CAPE ELIZABETH — It’s remarkable that in 38 years of working for the town, Mike McGovern called in sick only once. A “heart scare” in 2004 sent the town manager to the hospital, but tests showed nothing was wrong.

“I think I was stressed out,” said McGovern, who is 60. “I had a lot going on at the time.”

Juggling a lot is nothing new for McGovern, who has closely shepherded town government for more than three decades, most notably overseeing the development of Fort Williams Park and Portland Head Light into one of the top recreation spots in the state.

What is even more striking is that McGovern – who surprised many Monday by announcing his resignation effective Dec. 31 – never applied for the job in the first place.

McGovern started working for the town in 1977 as a summer intern from the University of Maine. He made a good impression, and the following May was offered a full-time job as administrative assistant to the town manager. When the previous town manager retired in 1985, the Town Council asked McGovern to take the position.

“I’ve never applied for a job in municipal government and yet I’ve done it for 38 years,” McGovern said. “I never dreamed I’d stay here more than five or six years.”

Known as the dean of Maine’s municipal managers, McGovern said he decided to retire because “it just seemed like it was time. Thirty-eight years is a long time.”

He plans to dedicate himself more fully to his volunteer work with Rotary International, traveling throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East as chairman of the club’s International PolioPlus Committee and its End Polio Now campaign.

“It’s up to the Rotary leadership, but I could be doing it for a while,” McGovern said. “We were getting closer to our goal and then we had two new cases in Nigeria this month, which is a setback and a real disappointment.”

Molly MacAuslan, Town Council chairwoman, said she’s “saddened” by McGovern’s decision to step down.

“He’s been a tremendous asset to the community and it’s been a privilege to work with him as a Town Council chair this year,” MacAuslan said in a written statement. “It will be difficult to find someone with both his operational skills and his personal and professional integrity.”

MacAuslan said she and other councilors are pleased that McGovern has agreed to assist with the transition to a new town manager during the next several months. The council will discuss the hiring process during its workshop next Monday.

DEAN OF MAINE MANAGERS

The Maine Municipal Association doesn’t track the tenure of city and town managers, but McGovern said he believes only Dave Morton, town manager of Casco, has been on the job longer than he has.

“The perception is that municipal managers turn over a lot, but that’s not necessarily the case,” said Eric Conrad, the association’s spokesman. “You get over 30 years in and it becomes unusual.”

In announcing his resignation, McGovern praised many others for contributing to the town’s success in the past three decades, from “exceptional” municipal employees to an “engaged citizenry” that serves on town boards and in other ways.

But Conrad, who used to live in Cape Elizabeth and interacted with McGovern as a managing editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, said much of the credit goes to McGovern.

“Cape Elizabeth is such a well-run community and the steady hand on the wheel has been Mike’s,” Conrad said. “Financially, Cape Elizabeth is in great shape, but he’s had his fair share of thorny issues.”

Conrad said Cape Elizabeth is a town with high expectations and competing interests, exemplified in the high-profile battle between the decades-old Spurwink Rod & Gun Club and neighbors in the newer Cross Hill subdivision who opposed the club’s outdoor shooting range.

Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said McGovern has mastered the art of avoiding political pitfalls that can trip up municipal managers.

“There’s no question he has straddled that line through a long career,” Hall said. “Cape Elizabeth isn’t a sleepy little town. It has its fair share of controversies.”

‘ALWAYS ON THE JOB’

Hall said he’s been grateful to have a seasoned and respected manager working in the town next door. He also counted on McGovern for guidance when he was working as a municipal manager in Pennsylvania, where he went to graduate school, and he was trying to get back to Maine.

“I would call him and he would give me good insight into job opportunities that came up around Maine,” Hall said. “I’ve always viewed Mike as the dean of managers. I really looked to him as a mentor. He has always been a good sounding board.”

Hall said McGovern’s term as town manager is noteworthy for more than his time on the job.

“The town has continued to thrive under his leadership,” Hall said. “No one has had the run that Mike McGovern has.”

Hall said it speaks volumes that the Town Council allowed him to juggle his full-time duties as town manager with his increasingly demanding volunteer work with Rotary International‘s effort to eradicate polio across the globe.

“I talked to him once when he was in Dubai,” Hall said. “He’s always on the job.”

Hall and others said McGovern is widely respected for his deep institutional knowledge and broad understanding of regional and statewide issues.

“He doesn’t mince words and he’s not afraid to voice his opinion,” Hall said. “I’ve always admired that.”

McGovern is a former president of the Maine Municipal Association and former board chairman of ecomaine, the trash-burning and recycling agency that is operated by municipalities throughout southern Maine.

“I learned a lot from him in that role,” said Jim Gailey, former city manager of South Portland who has worked closely with McGovern through the years, including on the ecomaine board.

“I followed his lead when I became chairman,” said Gailey, who is now assistant manager of Cumberland County. “He knows how to run a meeting. He was good at being inclusive and letting everyone have their say, but knowing when to cut it off and wrap it up. He gave representatives of smaller communities the same voice as larger communities.”

REMEMBER MIMEOGRAPH MACHINES?

McGovern grew up in Portland, the youngest of three children. His father was a postal carrier and supervisor, and his mother was a teacher’s aide. A confirmed bachelor, McGovern dedicated himself to a career that attracted him as a boy.

“When I was a kid I would listen to Portland City Council meetings on the radio and I found it very interesting,” McGovern recalled. “As an eighth-grader at Lincoln Junior High, I had to research and write a report on a job I was interested in, and I did it on being a city manager.”

McGovern has seen great changes in municipal government and society in general since he became town manager, especially related to communications and the internet.

“When I started, we ran off council agendas on a mimeograph machine,” McGovern said, recalling equipment that produced copies of documents from stencils.

Since then, McGovern has overseen the installation of cable TV in town and the advent of airing council meetings on a local access channel. The town also established one of the first municipal websites in Maine, which features regular news articles, and it now has a Twitter account.

McGovern said he’s most proud of the culture of integrity and openness that developed in town government under his leadership, as well as the many fine people he has hired over the years and worked with on the Town Council.

“They’re my bosses, but I feel a responsibility to help them be the best councilors they can be,” McGovern said.

His second point of pride is the town’s transformation of Fort Williams Park and Portland Head Light into a premier tourist destination that attracts about 1 million visitors annually from all over the world.

“When I came, Fort Williams was a dump,” McGovern said. “There were piles of debris everywhere, it was being used as a staging area for sewerage projects and there were dozens of dilapidated buildings. People came to see the lighthouse, but it wasn’t anything like it is today.”

McGovern said he expects the Town Council to hire a consultant to help conduct a rigorous search for a qualified candidate to fill his shoes. Whoever gets the job is liable to make something close to McGovern’s $123,000 annual salary.

“You don’t save money by hiring a discount town manager,” McGovern said. “We make decisions every day that could cost thousands of dollars if we make the wrong one.”