In celebration of Neil Roldeappeared in the Seacoast, By Deborah McDermott, March 03, 2014 2:00 AM
ELIOT, Maine — Denise Johnson tells the story of the day more than 40 years ago when Neil Rolde, then a candidate for state representative, came to the sprawling Johnson farm on rural North Village Road in York to introduce himself.
“On foot. No politician had ever knocked on our door before,” she said. “And he walked in.” Her former father-in-law, Theodore Johnson, was so impressed with Rolde after they sat down at the kitchen table and talked that he decreed that he — and to the extent he held sway over his extended family, they — would always vote Rolde.
Stories like that abounded Saturday night as more than 100 people came to the Regatta Banquet and Conference Center to honor Rolde, a longtime former Democratic state legislator and majority leader from York, as well as an author, historian and philanthropist.
Perhaps that day at the Johnson farm, Rolde wrote a note to himself about a concern Johnson might have expressed. Barry Valentine, a former legislative aide who briefly took over Rolde’s seat in the Legislature for a term in the 1970s, said Rolde was known for those ubiquitous slips of paper. One day, Valentine checked Rolde’s overcoat for a specific note.
“I kept pulling out all these small pieces of paper, and all of them had writing on them,” he said, each detailing some issue Rolde said he’d investigate for someone or notes on a conversation. “He really paid attention to what people said.”
Former Senate President Mark Lawrence, who grew up in Kittery, said, “few people in my life have had as much impact as Neil.” Some 35 years ago when he was fresh out of college, Lawrence admits he was floundering, unsure of what his future would be.
“Neil sat in my parents’ living room and tried to get me involved in politics,” Lawrence said. At the time, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in York, 7 to 1. “It was that bad. He literally had to turn over every rock to get a vote. He relied on that personal relationship with people; he understood them. I remember one Republican said to Neil, ‘I’d vote for you even if you were a communist.'”
On those many slips of paper that Rolde accumulated were undoubtedly notes to himself about York Hospital. President Jud Knox said Rolde was “enormously supportive” of the hospital throughout his tenure in Augusta from 1974 to 1990. He helped the hospital get state approval for its cardiac catheterization laboratory, birthing center and Cottage program for addiction counseling.
“He’s just a fantastic guy,” Knox said.
The evening of toasts and reminiscences also included video clips from U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows and — in a surprise moment of the evening — from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. Rolde and Mitchell worked together on the campaign of Gov. Ken Curtis, and later Rolde worked on all of Mitchell’s campaigns for Senate.
“I’ve really treasured our friendship over the years, and I will be forever grateful to you for your support,” Mitchell said.
Pingree said Rolde has been “the best mentor and supporter any of us could ever have. There is never enough time to talk about all the wonderful things Neil has done for the state of Maine.”
As he stood up at the podium, Rolde pretended to look in his jacket pockets. “Now where did I put that piece of paper?” he said to much laughter.
“It makes me feel very fulfilled to have an evening like this,” he said. But he said at 82, he’s far from ready give up his role as the area’s emeritus political figure.
“As far as this old guy is concerned, it ain’t over till it’s over,” he said. “I’m going to be out there pushing as long as I can.”