Harry Searson was a remarkable man who helped many people, and was a driving force in the Valley’s forest industry

Eganville – Harry Searson was a driving force behind the local forestry industry in the Ottawa Valley for half a century, a man who helped many behind the scenes without seeking public recognition, a mentor to many through Alcoholics Anonymous, a lover of Irish music and a man known for his steady smile and quiet grace.

One of the Ottawa Valley’s best known and most respected businessmen, he passed away peacefully last Wednesday afternoon in Marianhill long-term care home in Pembroke where he had been a resident since August 2019.

Joseph Harry Searson, better known to his wide circle of friends and business associates as Harry J., was in his 88th year. He was the last of a generation of Ottawa Valley icons whose lives centred on the forest industry of the Valley.

He has joined a host of other pillars of the industry he was associated with for nearly half a century, individuals like J.S.L and Donald McRae, Leonard Welk, Donald and Johnny Shaw, Bennie Hokum, Hec Clouthier Sr., Len Gulick, Lavern Heideman, August Quade, M.W. (Barney), Bud and Harold Miller, Walter Dombroskie, Dermy Calver, and many others whose lives were dedicated to the operation of sawmills in Renfrew County and beyond, creating thousands of forest-related jobs. These were all hard-working, successful individuals who not only provided jobs for many people but also contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Renfrew County economy over half a century.

Born and raised on the family farm near Hyndford, Mr. Searson had very little formal education, but he possessed a determination and willpower to succeed in life and went on to become one of the most successful businesspeople in the Ottawa Valley. He had a desire to achieve and although his success included amassing financial wealth, that was secondary to him. He lived a comfortable, but simple life, had great compassion for the down-trodden and less fortunate and never allowed his financial success to change who he was.

He was proud of his Grattan Township roots, had a great appreciation for the land and its resources, loved to engage in local history and regale in stories about the many interesting and colourful characters of the area. He was as much at home around a farmhouse kitchen table or a sawmill yard as he was in the presence of corporate executives, industry leaders and senior politicians. Mr. Searson was a friend to many and always had a lot of time for people. He was a practical man, a person who shared his wisdom and knowledge freely with others. He was a great mentor to many people in business and many sought his advice on different matters. He provided it freely but only after much thought and consideration. He never rushed into decisions, nor did he hasten to provide sage advice.

But his life was not always peaceful and filled with contentment. He joined the work force as a teenager, his first job taking him to Cornwall where he worked on the construction of the large hydro dam on the St. Lawrence River, returning to the Eganville area a few years later where he began selling used cars with his good friend, Cammie Bimm, a native of Eganville who went on to establish several successful businesses in Pembroke.

Both Mr. Searson and Mr. Bimm were similar in many ways. They forged a friendship when they were in their 20s that continued through until Mr. Bimm’s passing about two years ago. They were both natural salesmen, likeable individuals, but both suffered from alcoholism at a young age. They were both high achievers and once they found sobriety in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), they went on to establish several businesses on their own and become good contributing members of society. They were early pioneers of the AA program in Renfrew County and each of them devoted their lives to opening the doors to thousands of people afflicted with the disease, helping them to overcome their compulsions and turn their lives around to become productive, contributing members of society.

Their friendship endured more than seven decades and each one lived to celebrate 60 years of continuous sobriety in AA. They were considered the fathers of the program in Renfrew County and in those early years when little was known about AA and how it works, they often sat alone at a meeting in a church hall, with the coffee brewing and the doors open, ready to help anyone begin their journey to sobriety. It was through their perseverance and commitment, and years of dedication to this simple program that thousands of people eventually found their way to meetings and went on to find sobriety.

Mr. Searson was grateful to AA and often said he would not have survived had he not found the program. Although his craving for alcohol had long disappeared, he said the program provided him with tools to survive and cope in a sometimes crazy and mixed up world.

He possessed many qualities needed to succeed in life, both in business and as an individual. He was a man of common sense, fair dealings, frankness and possessed self-confidence. He understood the problems of business in its real sense and was able to take corrective actions. He had a pleasing personality, a charming disposition and was cordial in his interactions with others. He showed sympathy towards those who were suffering or experiencing difficult times. He had empathy for the poor and quietly helped many in need, always keeping his acts of charity anonymous. He was enthusiastic and energetic, had an amazing foresight and was held in high esteem by all who had the opportunity to know him.

