-up record player in a cabinet cleverly designed to project the sound via two built in amplifying horns. How many hours of music emanated from that machine over the many decades of its service? That was just one of the many pieces of humble antique furniture and gizmos that we sold at auction.

I had no trouble selling the two farms and the household contents and was getting ready to distribute to the charities when I was contacted by a lawyer on behalf of the sister — with a challenge to the will! Fortunately, the beneficiaries were willing to kick a bit of the money her way and we settled promptly. I never knew what had caused the rift in the family but I am glad that his sister got something, albeit contrary to his wishes, and that the bulk of his substantial estate is still yielding benefits in the hands of some very worthy institutions. Being a lawyer gave me the privilege of knowing this fascinating man and of helping him carry out his wish to do some good at the end of a simple life. You could say that he was eccentric, but in fact, it was the world that had changed around him as he stuck to the ways of his youth, ways that suited old Fred just fine. 

Ken Hill is happily retired from just about 40 years of litigation practice in Newmarket, Ont.

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