Kirby Littlefield retired from Maine Water after 56 years working at the same plant, where he operated the analog system that produced clean drinking water for Biddeford, Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough. He had planned on retiring in 2013, but they convinced him to stay on until a new $60 million facility was operational. Littlefield, 74, holds a plaque that will hang in the new plant’s training room in his honor. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BIDDEFORD — Inside the 138-year-old water treatment plant on the banks of the Saco River, the training booklets hanging on the wall start with the simple question: What would Kirby do?

During a career that spanned 56 years, Kirby Littlefield became the go-to guy for nearly everything at the Maine Water treatment facility that provides drinking water to Biddeford, Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough. He knew every little idiosyncrasy at the plant that had been around far longer than he had and just how to keep it running no matter what kind of problem popped up.

Those days have come to an end.

Littlefield, who turns 75 in August, has finally retired from his job as a water operator.

He first thought about bringing his career to a close nearly a decade ago, but the company convinced him to stay on to help out after Maine Water bought what had been the Biddeford and Saco Water Company and made plans to build a $60 million treatment facility.

“I got my arm twisted,” Littlefield said in his typical self-deprecating manner, eliciting laughs from co-workers who gathered on Tuesday to recognize his exceptional staying power and importance to his colleagues.

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Littlefield’s decision to stay on – and to continue mentoring younger colleagues during the transition – was significant and appreciated, said Mike Cummons, director of service delivery for Maine Water.

“It takes a special person to do that,” Cummons said. “We feel strongly that we’ll never see another Kirby, but we’re all thankful to have worked with him.”

Littlefield started working part-time at the facility on May 12, 1966, about a month before he graduated from Biddeford High School. He didn’t apply for the job, he said, but was offered the position through his friendship with the son of the company president. Shortly after he started, a full-time employee left to deal with a medical issue. When he didn’t return, Littlefield was told he could stay as long as he wanted.

The starting pay back then was $2.25 an hour. Littlefield worked six days a week lugging 50-pound bags of the lime used to treat water. He never gave much thought to moving on to a different job, especially after he started buying cars. He started his collection with a white 1961 Mustang convertible. These days he’s into Jeeps and Broncos.

After a year on the job, Littlefield started training to be an operator, the job he would hold for the rest of his career. At on old facility like Biddeford’s – built in 1884 when Chester A. Arthur was president – that work included ensuring chemicals were on hand to treat water, confirming water quality parameters and pulling levers to keep the plant going.

“All of the newer people don’t know the idiosyncrasies from way back,” said Mickey Hall, superintendent of Maine Water’s Biddeford/Saco division. “Kirby built a lot of the processes over there for how we treat water, clean it and get ready to pump it out.”

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‘AN AMAZING TEACHER’

Littlefield said he always found the work interesting, especially during times of transition like the mid-70s to early ’80s, when the company was busy putting in new lines and dealing with lots of new construction.

Only once in his career did Littlefield have to deal with a flooded Saco River, though there were many times the water came within feet of the building. In 1987, the plant was surrounded by so much water that he used a rowboat to paddle to the building, where all the equipment had to be moved to an upper floor to keep from having to shut down.

Kirby Littlefield, center, laughs with Michael Cummons, director of service delivery at Maine Water, at Kirby’s recognition ceremony. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Over the years, Littlefield taught hundreds of new employees how to do the job. His colleagues say he as always ready to share his knowledge, even if that meant taking phone calls on his days off.

“He’s one of the most helpful people I’ve ever met,” Hall said. “He’s been an amazing teacher to every one of us. He’s probably the most pleasant person I’ve ever worked with.”

Maine Water bought the water company in 2012, around the time Littlefield first contemplated retiring. He had planned to call it a career in January 2013. But convincing him to stay, it turns out, didn’t take much persuasion because he found all the changes that were in the works so interesting.

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A new silo to hold chemicals meant that Littlefield’s days of hauling 50-pound bags of lime around were mostly over. Plans were underway for the new facility, which is automated instead of highly manual like the old one. The new treatment plant, which opened two weeks ago, can run itself with oversight. The next generation of workers will never have to paddle to work like Littlefield once did because the new building is well above the river’s flood plain.

Littlefield officially retired on May 12, exactly 56 years after he first started on the job.

In the weeks since, he said, he’s started sleeping in a bit, getting up around 6 a.m. instead of 2:30 a.m. He’s been getting some work done around his house and has gone on a few trips to off-roading spots near Bethel with his wife, Annette. They’re looking forward to planning more adventures to take with their two dogs.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

Kirby Littlefield and his wife, Annette, take photos after being presented with a dedication plaque that will hang in the new training room. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Littlefield came back to Maine Water on Tuesday to be celebrated by his former colleagues, some of whom he worked with for decades. Over coffee and doughnuts, they razzed him for wearing a collared shirt and about his habit of getting up hours before dawn.

Kevin Wilson, a field service representative who first met Littlefield in 1998, said it’s strange to think of Maine Water operating without him. Both are “gearheads” and bonded over their shared love of cars, though Wilson said he’d tease Littlefield about his Dodge pickup truck.

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“I’m glad he’s finally getting to exit when he wants and he’s getting to do some recreational stuff while he’s still healthy,” Wilson said.

During his visit to the new facility, Littlefield was presented with framed messages from Mayor Alan Casavant, Gov. Janet Mills, Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, Rep. Chellie Pingree and the Maine Legislature.

Maine Water surprised him with news that the training room that will be used for the ongoing education of Maine Water employees and people from other water treatment companies will be named the Littlefield Room in his honor.

“A lot of people in Maine know about you know,” Casavant said.

Never one to seek out attention, Littlefield looked at the stack of framed letters in front of him and wondered aloud where he would hang them.

“I have to put an addition on,” he said. “That’s pretty nice.”


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