Integrity, modesty and humor … farewell to an outstanding leader

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Norway Town Manager David Holt speaks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Norway Opera House on Friday. The once-decrepit building is ready for storefronts to open.

NORWAY — Town Manager David Holt has been described as a pro-active force, a leader.

But after more than four decades of serving towns across Maine as town manager, 28 of those years in Norway, he would probably just shake his head.

What’s important to Holt as he prepares to leave the office of Norway’s town manager are his colleagues’ praise for his honesty, his trustworthiness, his fairness.

“I tried to do the things the right way,” said Holt when he sat down for an interview with the Advertiser Democrat on Thursday, May 4.

Holt announced his retirement at the April 6 Board of Selectmen meeting. Holt was hired in 1989, succeeding Larry Todd, and is only the second town manager to serve in the position in the past 43 years. Although he had hoped to remain until he was 65, health issues forced him to retire two years earlier than anticipated.

He will leave the job on Friday, June 30, after the next fiscal year’s budget is in place.

“This won’t be easy,” Selectman Warren Sessions said to him at the board meeting.

Beginnings

Holt did not grow up thinking he wanted to become a town manager. In fact he didn’t even know what a town manager was until the day Elwyn Dickey walked into his classroom at Telstar High School in Bethel.

Town Manager David Holt told special town meeting voters that the comprehensive plan they approved Tuesday night was largely a statement of “vision” for the town’s future growth.

“I had never heard of the job,” Holt recalled the day the then-Bethel town manager Dickey came to talk to his class.

“He was really dull. I thought I could approach the job with more excitement,” Holt said.

When he graduated from Telstar in 1972, he thought, ‘Why not?’ He had served as Student Council president. Maybe there was a place for him in town government.

“That should be an interesting job,” he said to himself. “And I could bring some fun and excitement to it. I’m sure I became the same as he was. I’ve been a very dull person.”

Holt’s road to becoming a town manager was not set in stone. In fact he wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to college.

“My parents were certain I needed to go to college. I wasn’t as sure I wanted to do that. So I went through the [course] catalogue at the University of Maine and saw the program in public management. In four years you’d be a town manager. It seemed to fit what I thought about myself, to be a town manager,” said Holt.

Changes

Following graduation and a stint in 1974 as a selectman in his hometown of Greenwood, Holt went to work as town manager in Princeton in 1976. He then served the town of Dexter from 1986 to 1987 and finally Standish from 1987 to 1989 before landing the job later in the year that was to bring him home as Norway’s town manager.

THUMBS DOWN — “We don’t think we have the same needs as you do,” said Norway Town Manager David Holt, right, when he and Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates, left, met with Paris selectmen and fire officials in April 2016 to discuss merging the two departments.

Holt grew up on a farm in Greenwood, “about five or six miles up the road” from Norway. Norway in the 1950s and ’60s was the center of commerce and social life. It was where his father brought cut wood to sell to the CC Cummings Mill and corn to sell to the corn shop. It was where the family went grocery shopping and their friends worked in the local mills.

But by the late 1980s when Holt and his family moved back to the area to begin his tenure as town manager, Norway was a totally different town.

When he started his job, he was faced with the unsolved 1988 robbery and shooting murder of Norway farmer Lucien Frechette at his Crockett Ridge Road home and then the 1989 murder of 30-year-old Norway Police Department Reserve Officer Isaac “Charlie” Russell, whose body was later discovered in a field off Pikes Hill.

The mills had disappeared and new store fronts abounded.

“It used to be such a quiet, nice place. It was nothing like that. It was a shock,” he said of his arrival in town.

As Norway’s new town manager, he was forced to deal with serious issues, issues that often received statewide media attention.

“It was challenging. I knew what had to be done. It doesn’t mean it was easy,” he said.

When the mills all closed, the fabric of what had been Norway unraveled.

“What do you do?” he said. So he started what became known as the “Thursday Club” – a group of residents, some of whom were summer people, leaders of companies. They sat around and tried to find ways to fix things.

“We tried various things. We spent a lot of time trying to make it [Norway] what it used to be and that wasn’t going to happen.”

During his three decades as town manager he faced other unforeseen events.

There were the firings or resignations of four police chiefs in a 14-year period. Most left under clouds of suspicion, some involving drug use, assaults and charges of sexual harassment.

There was the case of Deborah Wyman, the town’s community development director, who was responsible for overseeing more than $5 million in Community Development Block Grants but instead made 176 illegal transactions between 1992 and 2005 that funneled a total of $117,592 into her personal bank account.

The roof of the historic Norway Opera House, the heart of Norway’s downtown historic and commercial  strip, collapsed in 2007, necessitating months of negotiations and court action against the owner to take the building. Then there were more years to build consensus and carry out the ambitious plan to rebuild and reoccupy the building.

“Despite the best laid plans there will be surprises along the way,” Holt told the Board of Selectmen recently when asked what they should look for in a new town manager.

