Neil Rolde, a longtime public servant, historian and author from York who started his career working for former Maine Gov. Kenneth Curtis, spent 16 years in the state Legislature, wrote more than a dozen books and served on various statewide and local boards well into retirement age, died Monday.

He was 85.

Rolde was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, where his classmates included former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Rolde graduated from Yale University and got his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

Neil Rolde, shown in 2011, was known for his Democratic activism. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

He moved to Maine as a young man in the early 1960s and never left.

Curtis, a two-term Democratic governor, hired Rolde as press secretary and special assistant before Rolde left to run for office himself.

Kermit Lipez, now a federal appellate judge, was a colleague of Rolde’s in the Curtis administration. He said he was saddened to hear of his passing.

“In a somewhat unique way, he combined the activism of politics with the thoughtfulness of a writer and scholar,” Lipez said. “That’s a pretty rare combination. I just loved his company; never sensed that there were any empty moments in Neil’s life.”

Rather than stay on as an adviser to the governor, Rolde decided to seek office himself. He ran for a House seat in York, where he lived, and won in 1974. He ended up serving the next 16 years, including a stint as House majority leader from 1975 to 1977.

John Martin, who was Maine’s speaker of the House for much of that time, worked closely with Rolde.

“He was very thorough,” Martin said. “Every detail was checked out. And he never said anything unless he knew the facts.”

Bob Howe, an energy and environmental lobbyist, served with Rolde in the Legislature as well and agreed with Martin’s assessment.

“I remember Neil as a thoughtful guy. When he stood up to speak, he really had something to say. He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk,” Howe said. “He had a sense of history that really came through when he talked.”

Richard Barringer, another veteran of the Curtis administration and now on the faculty of the Muskie School of Public Policy, said Rolde was passionate about the arts and about Maine culture – which he would later write about – and often advocated for progressive ideas on education and protecting the environment.

“He really fell in love with Maine and really wanted to use his considerable talents to make it a better place,” Barringer said. “He had such a positive attitude toward government, which almost seems unusual now.”

A HISTORY OF PUBLIC SERVICE

After a long run in the Legislature, Rolde stepped down in 1990 to run against then two-term U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen. Rolde ran on a liberal platform, including advocating for universal health care, and lost to the powerful and prominent Republican.

He left politics but remained active in public service through various boards and commissions, including Maine Public, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the Maine Arts and Humanities Commission, and the University of New England board of trustees.

He was active on the board of the Seacoast Shipyard Association, which twice fought successfully to avoid closing the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, a major employer in his district.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said Rolde’s passing was a “big loss for Maine.”

“From his long service and leadership in the Legislature, to his generosity in the community, to successfully leading the charge to save Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – not once, but twice – he’s left an indelible mark on the state,” Pingree said in a statement.

Neil Rolde, shown at a 2002 book signing in the State House’s Hall of Flags, wrote more than a dozen books. “I remember he could write really fast,” says Kermit Lipez, who was a colleague of Rolde’s when Ken Curtis was governor. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Pingree met Rolde when she ran for the Maine Legislature in the 1990s, and she considered him a mentor and a friend.

“He was brilliant, witty and always a pleasure to spend time with. Like many others whose lives he touched, I learned so much from his stories and opinions. He will be missed,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Angus King also mourned the loss of Rolde.

“Neil was a wonderful friend and a dedicated public servant,” King said in a statement. “I always admired his deep and abiding love of history and strived to learn from it whenever I could. His commitment to helping the people of Maine – whether it be through his service in the state Legislature or on countless commissions, or his generosity on behalf of a multitude of good causes – has left an indelible mark on our state. He will be dearly missed.”

Rolde wrote more than a dozen books, mostly about the history of Maine, his adopted state, and quietly donated to causes he felt passionate about.

Among his books was a history of Maine’s Native American population called “Unsettled Past, Unsettled Future: The Story of Maine Indians,” and a retelling of the events leading to the establishment of Baxter State Park called, “The Baxters of Maine: Downeast Visionaries.”

His writing was always prolific.

“I remember he could write really fast. He always walked around the State House with a yellow legal pad and he would write as he walked,” Lipez said. “The last time I saw Neil, which was just about a year ago, he was talking about his latest book project. And he ended his description of the book with ‘if I live long enough to finish it,’ which was sort of ominous.

“But it shows you he was always involved with something.”

A memorial service for Rolde will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday at the First Parish Church in York.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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