November 3, 2012

The County, state and nation mourn loss of former Maine Gov. John Reed

By Colin Woodard
Staff Writer

At 4:30 in the morning on Dec. 30, 1959, the telephone rang in John Reed's home in Fort Fairfield.

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Former Gov. John Reed, right, speaks at a 2008 fundraiser for Friends of The Blaine House. He is accompanied, from left, by former governors John McKernan, Angus King and Joseph Brennan and then-Gov. John Baldacci.

MaineToday Media File Photo/Joe Phelan

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In this Dec. 11, 1963 file photo, Gov. John H. Reed of Maine speaks before the Agriculture department in Washington.

AP File Photo

Reed, the 38-year old president of the state Senate, had planned to get out of bed anyway to load a car with potatoes at his family's farm, which encompassed 1,300 acres around his hometown, 290 miles northeast of Portland.

He picked up the receiver, taking the call that would change his life.

Gov. Clinton Clauson had died unexpectedly in the night. Reed was to rush to Augusta to be sworn in as his successor.

"It was a great emotional impact upon me and my family, because I never did envision to get into full-time politics at all," Reed told an interviewer with the Bates College Muskie Archives nearly a half-century later. "When something like this happens you try to do the best you can and move forward."

Reed, who died Wednesday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 91, would go on to win election twice as Maine's chief executive, lead the National Governors Association and serve as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands.

A liberal Republican in an era when there were many like him, Reed championed investments in higher education and water quality improvement in Augusta, and became a friend and ally of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson on the national stage.

"We called ourselves Rockefeller Republicans, and John Reed was a good bipartisan person," said Reginald Bowden of Orono, who was Reed's press secretary from 1961-65. "He was a liberal, even though I don't think he thought of himself as one, and supported civil rights and was a great supporter of labor."

"It was a different time," Bowden said. "There was a great deal of compromise and he was a supporter of that."

John Hathaway Reed was born on Jan. 5, 1921, in the three-story Queen Anne-style mansion that his grandfather built on Lower Main Street in Fort Fairfield.

Philo Reed had moved to town in 1880, and sought and found fortune in the Aroostook County soil. He co-founded a local bank, a hotel and the chamber of commerce, stabled harness racing horses and reportedly owned the first automobile in the community.

Reed was born into the family business, Reed Brothers, a farming enterprise owned by his father and uncle. He often said he enjoyed and fully intended to remain in the business and The County, and would have continued doing so had fate not intervened.

He studied agricultural economics at the University of Maine and, after graduation, taught agriculture in Hodgdon for a few months until he enlisted in the Navy.

He joined the service nine months after Pearl Harbor, but spent most of the war stateside. While a supply officer at the Newport Naval Supply Depot in Rhode Island, he met the commanding officer's executive secretary, Cora Davison. They married at the base's chapel in March 1944.

After Japan's surrender (and Reed's brief deployment to Okinawa), the couple moved to Fort Fairfield and Reed returned to farming.

In Fort Fairfield, Reed became president of the local hospital association and director of a local bank and, in 1954, was elected to the Maine House.

"I didn't really expect to get fully involved in politics," he told the Muskie Archives in 2003. "I always thought it would be great to serve a term in the Legislature. ... I was fully engaged in farming ... (but my) father and my brother felt the Legislature meets in the winter and they could spare me then, and so that's when I decided to run."

While he always claimed to be a reluctant politician, he rose quickly. He had campaigned for Republican Gov. Burton Cross, who served as his mentor, encouraging him to run first for the House and then, in 1956, for the state Senate, where he served as president.

(Continued on page 2)

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