March 7, 2013

Alan Caron: Grateful for Maine and those who toil to make it better

By ALAN CARON

We have a tradition in our small family that spills over into my work each day. At dinner time, the three of us hold hands and take turns sharing something we're grateful for that day. This isn't an appeal for something we want and grumbling isn't allowed.


I'm immensely grateful for all we have in Maine and in America and only wish that gratitude rather than grumbling were the spirits moving our actions these days in Augusta and Washington.

I was reminded of our family ritual last week while listening to a speaker who I admire. Halfway through his speech I found myself being grateful for the work he does and for his presence in Maine. That got me to thinking about the many other people I've known who have made a tremendous difference in peoples' lives here.

What a shame, I thought, that we too often wait to honor these people once they've left us. So I want to dedicate this space, today, to four people who have inspired me, and many others in Maine, to do the right thing as best we can and to continually believe in the people of Maine.

The first, known now to too few, was Larry Connolly. Larry was a state representative from Portland's West End. He was a relentless and loving advocate for the poor and an always-smiling Irish Catholic organizer and rabble rouser.

Larry was a living expression of liberation theology and an unabashed radical. He died too early, leaving a young family and an entire community feeling his loss.

Larry and I collaborated on many things, and while we didn't always agree, my respect for him has only grown with time.

Another person who left us too soon, but not before touching the hearts of thousands of Mainers, was Buzz Fitzgerald. Buzz rose from humble beginnings to become the CEO of BIW and a friend to both powerful and powerless people everywhere. No matter how far he climbed, Buzz never lost touch with his roots or forgot about the workers at BIW.

I came to know Buzz when we worked together on a rescue mission at DeCoster Egg Farms, trying to save the jobs and improve the lives of immigrant workers there. It was an almost hopeless assignment, but one that had to be attempted.

We succeeded in getting some improved conditions for the workers, while publicizing what was going on at the egg factory, but in the end left when the pace of change proved too slow.

My lasting image of Buzz is an intense exchange he had with owner Jack DeCoster, on the day we walked out. DeCoster was all bluster and threats about what we were insisting he do. Buzz just smiled and listened carefully, a twinkle in his eye.

"Are you finished?" he asked, when DeCoster had seemingly exhausted himself. "Have you said everything you want to say?" DeCoster seemed dumbfounded. Buzz just reached for his coat and we walked out, never to return.

The third is Russell Libby, the inspirational leader of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who recently died after 17 years building MOFGA and promoting local farming. Russell and I crossed paths many times during those 17 years, and his enthusiasm for the cause and for the people around him never diminished.

I met with him this last year at the group's headquarters in Unity, exchanging ideas for moving Maine's economy forward. Despite his obvious weakening health, Russell was characteristically generous with ideas and encouragement.

These three people all shared similar traits. They all radiated a love of life and affection for people. Each was, in his own way, a kindly, smiling and disheveled saint among us.

I wish we could have them all back but take some solace in knowing they inspired many others who are now among us, continuing the work.

Add to that list someone who is very much still at the peak of his work and helping to reshape Maine every day. That man, whom I heard speaking that day, is Ron Phillips. A tireless advocate for rural development and economic justice in Maine since the 1970s, he has built Coastal Enterprises into a regional and national force.

Ron is often compared, with great affection, with the slightly unraveled detective Columbo. He's brilliant and passionate but also lovably disorganized. He's already left his mark on Maine and continues to do so every day.

These four are among the many thousands of heroes in Maine, both past and present, who touch us with their work to help people, build businesses, protect the environment, revitalize towns, educate and protect kids, expand the arts and make Maine a better place.

I'm grateful, every day, for these many saints among us.

Alan Caron is a principal of the Caron & Egan Consulting Group, which works with companies, governments and nonprofits to plan and achieve goals and to more effectively collaborate. He also serves as the president of Envision Maine, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Maine's next economy. He can be reached at alancaroninmaine@gmail.com

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