The Honourable Walter T. Stayshyn (1934 - 2021)
By: Justice James R. H. Turnbull
In December, the Hamilton Law Association lost a true, blue Hamilton lawyer and judge, The Honourable Walter Stayshyn. He presided as a judge in our community for thirty- five years, first as a County Court Judge from 1975 to 1990 and then as a Superior Court Judge from 1990 to his retirement in 2009. When he stepped down at the mandatory age of 75, he told me that he felt he had been born to be a judge and that he felt blessed to have fulfilled one of the major purposes of his life.
Walt was born in Hamilton and educated in the city. At the former Central High School, he was an exceptional athlete, excelling in both football and basketball while attaining good grades. At McMaster, where he obtained his B.A., he earned his Varsity letter on both the football and basketball teams. One of his teammates and lifelong friend was the legendary Russ Jackson. After he obtained his LLB from Osgoode Hall in 1961, he articled with the Hamilton Law firm of Agro, Zaffiro, Parente under the tutelage of the legendary John Agro. Upon his call to the Ontario bar in 1963, he returned to the Agro firm as an associate, but after a year or so, he ventured out with his life-long friend Nick Borkovich to practice law under the name of Borkovich and Stayshyn. Walt was recognized by the bench and bar early in his career as a well prepared, articulate litigator. While raising his family and practicing law, he became very actively involved in the Hamilton community. He was a director and ultimately Chair of the Hamilton -Wentworth Legal Aid Committee and a member of numerous other philanthropic boards helping people in his hometown.
Both he and Nick were eventually named to the bench, with Nick joining Walt once again in 1982. The two of them had their judicial offices on the fifth floor of the old courthouse, located just across Main Street from the Sopinka Court House. Walt always got into the office early in the morning and would carefully read pre-trial memos so that he could give his opinion on the case and urge a settlement. Counsel regularly arrived at his office early each morning around 8:30am where Walt had the coffee brewed and we were welcomed with his hearty smile and the offer of a cup of coffee. He had a good grasp of the law and understood the trial process well. And accordingly, most often, we listened to what he had to say.
In the courtroom, Walt was fair and patient, but he did not suffer fools lightly. Except for one. My first criminal jury trial was before Walt. I had anticipated a legal issue which would arise and had photocopied the relevant extract from a Supreme Court of Canada decision which supported my client’s position. When I handed the extract up to him, he called a recess to allow him to read it in Chambers. When he returned, he had a wry smile on his face. He gently admonished me, a young lawyer in my second year of practice.
“Mr. Turnbull, thanks for the extract. There’s just one problem. The other eight judges did not agree with this dissent”.
At that moment, I wished someone could have just cut a hole in the floor so that I could disappear. But that wasn’t necessary. He was very kind and clearly understood I was not trying to mislead him. He did not try to humiliate me or unduly embarrass me. I always tried to treat counsel the same way when I presided, largely because of the lesson Walt gave me that day.
Walter applied to become a judge just twelve years after becoming a lawyer. David Smye recalls that when he was thinking of applying, he spoke with the late Honourable John White Q.C. John told Walt that he would be a good judge, but he should wait five to ten years because he was too young and needed more experience. Walt ignored his advice and a few years after his appointment, John told David Smye that he had been wrong, and that Walter had become a really good judge. And anyone who was doing trial work in Hamilton during the 1980’s or 1990’s knew that Walt was exactly that.
But despite his appointment to the job for which he felt he was born; life was not to be easy for Walt. His wife Kathy developed Multiple Sclerosis at a relatively young age and unfortunately, it progressed rather rapidly leading to significant limitations in Kathy’s ability to enjoy life. Walt dedicated his life to caring for Kathy until she ultimately passed away in 2006. Many of his judicial colleagues felt that he was a role model for us in the way he had cherished his wife. And then in 2012, his beautiful daughter Katherine (Bunny) was tragically murdered by her husband who then committed police suicide when he forced a police officer to shoot him in self defence. Suddenly, Walt’s three grandchildren had lost their mother and father in one tragic morning. With such a violent and tragic loss, Walt was understandably devastated, and his health gradually declined.
The remaining light in his life has been his son Ted and his wife Erin and his grandchildren who have been so loving and supportive during the last years of Walt’s life. Ted of course, is a member of The Hamilton Law Association and a leading personal injury lawyer in the city. The apple has not fallen far from the tree, for as I stated above, Walt had been an outstanding litigation lawyer before being appointed to the bench.
With Walter’s passing, I felt a deep personal loss as he had been a mentor to me as a young lawyer and again, when I was appointed to the bench in 2005. He was a good and kind friend to many of us in the Hamilton bar. He was a wonderful and loving husband and father and grandfather. And he was one heck of a good trial judge.