Maine's Best Heroes and History
Down East editors' select the history makers that best represent the values found in the people of Maine.
Stand at the Height of Land, where Route 17 curves around Spruce Mountain west of Rangeley, and look north across Mooselookmeguntic and Cupsuptic lakes. Almost every piece of land in sight, more than 33,000 acres of wilderness and water, has been protected either by Bessie Phillips or because of her. Starting in the early 1970s, at a time when the Rangeley Lakes region was under unprecedented development pressure, Phillips acquired some seven thousand acres of shorefront property. In the early 1990s, she helped found the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust to carry on her work. Phillips died in 1996, but her legacy and influence will continue for many decades to come. Despite her work, she never sought the public eye and remained largely unknown until winning the Down East Environmental Award in 1995.
Many young people never want to set foot in a school again after receiving their diploma, but not so for Harold Alfond. While his own education stopped at high school, the founder of Dexter Shoe Company and inventor of the outlet store phenomenon has given tens of millions of dollars to academic institutions across Maine. Whether you're enjoying a Black Bears hockey game at the Alfond Arena in Orono or working on your butterfly stroke at the Harold Alfond Center at St. Joe's in Standish, you're never too far away from feeling the generosity of this Massachusetts-born philanthropist. "For more than thirty years, Harold Alfond has had a tremendous and positive influence on the University of Maine," says Robert Kennedy, president of UMO. "His generosity has benefited a great many students, it has strengthened our university, and it has enabled UMaine to forge stronger ties with the statewide community. In addition to his enormous generosity, Harold was among the first - if not the first - to model a philanthropic spirit in the state. His impact on Maine will be felt for generations to come."
Wayne Davis of Trainriders/Northeast fought for fifteen years to bring passenger train service back to Maine, finally succeeding in 2001 when Amtrak restored service between Portland and Boston. He still rides the rails at least four times a month, more when he's training one of the several dozen volunteer train hosts who help the ever-increasing number of passengers the Downeaster attracts each month. "We had 361,000 passengers in the fiscal year ending in September," Davis announces proudly, "and in October we were 37 percent ahead of 2006. We'll carry our two-millionth passenger in early 2008." Despite the Downeaster's success, Davis is still fighting for its survival - the Maine legislature hasn't agreed to pick up the additional funding the train needs after next year despite its popularity and effectiveness.
Sorry, Seth Westcott and Ian Crocker. You dudes definitely rock, but when it comes to Olympic heroes, our heart belongs to Joanie. Winner of the first women's marathon, Joan Benoit Samuelson made Maine and America proud when she raced to the finish line in 1984. Her victory inspired a generation of girls to begin running, and she's continued to be nothing but a great role model, coaching, motivating, and founding the TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon 10 K race. Fun fact: In 2006 she helped pace Lance Armstrong as he competed in the New York City Marathon.
Portland Tour Guide
If there were ever a Mr. Portland contest, Herb Adams would win hands down despite his - ahem - obvious lack of six-pack abdominals. Adams, veteran legislator, Parkside resident, and historian, knows where to find Winslow Homer's signature (his will in the Cumberland County Probate offices) and how the statue of Longfellow in his eponymous square retains its buffed appearance (annual applications of butcher's wax). He remembers the Old Port when it had winos instead of wine bars, and he recalls talking to Percival Baxter before his death in 1969. Quick, someone freeze this guy to preserve all that knowledge for future generations.
There's a reason why we can still fish the Allagash River and why the Kennebec flows free below Waterville and why the Androscoggin no longer seethes with pollution, and his name is Clinton "Bill" Townsend. The Skowhegan attorney and activist has been involved in practically every environmental battle from Dickey-Lincoln to Plum Creek, has served in leadership positions with every conservation agency and organization in the state, and still finds time to stand knee-deep in the Kennebec with a fly rod and a perfect back cast. If a river runs through it, chances are Townsend is standing on the banks trying to make the water (and the fishing) better for all Mainers.
The older Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain has gotten, the more popular he's become. Nearly a century and a half after leading the 20th Maine Regiment to victory at Gettysburg, a series of movies and books has returned the colonel - and eventual Maine governor and Bowdoin president - to his rightful throne at the forefront of Mainers' hearts and minds. "Certainly in terms of recent history, Joshua Chamberlain enjoys one of the highest profiles of any native son of Maine," remarks Earle Shettleworth, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Chamberlain's bravery and skill during the defense of Little Round Top are an inspiration to this day, but it was his insistence that his soldiers salute the surrendering Confederate troops as a sign of respect that was without doubt the finest display of Maine class.
It's not every Mainer who can say he turned down a seat on the Supreme Court - or that he was Michael Eisner's replacement as chairman of The Walt Disney Company. But those two claims to fame are just minor points on retired George Mitchell's resume, which also includes U.S. Senate Majority Leader and that little bit of work known as the Northern Ireland peace accord. By the time you read this, his long-awaited (and equally long-feared) report on steroids in baseball will likely have appeared, proving once again that when you need a steady hand, Mitchell can do the job.
Do you agree? Sign in to comment below. You can also submit your own favorites to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be published on in the Down East directory.