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Tears, joy and tributes as fans pay respects to Gordon Lightfoot in his hometown

Line stretched down the street outside church in Orillia, Ont., where Lightfoot sang as a choir boy
Guests arriving to the Orillia Opera House stop to take pictures with the bust of Gordon Lightfoot before attending a sold out memorial concert for Lightfoot at the Opera House, in Orillia, Ont., Saturday, May 6, 2023. The show, titled “Early Morning Rain: The Legend of Gordon Lightfoot”, served as a celebration of life after the famed musician died May 1st at the age of 84. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Drost

Over 2,400 fans attended a public visitation Sunday in Gordon Lightfoot’s hometown in central Ontario to say goodbye to the folk singer-songwriter.

In the pouring rain, a line stretched down the street outside St. Paul’s United Church in Orillia, Ont., where Lightfoot once sang as a choir boy.

Inside, each person had a moment with the late musical legend as the line shuffled past his closed casket. It was adorned with a large bouquet of red roses, as well as a single pink one.

Within the bouquet, a card handwritten by his widow, Kim Lightfoot, read: “My heart’s treasure.” For the first hour, she greeted visitors near where they entered the building.

Some of Lightfoot’s children and grandchildren also attended the ceremony, which was a subdued affair without any speeches.

Above the procession, a lifetime of photos projected on screens in a running slideshow. Some of Lightfoot’s most famous photos were combined with images of him with his famous musician friends and an array of family group photos.

Over the sound system, a continuous flow of Lightfoot’s songs played throughout the day.

Two hours after it began, security for the event estimated nearly 1,700 people had already gone through the church, a number which steadily climbed until the visitation closed around 8 p.m.

Steve Porter and his wife, Diane Porter, were first in line at 10:30 a.m., two and a half hours before the doors opened. Not knowing how big the crowds would be, they wanted to be there early to pay their respects to the singer, who died Monday at 84 years old.

“I feel like I’m honouring Gord in my own little way,” he said while standing in line.

“I’m representing my family and my ancestors who are all gone and who loved him dearly.”

Myeengun Henry travelled from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation near London, Ont, with a gift of tobacco to honour Lightfoot. He carried the wing of an eagle in his hand, which he said was a symbolic gesture of the highest-flying bird.

“It can see the farthest and I kind of relate that to Gord,” he said.

“He could see things other people couldn’t and the eagle feather is perfect for thinking about Gord … (He) sent the truth to many people and so I have so much respect for his legacy.”

Antonette Dinovo and her husband travelled a couple of hours from Markham, Ont., outside of Toronto.

“I think it’s important to be here today,” she said. “It represents the loss we feel and a celebration.”

Many local establishments took those sentiments to heart. Several bars and one of the local record stores planned to recognize Lightfoot’s influence through live music performances this weekend.

David LaBute, who drove four hours from Windsor, Ont., with his friend, said the spirit of Lightfoot could be felt in the streets of the city.

“There are tributes all over the place,” he said. “It’s really nice to see a town take ownership of one of their own.”

Lightfoot’s bassist, Rick Haynes, who had worked with the musician for 55 years, said the outpouring of emotion from visitors “means a lot to the family and a lot to me, personally,” and certainly would be meaningful to Lightfoot himself.

“I think he would be humbled by it … because he loved the community and he loved his fans,” Haynes said inside the church.

“Gordon was the best. There are a lot of great songwriters out there, I don’t think any of them are better than Gordon.”

Lightfoot also seemed to win the loyalty of man’s best friend, particularly a dog named Taurus. The sullen pup, owned by a friend and tour mate, arrived at the visitation with his master and soon laid down underneath the musician’s casket.

At 2 p.m., church bells at St. Paul’s rang 30 times, 29 for the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald and once in honour of Lightfoot. It was one of the many tributes to Lightfoot in Orillia since his death on May 1.

On Saturday, a previously planned concert tribute to his career at the Orillia Opera House became a celebration of his life and career.

Elsewhere, a book of condolences could also be signed at Toronto’s Massey Hall, a venue where Lightfoot frequently performed throughout his career.

A private funeral is to take place Monday in Orillia, where Lightfoot is to be buried alongside his parents.

—David Friend, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Canada’s musical community weighs in on Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘genius’ and influence