AUBURN — Former Androscoggin County Sheriff Ronald Gagnon died at his home Friday morning, the sheriff’s office announced Saturday. He was 72.

Former employees remembered him as a fair boss who worked tirelessly – and successfully – to replace a failing, overcrowded jail.

Retired Androscoggin County Sheriff Ronald Gagnon died at his home Friday morning. Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office photo

Gagnon started in law enforcement as a deputy based in the Androscoggin County Jail in 1977. Before that he played professional hockey with the Lewiston-based Maine Nordiques, and upon his hiring had “muscles that had muscles,” according to a 2006 profile of him in the Sun Journal.

Gagnon worked his way through the ranks to be a sergeant and later chief deputy, the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post. In 1985 he was appointed sheriff by Gov. Joseph Brennan and held that office until his retirement in 2007.

During his early tenure, the Androscoggin County Jail was a tumultuous place. It had iron bars, physical keys (not the electronic locks used today) and was desperately overcrowded.

At one point in the 1980s, the 30-bed jail housed more than 90 inmates, and in 1980 a dispute with employees left Gagnon and then-jail administrator Lionel Cote alone with 40 inmates, who flooded the jail and set fires. Inmates were bused to other jails, and the jail had to be closed.

Something had to change. According to current Sheriff Eric Samson, who was hired by Gagnon as a part-time jail guard in 1991, Gagnon worked hard to persuade the public to fund a jail project, which cost $9 million. Adjusted for inflation, it would cost more than $17.1 million in 2019 dollars.

“There are pictures of them (former county employees) sitting at kiosks in the mall, trying to get information out about paying for the new facility. … I’m thinking, I can’t imagine doing that,” said Samson. The approach worked. The jail was built in 1991.

Former Capt. Ray LaFrance of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office said that was Gagnon’s style.

“He wasn’t sitting in (his) office dictating; he was right in the field. He worked right with us, whether it was in the jail or on patrol,” said LaFrance.

LaFrance and Gagnon started with the sheriff’s office at the same time and progressed through their respective careers together.

“He was a very good friend, and a good boss,” said LaFrance. “He was one of my best friends. We advanced our careers together at the same time, we went to the same administrative training schools together, and I really enjoyed working for him.”

According to LaFrance, Gagnon was a fair boss who genuinely cared about his employees.

“He was a good guy to all employees'” LaFrance said. “He was an employee. He was one of us.”

According to LaFrance, as sheriff, Gagnon regularly went on patrols with his deputies. When he started the county’s first dive team, he was out on the water with his deputies, driving the boat.

But when it came time to talk to reporters, he was modest.

“He didn’t like to take the spotlight. … He’d say, ‘You talk to them, it’s your division, you talk to them,'” said LaFrance. “He’d let us get the credit.”

Gagnon also hired current Chief Deputy William Gagne as a part-time deputy around the same time as Samson.

At the time, Gagne’s father, Andy, was Gagnon’s chief deputy. William Gagne credits Gagnon with helping him pursue a law-enforcement career.

“I got hired first as a part-time deputy. Ron gave me the chance and opportunity to pursue my long-term dream of being an officer,” said Gagne.

In addition to hiring Samson and Gagne, Gagnon also laid the foundation for many programs in the jail and patrol division, like the alternative sentencing program – still in existence today – and the sheriff office’s patrol contract with the town of Poland.

Gagnon also started a program that allowed low-risk offenders to go on work release and assist the Public Works Department during snowstorms and projects. Under Gagnon’s administration, there was always the opportunity for staff to propose an idea and grow with it, said Samson. Gagnon was a supportive boss with an open-door policy who helped lay the groundwork for the current state of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office.

“He was also very supportive of in-service training and professional growth. During his era, there was always great opportunities for employees,” said Samson.

LaFrance also remembered Gagnon as an easygoing guy who loved to hunt and fish.

“He taught me how to play golf. … I was never a good golfer, but we’d go out on Saturdays. He was a very good golfer,” said LaFrance. “He was a good guy. He treated everyone really, really fairly.”

“I can’t say enough good about Ron Gagnon,” said LaFrance.

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