Lifetime of service to community

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Petrie-freeman-pic-wA LIFETIME of public service to the people of Helensburgh and District and beyond came to an end in April 2012 when Provost Billy Petrie, OBE, JP, DL, retired from local government.

Like his father before him the local postmaster and a shopkeeper in Rhu, he was first elected to represent the picturesque Garelochside village on the then Helensburgh District Council in 1967.

It was the start of 45 years of service to the community on several district local authorities, on health and tourism bodies, many local organisations, and privately behind the scenes with his wife Jean.

Born on January 16 1928, he attended Rhu Primary School and Hermitage School in Helensburgh, joining the family business after leaving school. In 1955 he married Jean Gibb Osborne, and they had three children, Elizabeth, Barbara and young Billy.

After the death of the sitting Rhu councillor in 1967 it was suggested to Billy that he should stand, and he was duly elected.

He said: “I had 93.8% of the vote. It was less political in those days — people were less likely to vote for a party and voted instead for the person.

“I always treated people based on something my father said to me. He told me that I should always treat people who came to me with problems as if they were my own mother, and that’s what I have tried to do.”

It is an approach which endeared him to the voters, and over the years many a prominent local Conservative was seen with a ‘Vote Petrie Independent’ sticker at local elections.

He served on Helensburgh District Council, of which he became chairman, and its offshoot the Helensburgh Area Education Sub-Committee, which met in the Registrar’s Office in West King Street, and also Dunbartonshire County Council, of which he became convener.

The reform of local government in 1975 removed these bodies and introduced instead Dumbarton District Council — a political battleground between Labour and the SNP — and the Labour-dominated Strathclyde Regional Council.

Billy served with distinction on both, where his Independent label and his integrity quickly took him to the higher echelons, and he was Provost of Dumbarton District for a time. He also served on many outside bodies.

He was a highly respected chairman of the Argyll, The Isles, Loch Lomond, Stirling and Trossachs Tourist Board, something of a mouthful but a very successful body in marketing the attractions of the area.

Another reform of local government in 1996 took the Helensburgh district into Argyll and Bute, rather than being part of the new West Dunbartonshire District Council, and once again Billy rose to the top, becoming Convener and Provost.

A Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of Dunbartonshire, Billy hosted most members of the Royal Family at one time or another, and in 1990 he received the OBE from the Queen for services to local government at an investiture.

He said: “One time I had to meet the Princess Royal, HRH Princess Anne, three times on the same day in different capacities.

“I basically welcomed her in one place and then dashed off to the next. At the end she said to me, ‘Are there three of you?’”

Petrie-and-bust-wHe and Jean particularly enjoyed representing the Queen and presenting the royal telegram or representing the council and presenting flowers to local people who reached the age of 100.

He said: “It’s the tasks in the community which give you the most satisfaction, like meeting the resident in a Helensburgh nursing home on her 100th birthday — then visiting her every year right up to her 108th. Sadly she passed away shortly after that.”

One of the reasons Billy decided to retire was the sudden tragic death of his younger daughter, Mrs Barbara McBride, who lived next door, early in 2011 at the age of 46.

Barbara, who is survived by her husband James and daughters April and Lynsey, called round to give her father a birthday card and said she would be back later with his present. But shortly after she went home she collapsed and died.

“She was my election agent and she was my right hand,” he said, “and since then I haven’t felt quite the same. I did not feel I would be able to give council work 100%, and decided this was the right time to cut back.

“I have had a good innings, and it is the time to go. I am so grateful for all the support I have had from electors and colleagues over the years, and I am happy to step down now.”

Another reason was the need for regular drives over the Rest and Be Thankful to the Council HQ at Kilmory, Lochgilphead. But it was there that his colleagues decided on a very special honour to mark his retirement.

He was installed as a Freeman of Argyll and Bute at an investiture ceremony and celebration dinner at Helensburgh's Victoria Hall, one of only two individuals to receive this honour. The other was soldier, writer and politician the late Sir Fitzroy McLean.

He was given a standing ovation by the audience of fellow councilors, officials and representatives of local organisations before Council Leader Dick Walsh presented him with an illuminated scroll.

Councillor Walsh led tributes in a moving speech to mark the end of an era and formally moved the motion for the Provost to become a Freeman.

Councillor Walsh told the audience: "He is the only person in Scotland to have served as provost of three different councils. This is a great testimony to his qualifications as a person and as someone who has made a great contribution to people's lives throughout this area.

"For many years, Billy had the largest majority in the region in district elections — in one year in particular he had the highest majority in Scotland.

“This demonstrates the popularity of Billy with local people who appreciate the hard work he puts in to serve his community.

"Billy, along with his wife Jean, has contributed greatly to the local community over the years.”

Councillor Ellen Morton said: "Dick spoke of Billy in Dumbarton and Billy in Argyll and Bute, but for us in Helensburgh and Lomond, Billy is Mr Helensburgh.

“He is our Billy, he is the person you go to for help when you need something done, because Billy will help you if you have a problem whether or not you represent a political party.”

Apologies were delivered from a close friend of the Provost, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who could not attend the ceremony. He also paid tribute to Billy's career and his generous nature.

Although Billy is a lifelong Church of Scotland member and he and his wife attend Luss Parish Church, another close friend was the late Cardinal Tom Winning.

Sally Loudon, chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council said: "The retiral of Councillor William Petrie, Provost of Argyll and Bute, after almost half a century of unbroken council service, is the end of an era for local government in our area.

"Provost Petrie's council service has seen enormous changes in the landscape of civic Scotland and encompassed two full reorganisations of local government in 1975 and 1996, the latter seeing the Helensburgh and Lomond area become part of Argyll and Bute.

Heritage-room-6-01.05.12-w"William Petrie's contribution to public life goes well beyond local government, his work as a Deputy Lieutenant for Dunbartonshire and his contribution at a local and national level to the development of tourism in Scotland being just two examples.

“On behalf of all Provost Petrie's fellow councillors, past and present, and the officers who have worked with him over his long career, I wish him and his wife Jean a long, happy and fruitful retirement."

Billy’s final function on his last day as Provost was to open Helensburgh Heritage Trust’s Heritage Room in Helensburgh Library, assisted by grand-daughter Lynsey.

He will remain a member of the National Park Authority until October, but after that the only post he intends to retain is as a Trustee of the Loch Katrine Project, a woodland and habitat landscape restoration project in which he has a particular interest.

He also intends to continue organising the annual New Year’s Day Swim at Rhu Marina, which he and his family have run for many years and which has raised thousands of pounds for good causes.

  • The photo of Billy with the Freeman scroll is published by courtesy of Argyll and Bute Council.