A life-long resident of Eganville after his marriage to Mary Cuddy, he became a pulpwood and lumber broker in 1963 and purchased wood throughout the Valley for shipment to the E.B. Eddy pulp mill in Hull, Que, which was owned then by the Weston family. Dean Foulks, a name familiar to many in the wood business, was the pulpwood buyer for E.B. Eddy. It was during those years when landowners loaded pulpwood on trucks and in rail cars by hand that he saw the opportunity to begin selling log loaders and in 1966 he became a dealer for Barko loaders and other forest equipment. Over the years as he built up solid business relationships with the many mill owners and jobbers, he realized the loaders could be more efficient and so he teamed up with a family-owned company in the United States and in 1975 began manufacturing Serco loaders which became very popular in the marketplace. This company continues to produce the loaders to this day in Two Harbors, Minnesota. For several years, Mr. Searson operated his business from a building adjacent to his Alice Street property, but in 1983 he relocated it to North Algona Wilberforce Township, 5 km west of Eganville along Hwy. 60 as larger premises and more land was required as the business grew. Today, the business continues under the direction of eldest son, Dan.

Mr. Searson was much more than just a provider of equipment to the forest industry. He quickly established solid relationships and life-long friendships with all of the mill owners and many jobbers and was considered by many to be the person who got the mills working together for the common good of the wider area. Realizing the importance of and having a great understanding of the wood industry, he was one of the first nine members to be appointed to the newly-formed Algonquin Forestry Authority in 1975. The authority was created by the Ontario government to carry out land management and forest harvesting in Algonquin Provincial Park to replace logging operations that were being carried out by 18 companies. The authority was created in an era when there was much opposition from urbanites to logging in the park who did not understand the importance of harvesting the forests.

Throughout his life he took a keen interest in municipal affairs and provincial and federal politics. He served a term on Eganville council in 1970 under Reeve E.E. Bimm and was also chair of the Eganville Development Company  (a local business economic committee) that was formed after the village and immediate area suffered several setbacks as fire destroyed the E.A. Lisk IGA and bakery and the nearby Len Welk sawmill. It was that group that raised money to build a new medical centre and bring two doctors and a dentist to town. During this time, village council spear-headed many civic projects such as bringing water and sewage services, rebuilding Highway 41 through the village, building the senior citizens’ housing complex on Wallace Street and several other major projects.

A life-long member and ardent supporter of the Progressive Conservative party, both provincially and federally, he loved to get involved in political campaigns going back to the days of such well known members as Dr. M.J. and Jimmy Maloney, Jim Baskin, Doug Alkenbrack and Paul Yakabuski to name a few. He was a very close friend to the late Mr. Yakabuski and played active roles in several of his political campaigns. He also nominated him as the candidate at the 1971 convention.

Mr. Searson was also a quiet supporter of projects in his home community and other parts of Renfrew County.

In 1995, he and the late Bill Hall of Renfrew began working with sawmill owners in the Valley on a proposal to build a medium density fibreboard (MDF) plant in Renfrew County. Known as the FIDEV Corporation the group formed a partnership with the giant forest company MacMillan Bloedel and convinced them to build a new MDF plant in Renfrew County. The negotiations, much of which were carried out at this end by Mr. Searson, resulted in the opening of the huge plant along Highway 17 in Laurentian Valley Township in March 1996. Not only did the new industry create an opportunity for mills from the Ottawa Valley and beyond to sell their wood chips, sawdust and other wood residues, but today it employs more than 100 people in good paying jobs.

Although MacMillan Bloedel sold the plant a year later after a massive restructuring of the company, and has had several owners in its almost 25 years of existence, today it is owned by Roseburg, a woods product company headquartered in Springfield, Oregon.

In 2006, Mr. Searson and Mr. Bimm each loaned $750,000 on the strength of a hand shake so that a group of community volunteers who had been pursuing a long-term care facility for Eganville and area for many years could build Fairfields assisted living complex.

As chair of fundraising for the Eganville and Area Long-Term Care Corporation the publisher of the Leader can only say that without the financial backing of these two men, their trust in the people working on their project and their pride and love for their home community, Fairfields would not have been built and hundreds of elderly residents of the area would have been forced to leave their home community in order to get the care they required.

Two years ago, they were honoured by the board of directors, staff and residents at Fairfields when a portrait of the two men, painted by local artist Horst Guilhauman, was unveiled and now hangs in the facility.

Following the death of his wife, Mary in 2016, Mr. Searson continued to reside in their Alice Street home, which was originally built by the George family, early-day industrialists. They purchased the residence in 1959. Slowly, his health began to slip. He suffered from diabetes and about two years ago early dementia began to set in, but he was able to continue conversations with family and close friends. He also continued to keep up on business matters as well as he could.

His condition began to worsen about four weeks ago and he quietly slipped away last Wednesday afternoon.

He is survived by his two sons: Dan (Sandra) and Mike (Val), three grandchildren: Erin, Heather and Colleen, and five great-grandchildren. One brother, Ken, of Ottawa also survives as well as several nieces and nephews, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. He was predeceased by his parents, Edward and Gertrude (Walsh) Searson, brothers Greg and Allan and sisters, Aurelia Beggan, Rachel Wagener and Nellie.