Each unexpected turn was handled calmly, thoughtfully and successfully.

“Now it’s about making sure sidewalks and roads are kept up and making life good for residents,” he said.

Stories … memories

Holt said that it was the stories, not the events so much, that come to mind as he looks over the last 41 years of service,

Like the time he and members of the Maine chapter of the NAACP ended up together in a room at the Blaine House.

Norway, he said, had a new black postmaster. The postmaster was one of two black postmasters in the state and then-Gov. John Baldacci (who served Maine from 2003 to 2011) and the NAACP wanted to recognize that fact.

The postmaster was so new that Holt had never met him until that day when he, the postmaster and 70 members of the NAACP sat in a room waiting for the governor to arrive for the ceremony. They waited and they waited and waited … more than an hour.

Suddenly a door opened and they saw Mrs. Baldacci. The governor’s wife looked around the room and let out an audible gasp.

“Seeing me there must have startled her,” chuckled Holt.

Undeterred, Mrs. Baldacci stepped up to the occasion on her husband’s behalf. She talked about her dogs and living in the Blaine House and her dogs and more about her dogs.

Then it as Holt’s turn to say something.

“What did I have to offer?”

The postmaster had only served in Norway for a few weeks. Shortly after the visit to the Blaine House, the  postmaster left town.

“We had this big fanfare. Then he wasn’t here.”

Looking ahead

Looking forward, Holt said he really has no advice for the new town manager because each finds his or her own way.

“There are lots of good town managers,” he said of the various types of people who serve in the position.

He is confident the new manager will succeed because he or she will have the support of the residents.

“I know it’s [Norway] filled with good people.”

Holt was recently asked by selectmen to help them understand what they should be looking for as they interview candidates.

Although Holt insisted the board understand that the skills and qualities he would list are unique to himself and his experience, the list of six qualities is revealing to what made his tenure successful.

Honesty drives the truck, he said. “A good town manager must always tell the truths as best he/she knows it to be.”

The budget carries the load. “Of all the things a manager does, the budget is the most important thing for all concerned, year in and year out.”

Creating the map. “The town manager must think ahead.”

Navigating the turns. “It is important for a manager to be able to change course.”

Rules of the road. “The best managers are encouraging and supportive.”

Driver takes care. “The best town managers, particularly in small towns, care about the people around them, and try to serve them with consistency and heart.”

And then Holt took a surprise turn and seemed to leave some advice to his predecessor as he concluded his list.

“Read, listen to music. Laugh at yourself or run five miles a day … the manager must preserve the manager.”

Colleagues respond

Judging from comments from his colleagues, Norway’s town manager lived up to his ideals.

“David is modest about his accomplishments and he would quietly tell you that it has been his great honor to serve Norway, but to him, the people have always counted as number one and he will count the friends that he has made along the way as a very special part of his service,” said longtime Town Clerk Shirley Boyce who has worked with Holt since his first day in Norway.

“David has taught me what public service means and the importance of keeping that perspective at all times,” said Police Chief Rob Federico. “David and I have had some pretty serious conversations over the years about police and the public. Sometimes our view points come from different angles, but we always seem to agree about our expectations of what a local police department should be.

“I remember David telling me to always treat each person the same way I would want my mother, father, wife or any other loved one treated,” Federico continued. “I always pass that piece of advice on to every officer I hire. That’s pretty good advice and it has helped me remember that we work for every citizen of Norway regardless of their social, economic or ethnic background.”

Russ Newcomb, current chairman of the Board of Selectmen said, “David will be missed by many of us that have come to appreciate his foresight and expertise in financial affairs.”

Andrea Burns, past president of Norway Downtown, current board member and chair of the Economic Growth & Support Committee, said Holt embraced the mission of Norway Downtown and responded to the citizens’ desire to protect Norway’s historic assets and rural character and that he became a pro-active force for bringing economic and cultural energy to Norway.

“We all need to feel grateful for David’s ability to listen, learn, and lead,” she said.

“He supports with guidance, understanding, and gentle criticism. My personal admiration for David is his respect for us all. There is such humor and grace in his self-deprecating ways. He is a leader who will be sorely missed,” Burns concluded.

Future plans

Don’t ask Holt what his important contributions were as town manager. He dismisses the question.

“Oh God no. Whatever difference would it make. Nothing particularly noteworthy happened because I was town manager. The ideals of what was a good manager is what was important to me. I tried to do the things the right way,” he said.

Holt said he has no future plans at the moment other than to take care of himself.

He finds it curious that he has reached the age when one wanders into a Social Security office, but he also seems satisfied that he has done his job to the best of his ability, honestly and truthfully.

In the end, he chuckles with his usual dry sense of humor, there will be no armed security guard escorting him from his desk at the Town Office and no one will be counting the number of keys he turns in.

Before he leaves his office on his last day next month, it won’t be surprising to see him take one last walk down Main Street as town manager … just to make sure all is well.

And that is the essence of Holt. It’s about the town. It’s about the people.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net