Constance Isherwood’s law: Keep working at 100

Four firefighters carried a pineapple-upside down cake ablaze with 100 birthday candles into the Penny Farthing Pub on Thursday afternoon.

Some might have thought the firefighters were there in case the cake caught fire. But what better way to celebrate Victoria’s own Constance Isherwood, a trailblazer in B.C.’s legal profession and the oldest practising lawyer in the province.

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The petite centenarian, wearing clip-on pearl earrings, a sparkly dark blue sweater and pleated black skirt, seemed at home presiding over a mini-media scrum gathered round the polished counter. Smiling and serene, sipping on a sherry, she reminisced about her long, long career. Behind her, a fire burned in the grate.

“I used to go to court more than I do now,” said Isherwood, who was called to the bar 69 years ago. “I leave that for the others now. But there were different things you had to do, of course. There were divorces and adoptions of children, which required court appearances then. They’ve streamlined it now.

“When adoptions were completed, it was very rewarding because the parents seemed to be so grateful. It was the realization of a dream for them. That’s one of the things I always remember. You were so glad you helped out.”

Her memories of grateful parents might be close to the surface because Isherwood and her husband, Foster, adopted two children themselves, Charles, now 52, and George, 51, who organized the celebration at the pub.

Isherwood, née Holmes, continues to practise family law and does a lot of legal estate planning and real estate work. She said there is no way to count the number of cases or clients she has helped. “They come and then they go, and then they come back and they tell others. You don’t count them up,” she said.

There is no mention of retirement, but Isherwood concedes she has reduced her working hours a little. “In my slacking off, I now work at home in the morning and I go to the office in the afternoon. It’s usually 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. that I’m there.”

When she entered law school at the University of British Columbia in 1948, Isherwood was one of only eight women in a class of 208. Two of those women had dropped out by the time Isherwood graduated at the top of the class in 1951, becoming the first woman to win the law society’s gold medal.

After graduating, she returned to Victoria with a job with her mentor, Ernest Tait, with whom she formed Tait & Holmes. In 1963, she opened Holmes & Isherwood with her husband, Foster Isherwood. He died eight years ago at the age of 92.

In 2016, Isherwood became the first woman to receive the Law Society of B.C.’s highest honour for lifetime achievement.

Until Dec. 1, she drove from Otter Point in Sooke to her office on Fort Street five times a week. She has since moved to a home in Broadmead and continues to drive, even driving herself to nursing homes to give legal advice to those who are unable to get out.

“She’s amazing,” said son George. “She really likes helping people. She’s a different breed of lawyer. It’s kind of a hobby for her now. If she wasn’t doing this, she’d be a little bored because this keeps her very busy, keeps her brain sharp. It keeps her filled with purpose.”

Family friend Audrey Dunnett said Isherwood makes her feel like she shouldn’t complain.

“You get up in the morning with aches and pains, but you just have to look at her and she’s a marvel,” said Dunnett, 72. “Her quick wit is something else.”

“What a wonderful thing to celebrate her on her 100th birthday,” said friend Catharine Pollock.

“When George speaks of her, it’s with such love and affection and awe about this amazing woman that she is and how nothing has ever stopped her. It’s such a joy. His face always lights up whenever he talks about her.”

Isherwood was on the phone, working, when George went to pick her up and bring her to the party. Her office, unchanged throughout the decades, was filled with flowers from well-wishers.

“You can’t see her behind her desk, there are so many flowers,” George said with a smile.

Isherwood said her philosophy is to keep going and be with people. “Be approachable. Let them come to you and you help them. That’s a good recipe. And I will close by saying ‘Think.’ That always sees you through,” she said, sounding very much the lawyer.

And what about all those birthday candles? Let’s just say after 100 years, Isherwood had her cake and ate it, too.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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