One could write volumes more about this remarkable person who ­loved life, respected his fellow man and knew the real meaning of helping others in need. He was a man of deep faith, dedicated to his church, committed to his community, always willing to lend a helping hand, deeply proud of his Irish heritage and one who never missed the opportunity to enjoy an impromptu or planned Ceiligh.

Mr. Searson was laid to rest in St. James cemetery on Saturday, May 16. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was not possible to conduct traditional funeral services or a wake, which would undoubtedly have included a good share of Irish music, however a celebration of his life will be held at a future date.

Another Valley legend gone after a meaningful life

Eganville – Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP and Minister of Natural Resources John Yakabuski probably summed up the passing last week of Harry Searson best when he said “one by one the legends of the Valley have left us and Harry was one of the few remaining”.

Mr. Yakabuski said he will be remembered as such because he had a tremendous impact on people, as a businessman, an entrepreneur and a mentor in Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I wouldn’t even begin to count the number of people he influenced and assisted in that regard,” he said.

Mr. Yakabuski remembers Mr. Searson as far back as the 1960s when his own dad was the provincial member for Renfrew South and while Mr. Searsoon had not been involved in politics in recent years he remembers when he was very involved in his father’s campaigns.

“He was one of the people that my dad relied on as a counsellor, a person of someone whose opinions he valued, and someone he returned to when you were wondering what was the best course on a particular issue,” he said. “Harry was certainly one of the people he would rely on. He played an integral part in my father’s early campaigns. And really, politics quite frankly was a much bigger part in people’s lives back then.”

As kids growing up in the Yakabuski household in Barry’s Bay back in the 60s and 70s, Mr. Yakabuski said he remembered Harry Searson as this larger than life figure because of what he meant to his dad.

“And, of course, I got to know him as I grew up and he was very kind to me as well, not in the same sense as my dad because my dad and him were somewhat contemporaries. For me he was someone of a senior generation who we had a great deal of respect for. He was always interested in politics, but he wasn’t as active. He had grown older himself and he had other considerations.

“There was a real personal connection between him and Paul Yakabuski. It was more than politics. They had a genuine man to man affection for one another.”

Mr. Yakabuski said Mr. Searson was always an understated person, never one to draw attention to himself.

“He was never flamboyant,” he shared. “You would have never seen Harry Searson try to be the one who stood out in a crowd. In fact, the opposite was true. But he had impacts in his community that many people, unless they knew him well, wouldn’t even be aware of.”

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Terry Murray who along with brother Ted own and operate one of the oldest sawmills in the Valley, Murray Bros. at Madawaska, said Mr. Searson did everything personally and quietly.

“I don’t think people will really know just how much good he really did for so many people,” he said. “It’s hard not to get emotional when you hear about the number of people he helped, people living under a bridge. He completely changed their lives.

“There a lot of people walking around today who wouldn’t be had it not been for Harry.”

In his business of selling log loaders to jobbers and mill operators, Mr. Murray said Mr. Searson  visited enough jobbers to see what was working and what wasn’t working with their equipment and he was able to modify that in his own loaders to come up with probably the best loader on the market.

He also remembered him as a person who had a genuine interest in people and who truly cared about others, always going that extra to help out.

“He was a born salesmen; he and Cammie (Bimm) together. And he was genuine as well. He did what he said he was going to do.”

Mr. Murray remembered when a group of Valley sawmill operators began negotiating with McMillan Bloedel, a large forest products company based out of Vancouver, which was looking at sites across the country to build a new Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) plant.

“Harry worked to get the Pembroke site chosen,” he recalled. “He was definitely the man who put that (deal) together and did the work. If that mill wasn’t there today, many local mills would have three or four times the distance to ship material to.

“He got all the mills working together instead of against each other and it was his regular weekly trips around and talking with all of the mill owners. He had the ability to read a person.”

One of the unfortunate things, perhaps, Mr. Murray said, is Mr. Searson did things quietly.

“He wasn’t one to blow his own horn and people don’t really realize how many people and how many businesses he helped. Guys like he and Cammie were fundamental builders and communities need people like that.”

* * * * * *

Dean Felhaber, President of Ben Hokum and Son Limited at Killlaoe, first met Mr. Searson when he was in his early 20s and working with his grandfather, the late Ben Hokum, where he launched his career in the sawmill business. Mr. Searson and Mr. Hokum were close friends and often got together for a bite to eat at noon, or just a visit in the mill office to compare notes about what was new in the industry, or to develop a solution to a current situation.

“It was through this friendship that I was privileged to meet Harry in my early 20s when I began working in the family business,” Mr. Felhaber said. “Even though there was a significant age difference between Harry and I we hit it off well.”

