In the nearly 20 years I’ve reported on the Maine outdoors, there were three times I nearly cried while working. Once was when I was telling a civic group a story about a young man who was dying of cancer who came to Maine to hunt. The second was late at night while doing a phone interview for an obituary. And the third was standing in the Arundel woods listening to John Andrews talk about the Eastern Trail.
Certainly, I’ve interviewed people about trail work hundreds of times, and talked with people who are passionate about the outdoors more times than I can count. So why a 73-year-old man in a ridiculous orange rain slicker talking about an urban trail should make my eyes well up is a mystery. I can’t even recall what Andrews was saying.
But John Andrews’ unwavering hope for and faith in this long-distance trail that cuts through the woods of southern Maine illustrated perfectly in that moment why he is called “the Father of the Eastern Trail.”
Andrews died on Feb. 20 at age 79 after a good 25 years of working tirelessly on making this 10-foot-wide trail a permanent passageway to nature – and doing it all as a volunteer.
Those who spoke at his memorial service said he was an energetic, patient and persistent visionary who led others to embrace the idea of the trail, even though he knew it would not be finished in his lifetime.
The dream was a 64-mile off-road trail through the 12 municipalities that were members of the Eastern Trail Management District, which Andrews created. Today the trail cuts through 23 miles and seven communities, as well as across Scarborough Marsh, the Maine Turnpike and Route 1. And soon it also will span a river and a railroad.
“Everybody said, this is a great idea, but the Maine Turnpike is right in the way of it,” said John Balicki, Maine’s bicycle and pedestrian state coordinator from 1998 to 2005.
“John went to two or three meetings with (the Maine Department of Transportation) and their first reaction was, ‘Who is this guy?’ But by the third meeting he had them agreeing to pay for the bridge over the turnpike. He had a style. He was an incurable optimist. And he could sit through any number of meetings listening to any number of people telling him his idea was a bad idea and suffer any amount of rejection. He still would smile and keep working at it.”
Andrews was a Maine native who moved to Massachusetts and then retired to his home state. But those who worked with him on the Eastern Trail said he would have devoted himself to some outdoor project no matter where he retired.
“He would have done the same thing if he stayed in Massachusetts,” Balicki said. “John was different. Here was a guy who had a career in engineering. He doesn’t have a stake in this, it’s not like it will benefit his career. He’s just an ordinary guy who really wants it to happen. And he was a real people person.”
Alix Hopkins, the former Portland Trails executive director, recalls how Andrews came into her office in 1992 to ask how to build a trail. She told him it would take years of meetings and forging relationships and he needed to pace himself. She gave him a small toy tortoise to remind him that slow and steady wins the race. But that’s not how John Andrews did things.
“About two weeks later, he brought me a toy bumble bee,” Hopkins said. “And he said, ‘That’s all fine and good but you’ve got to buzz around and go do all you can while you can do it.’ He was larger than life.”
Andrews’ legacy will be the portion of the trail that runs from South Portland to Kennebunk, and the momentum it created.
Hopkins was on the Eastern Trail bridge over the Maine Turnpike when it was dedicated in 2011 and 500 Kennebunk school children walked to the Arundel side. Andrews was caught in the sea of excitement and Hopkins said in that moment you could feel the trail’s momentum.
“He was a leader who embraced people,” she said. “And he did that in spades. It’s the mark of a leader. He had the energy and the vision. But he was also willing to learn.”
Bob Hamblen met Andrews after taking his job as Saco city planner in 2000. Andrews showed up a few months later.
“I found a way to hold him at arm’s length,” Hamblen said. “I told him, ‘That’s a very interesting project, Mr. Andrews. If we can do anything come by and we’ll talk.’ But I didn’t volunteer anything.”
In only a few months, Andrews had won him over. Hamblen was attending the Eastern Trail Alliance meetings. And soon he was helping to rally others to get involved.
“The meetings were literally John Andrews telling us what he had done and what he was planning to do,” Hamblen said. “I said, ‘This older gentleman seems to be doing all the work. What the hell are the rest of us doing?’ So it came around to people slowly taking projects. And it certainly snowballed. Because we have this amazing trail.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: