Remembering Mainers Who Died in 2016
The world lost some notable figures in 2016: Cuban President Fidel Castro, American astronaut John Glenn and English rock music pioneer David Bowie, among many others.
As the year comes to end, we also said goodbye to people close to home, in Maine, who somehow made a difference in our lives.
We thought we’d lost Donn Fendler in July 1939, when Fendler, just 12 years old, got separated from his parents while hiking on Mount Katahdin. But he was found, after nine days of surviving on his wits.
Decades later he would narrate an 8mm film of himself, after his rescue, riding in a canoe toward a family reunion.
“Then when we got to Grindstone, jeez, the place was mobbed. Later on, I thought about it, why did they make a big deal about this for? All I thought about then was gettin’ home to my folks, and that’s all that concerned me,” he said.
Fendler eventually made his ordeal into a book, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.” It has been required reading for generations of Maine kids, many of whom Donn met in visits he made to classrooms all over the state.
In 2011, he told Maine Public Television that it was years before he realized his story resonates with Mainers because they understand the hazards of the wilderness.
“If someone like me gets lost in the woods, and luckily, I came out of it alive, but they can relate to it. And so now I think I begin to understand why it means so much to the state of Maine, and how much it means to me,” he said.
We finally did lose Fendler, this October at the age of 90.
John Christie loved the natural beauty of the state, perhaps never more than when it was snowbound. But Christie, a ski racer, and later ski resort owner, told Maine Public Radio last year that he did a lot less skiing in his youth, before the introduction of man-made snow.
“We didn’t get a lot of skiing in in those early days,” he said. “Back when I was racing in college, we’d train outside of Quebec City in December, because we never presumed there was going to be dependable Christmas vacation snow in Maine.”
John Christie, a member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame, died this year at 79.
In recent decades we’ve come to understand the hazards facing our forests, rivers and other parts of our natural environment. University of Maine researcher Gordon Hamilton was exploring global warming’s effect on the Antarctic when he fell into a crevasse and was killed. He was 50.
Journalist Phyllis Austin died this year at 75. She was the Associated Press’ first environmental writer in 1972, and went on to report and write for the former Maine Times.
Much of Austin’s writing was focused on the Maine woods. Bill Townsend’s focus was on the state’s waters.
“Our rivers stank. Pollution was rampant. People built dams where they damned please, people cut down the forests where they damned please. And we’ve come a long way to get away from that, and I’m not willing to make us step one inch in the direction of going back to that,” he said.
That’s what Townsend told Maine Public Radio in 2010, in response to then gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage, who said “the environmental groups run the state.”
Townsend, an attorney, was known as the “Dean of Maine’s Conservation Community.” He worked on the agreement that removed Edwards Dam from the Kennebec River, helped create the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and fought the Big-A and Dickey Lincoln hydroelectric dam proposals. Attorney and conservationist, Bill Townsend was 89.
The state’s legal community lost other notable individuals this year. Conrad Cyr was a federal appeals court judge who succeeded Frank Coffin. Cyr, a native of Limestone, began his legal career there and was buried there, too, after his death this year at age 84.
William Brodrick, 81, was a longtime justice of Maine’s Superior Court. His judicial colleagues said he was tireless, kind and compassionate, and a mentor to many newer judges.
Portland attorney Peter DeTroy died this year.
“As an attorney, Peter had that unique capacity to be an extraordinary advocate for his client,” says Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley. “Without ever, ever engaging in anything that was an assault on the integrity of the law, the bar, his own credibility.”
Peter Detroy was 68 years old.
Janet McCaa also had a long career in the law. She was one of only four women in her law school class at Cornell. She worked for the National Labor Relations Board and a private law firm in Washington before moving to Cape Elizabeth in 1987.
She became president of the Cumberland Bar Association and a trustee of Greater Portland Landmarks, among other civic pursuits. Janet McCaa was 73.
James Mitchell, 74, was a probate judge. Probate judges handle disputes involving estates and sometimes difficult decisions about guardianship, but also the often happy duty of expanding families by approving adoptions. Mitchell saw a lot of all those cases in 37 years as probate judge for Kennebec County.
Lois Snowe Mello
Lois Snowe Mello helped write laws as a Republican legislator from Poland. Snowe-Mello was 67.
And farewell to Ed Pert, the longtime clerk of the Maine House. In an earlier life, he was a reporter for a Bath newspaper and a radio newsman, too. Pert was 83.
Among the Mainers we lost this year were entertainers, like Julie Goell, who as a cleaning lady acted out Carmen with the tools of her trade, like feather dusters. Goell was a native of Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Rome, Italy where, her Portland Press Herald obituary says she became drawn to European miming and clowning. She made people laugh around the world, but eventually called Peaks Island home. Julie Goell was 65.
It was said composer Elliot Schwartz expanded boundaries with his music. Schwartz joined the faculty at Bowdoin College in 1964. His works were performed by symphony orchestras in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Minnesota, as well as England, Holland and Russia.
Schwartz was 80.
Steve Grover composed a very different kind of music. A jazz drummer, Grover also composed and taught music at Bowdoin, Bates and, for many years, the University of Maine at Augusta. Grover died in July at the age of 60.
Maine musicians also lost Don Stratton, a master jazz trumpet player and longtime teacher, who died in April.
Peter Leo Gerety
A former Bishop of Maine’s Roman Catholic Diocese died. Peter Leo Gerety was 104, the oldest Catholic prelate. He headed the Portland Diocese from 1969 to 1974.
In the early years of the 20th century, many Maine towns moved to a council-manager form of government, placing the day-to-day operations in the hands of an appointed professional rather than an elected politician. Bonsey was one of those professionals, and it was said he helped define the role of town manager. He spent more than 30 years running municipal governments in Corinth, Mars Hill, Freeport, Falmouth and Yarmouth. Bonsey died this year at age 88.
Bob Dunfey Sr.
Bob Dunfey Sr. was a businessman who counted the Maine Mall as one of many commercial developments he created. Dunfey was also active in Democratic politics. Then Gov. Joe Brennan sent Dunfey to ask George Mitchell to fill Ed Muskie’s seat in the Senate 1980. Dunfey was 88.
Ray Penfold was well known among this state’s motor racing community. But he was also the subject of one of a great radio story in 2003.
Curious about the older and varied buses turning up at Penfold’s VIP tour and charter parking lot, Irwin Gratz learned there are people who admire bus design, know bus history and just love to drive them. They are, as Ray himself put it, bus nuts.
“It’s like this: If you can’t have fun doin’ your job, you’re in the wrong job,” he said.
Ray Penfold was in the right job. He died in early December at 89.
And finally, we lost one of our own this year.
Keith McKeen was the original reporter, host and producer of Maine Things Considered and news director in the early years of this network. But what those of us who worked with him remember most was what colleague Susan Sharon called Keith’s “gentle spirit.” We’ve missed him around here ever since he retired in 2009.
McKeen died in April. He had just turned 73.