AUGUSTA – The new head of the state Department of Labor wants to crack down on people who try to scam the unemployment system. He also wants to help those who need better skills to get the proper training.

At a time when the state’s unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert Winglass is taking over a department that administers federal unemployment checks and runs 12 careers centers around the state.

It’s a new role for Winglass, 75, who served as a Republican lawmaker for four years and worked for IBM.

“What I’ve come to appreciate is the people here,” he said during a recent interview in his office in the sprawling Department of Labor building north of Augusta. “The people are really dedicated and determined.”

Winglass said he wants to crack down on people who receive overpayments in their unemployment checks. Some of it is unintentional, he said, because those who get jobs may wait a week or two before telling the state that they should no longer receive checks.

He’s concerned about the people who abuse the system, and wants to be aggressive in cracking down on them.

“When we catch ’em, it’s going to be an unpleasant experience for the folks who may have intentionally attempted to beat the system,” he said.

State law requires people who misrepresent their situations to pay back benefits received, plus a 50 percent penalty, according to the department.

LEARNED WORK ETHIC EARLY

Winglass is a native of Franklin, Mass., whose father sold poultry out of a refrigerator in Boston and whose mother was a shoe factory worker. Neither one was highly educated — his father finished eighth grade.

Winglass said that even though they couldn’t help him with his homework, they taught him something even more valuable.

“They taught me work ethic,” he said. “You sign up to do something Bob, you do it to the best of your ability. I’ve followed that prescription for a long, long time.”

Winglass was nominated to the Cabinet position in late April, after Gov. Paul LePage’s first pick, Cheryl Russell, withdrew her name, citing personal business obligations.

In early June, the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee voted 11-2 in support of Winglass for the position, and he went on to earn support of the Senate on a 32-1 vote.

Just over two months into the job, Winglass, whose annual salary is $102,689, said he’s impressed with the department but wants to work harder to lower the state’s unemployment rate.

He sees the department’s career centers as one way to help people who are seeking work, and he wants to develop a close relationship with businesses to see what kind of skilled workers they need.

35 YEARS OF MILITARY SERVICE

As a teenager, Winglass came to Maine in 1952 to work in the kitchen at the New England Music Camp in Sidney.

As his friend Bob Booth of Lewiston recalls, Winglass volunteered for one of the most miserable jobs — working in the “dog house,” a windowless part of the kitchen.

Winglass, who was 16, volunteered because he was the leader of the “kitchen boys,” said Booth, who had the much cushier job of driving a pickup truck to run errands.

“It’s the only time I ever outranked him,” Booth said.

After high school, where Winglass admits he wasn’t a “terrifically good student,” he went to Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he graduated with honors before joining the Marines. He spent 35 years in military service and earned a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University.

“Most of my career was in logistics, supply, finance and automated data processing,” he said.

He commanded units that ranged in size from 50 to 10,000, and over more than 30 years he reached the rank of three-star general.

Winglass remembers well the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut, where 241 people were killed, many of them Marines. Winglass had 350 Marines and sailors in Beirut at the time — none of them was in the barracks. Many responded to help save lives in the wake of the bombing.

At a memorial service back in the United States, Winglass recalls a comment by a chaplain that has stuck with him to this day: “I don’t know why young men die. You would think it would break the heart of God.”

“It set you back and caused you to think, what is war all about,” Winglass said.

MAKING MAINE HOME

When he retired in 1992, Winglass and his wife, Norma, an Ellsworth native, decided to make Maine their home.

In 1994, he ran for the Legislature, winning a seat as a Republican representing Auburn. He was re-elected two years later. He lost a Senate bid to Neria Douglass, who’s now the state auditor, in 1998.

Now a resident of Bath, Winglass ran for the Legislature last year, losing to Rep. Michael Clarke, D-Bath.

As a lawmaker, Winglass sponsored legislation to get more money for Maine Veterans Homes that eventually was signed into law by Gov. Angus King.

He remembers working with Chellie Pingree, now a U.S. representative, Libby Mitchell, a former Senate president who ran for governor last year, and Steve Rowe, the former attorney general who also made a run for governor last year.

After his legislative service, Winglass parlayed his military experience into the private sector when he took a job with IBM, to help the company get back into the business of dealing with the military.

He was named director of the Strategic Business Relationships Team of the IBM software division. After fours years, he decided it was time to do something new.

FAIR BUT DEMANDING

At a church service in Ellsworth, Winglass ran into Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Department of Conservation and a 2010 gubernatorial candidate. Beardsley told Winglass that the LePage administration still needed a labor commissioner. Winglass expressed an interest.

His nomination came after weeks of controversy about a mural that LePage had removed from the Department of Labor lobby. The mural depicted scenes of Maine workers, and was considered to be anti-business by administration officials.

Winglass would say only that the mural is still at the department headquarters and he will follow any direction given by the courts for what will happen with the artwork, which is now the subject of a lawsuit.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter, the first woman in the country to earn the rank of lieutenant general, described Winglass as someone who is fair yet demanding. She said he sets clear expectations and then steps back to let colleagues do their jobs.

During a phone conversation, Mutter, who lives in Indiana and is retired, said she believes Maine people will be well served by Winglass.

“Marines in general, and Bob in particular, we’re all frugal,” she said. “After 20 or 30 years in the Corps, you learn how to make what little money you had go far.”

For fun, Winglass likes to travel. He and his wife have “been on every continent except Australia,” he said. He loves the Red Sox, and once moonlighted as a hockey official in the Washington, D.C., area.

Charles Stickney, former owner of Deering Ice Cream, has known Winglass for nearly 30 years. He described his friend as a dedicated public servant who will consider all sides of an issue.

“I don’t think you get three stars in the Marine Corps if you don’t have a pretty good leadership style,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]