PORTLAND – J. William “Bill” Laliberte, a retired engineer for the J.J. Nissen Baking Company who led tours of the Portland Observatory for nearly 15 years, died Wednesday after a brief illness. He was 89.

Mr. Laliberte began working for J.J. Nissen in the late 1950s as an engineer at its plant in Worcester, Mass. In 1966, he moved to Portland and became plant engineer at the former bakery on Washington Avenue. He was responsible for maintaining and fixing its machines for nearly 30 years.

“There were zillions of machines and he kept them running,” said his daughter, Ann Laliberte of Westbrook. “He would get calls in the middle of the night to go in and fix machines.”

Mr. Laliberte was remembered by his family on Thursday as a tinkerer and inventor, who made life fun and interesting for his four children and his late wife, Pauline Laliberte.

His daughter chuckled reminiscing about the years they traveled up to a farmhouse be bought in Hartland. The land was peppered with maple trees. He didn’t know the first thing about making maple syrup, but insisted on trying. He built most of the equipment he used to collect and cook the sap, his daughter said.

“It meant cutting cords of wood and driving an hour and a half to tramp through the woods to drill holes in trees,” she said. “We spent weekends boiling sap, but that’s what he loved to do. We were out in the middle of nowhere with no electricity, no plumbing, no nothing. It added to the excitement,” she said, laughing.

Mr. Laliberte received high marks on his maple syrup. “It was the best ever,” his daughter said.

Mr. Laliberte had a passion for sailing. He was an active member of the Centerboard Yacht Club and the Casco Bay Power Squadron.

“He liked engineering the boat,” his daughter said. “He liked figuring out how to go the fastest with the least number of tacks and the most ground gained.”

Mr. Laliberte also was passionate about Portland history. As a Greater Portland Landmarks docent, he learned about city history and led tours of the Portland Observatory. He also wrote the training manual for the docent program. He volunteered until he became ill in June.

Jennifer Pollick, manager of education programs at Greater Portland Landmarks, said he volunteered at least 1,000 hours for the organization. Pollick said she has received many letters, emails and cards from visitors with compliments about their experience at the observatory.

“It’s a massive loss,” she said. “Not just because of the time he gave us, but because of his presence. He was someone who made it enjoyable to visit the observatory.”

At the end of June, Mr. Laliberte developed shingles. Days later, it had spread to his brain.

“Overnight our lives changed,” his daughter said.

“It took something usual and insidious to take him down because he planned to live to be 100. We are going to miss him wicked.”

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

[email protected]