Mr. Searson was interested in people, he said, adding if he didn’t know you, he would make a point to get to know you.

“His contacts were wide and varied And I was fortunate that Harry made some important introductions for me,” Mr. Felhaber said.

Besides being a good, confidential friend, Mr. Felhaber said Mr. Searson provided a voice of advice and reason.

“He was a very practical thinker with a genuine interest in helping,” he recalled. “He was generous, not only with his time and talents, but also contributing to many community projects and helping those in need.”

He didn’t like any fanfare, he added, because that’s who he was – he was very down to earth and humble.

“Harry truly loved to see people succeed and in my case, he became a solid sounding board and someone I always knew I could count on.

“Harry will always have a special place, and I will recall with fondness the many stories he shared with me. His quick wit, natural strategic thinking, calming demeanor and trusting personality will forever stay with me. He truly made his mark in this life.”

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Darwin Neuman, President of Neuman Forest Products at Palmer Rapids, described Mr. Searson as a  good person and honest as the day is long.

“He was very knowledgeable when it came to financing things,” he said, also recalling when the group of Valley mill owners were negotiating with McMillan Bloedel Mr. Searson’s valuable input.

“In negotiations with the board plant Harry was probably one of the board members who had the most marbles when it came to dollars and cents and sometimes we were dealing with Chase Manhattan (bank) out of New York and Harry knew exactly what those people were talking about and he knew exactly how to answer those people.
“I knew how to make things work and how things should work, but when it came to dollars and cents and figuring out paybacks, Harry was really up on that stuff.”

Saddened like everyone else who regarded Mr. Searson as a dear friend, Mr. Neuman described him as a likeable, practical, down-to-earth person.

“It didn’t matter if he went into a big pulpwood mill in northern Ontario or if he went to a little sawmill guy like me, or a packsack jobber who was in the middle of the bush, people would lay down their tools when they saw Harry coming just to talk to him. They just appreciated a visit from Harry and Harry liked them too. He understood the poorest man in the world and he understood the richest man in the world. You didn’t fall into any bracket. You were all in the same category.

* * * * * *

McRae Mills at Whitney is now being run by fifth generation family members and Mr. Searson worked with three generations of the family.

John McRae and his brother, Bob represent the fourth generation and their son, Cam and Jamie are now heavily involved in the operations .

John McRae had a 40-year relationship with Mr. Searson jokingly saying he remembered the first time he met him he had white hair and the last time he saw him he still had white hair.

“He was a great fellow,” he said. “He had lots of energy and he was a very honest, very straightforward person.”

Mr. McRae said he was a tremendous mentor to everyone, both in business in all his communities, whether it was the Eganville community or the Celtic music community, or his tremendous devotion to Alcoholics Anonymous. As an individual he just liked to be so connected to his community, he said.

“In the forest products industry, he knew everybody, he talked to everybody, so he was a tremendous conduit for information and discussion which benefitted the community greatly.”

Mr. McRae also remembered when the deal was being put together with McMillan Bloedel for the MDF plant.

“It was a difficult decision for the local industry because we were all small players to get involved with McMillan Bloedel,” he said. “You felt pretty vulnerable, but we worked all through that, and Harry helped tremendously in those discussions even though he really wasn’t an operator.

“He was a good mentor to everyone and a good communicator. He would take the time and talk to everybody. He made a point of talking to everybody on a regular basis.

“He was never that busy that he couldn’t help people and there aren’t many people like that in the world anymore. He had empathy for the common person.”

Like many others, Mr. McRae also referred to Mr. Season’s love for local history and his abiding interest in what our forefathers endured to settle in this part of the country.

* * * * * * *

God only knows the number of people who found sobriety and success in life thanks to the intervention of Mr. Searson. There were likely a few thousand. One of those people is Earl Bochert of Eganville, owner of Bochert Forest Products.

“He was pretty instrumental in saving my life 32 years ago,” he said. “He recognized it. He was always there and he had this manner about him.”

Mr. Bochert developed a life-long friendship with Mr. Searson and considered him a true friend. He recalled one occasion when he was in a bit of squeeze with the bank.

“He wouldn’t say much, but said ‘you have friends, you know’. You know what that meant eh? And I never really said anything to him; he was just reading between the lines a little bit.

“You knew the backing was there if you were in a jamb, but I didn’t have to use it. That’s a friend.”

A life-long forester, Mr. Bochert not only purchased timber and equipment from Mr. Searson, but the Bochert and Searson farms in the Grattan Ward of Bonnechere Valley Township border one another and both properties have been in the respective families for generations.

“I made timber deals with Harry literally with a handshake,” Mr. Bochert said. “Nothing on paper, no money up front. That’s just how we did business, and I know I wasn’t the only one.”