Thursday, May 25, 2006

Missing Stub

Lovell’s Board of Selectmen didn’t need to meet twice a week but Stub insisted, so we did. His real name was Gordon Eastman, but nobody called him that. “Stub,” I learned later, was short for stubborn, and he was that. Mostly, the attribute worked in his favor but not always. People knew Stub as a kind and generous man, but you didn’t want to get him riled. Stub died last week at 89 and I’m feeling the loss.

I was the first “flatlander” selectman and I thought I’d have an impact on the way things were done. Looking back on it now though, I’d have to say that with Stub on the board and others like Dave Fox, the way things were done had much more influence on me than I ever had on it. I’d recently moved from Massachusetts and was still a liberal Democrat in the Boston-Irish-Catholic tradition. Stub was a Yankee Republican. We disagreed on much but he was patient with me. When people ask what caused me to become so conservative, I say there were many factors, but one of them was Stub Eastman.

Tuesday nights from 7:00 to 9:00 and Saturday mornings from 9:00 to noon, the selectmen had open-door meetings. Anyone might walk in and many did, usually Stub’s friends. In early spring, it was often Nucky Wilson, the public works commissioner, carrying a bowl of fresh smelts - fried in corn meal and still warm. When I asked where he got them, he’d wink and say, “Just enjoy ’em.” Some of Lovell’s best brooks were officially closed to smelting by the game warden and he was always on the lookout for violators. Nucky’s smelts were delicious. Later, longtime summer people like George Olive or George Stone (also conservative Republicans) would drop by and chew the fat. At selectmen’s meetings, we spent a lot of time just talking while Stub and his friends were having more of an influence on me than I realized at the time.

For centuries, small towns in Maine and Massachusetts have been governed by “Selectmen, Assessors, and Overseers of the Poor.” They comprise the executive body of a town with voters at town meeting serving as the legislature. Stub was chairman, or what some towns call “First Selectman.” Though paid a meager salary, he was in the town office every morning and kept things running well enough that Lovell didn’t need a town manager. When I was first elected back in the early 1980s sometime, Stub wanted me to be General Assistance administrator because I was the new guy.

The experience significantly modified my liberal view of the poor as hapless victims. Of the many applicants for general assistance during my tenure, two out of three had dubious claims. In a small town of 800-1000 people, we got to know each other. If people moved in and lied on their applications, we usually found out about it before long. In my first year, most of the chronic transients knew more about Maine’s General Assistance law than I did. I had to learn fast or be taken advantage of. The really needy often got more help from us than they requested, but deadbeats were so closely scrutinized that they either got a job or left town.

Stub was a selectman in the 1940s and took a long view on poverty: “We have the poor and the poor have us,” he’d say. Having pondered that often over the years, I take it two ways. First, the poor will always be among us no matter how much society tries to eliminate poverty, and we will always be obligated to them. They have us by the short hairs, so to speak. If they have no heat or food because they’ve squandered their resources on alcohol or other frivolous things, and they’ve faked disabilities, we have to help them whether we want to or not. In another sense, we’ll always have the poor to challenge us in our very humanity -and we’ll have to answer to God someday about how we deal with them.

Stub grew up on a farm with no electricity until he was an adult. That meant his lifestyle had been little different from someone growing up in the 19th century. As a young man, he logged with hand tools and horses. By the time I knew him, he’d seen more change in his lifetime than most, and he’d accumulated wisdom that few others have the opportunity to gather. We were from very different backgrounds. I’d lost my father shortly before moving to Lovell and Stub had lost his only son at nineteen back in 1959. I won’t get all mushy here, but we each had a hole and there was a kind of symbiosis. We met twice a week for eight years and got to know each other well. I can say without reservation that Stub was a man I admired and thoroughly respected. I shall miss him. Lovell is diminished by his passing.

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