Informed by the who, how, when and where of life

Posted Jan. 12, 2011, at 4:23 p.m.

I’m not inclined to talk about “I” too often. But in my first column as a regular contributor to the Bangor Daily News, an introduction seems appropriate.

My point of view is informed by the who, the how, the when and the where of my life.

Most recently, I was the deputy chief of staff for Gov. John E. Baldacci. Before that, I was an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

My hometown of Abingdon is in southwestern Virginia in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains and coal country. It is the county seat in Washington County, and just like Washington County in Maine, my home was ravaged by an epidemic of poverty.

It was the stark conditions in Appalachia that helped to inspire the great anti-poverty efforts of the last century.

When we read the specious listings of the best places to do business, Virginia often ranks toward the top. But the mountain counties sandwiched among North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, in my mind, still hold the trademark on poverty.

I grew up Southern Baptist and Republican. I am neither now.

By the standards of southwest Virginia, I am pretty liberal in my politics. In New England, I’m better described as a moderate or a pragmatist, particularly on finances.

My mom was born in 1933 on a farm in Grayson County. For the Depression era, her family did OK. The farm meant they had food, if not money. And her home was one of the first in Whitetop to have an indoor flush toilet.

My father grew up in the same community, the youngest son in a family of six. His father owned the country store.

They married. Dad served in the Army. Mom earned an associate degree and taught in a one-room schoolhouse.

They lived for a time in The Netherlands and New Jersey, one as foreign as the other. And eventually they returned home to the mountains.

Dad owned a gas station for a while, but the interstate went the other direction and he eventually had to sell.

At one point, during the turmoil of the 1970s, both parents worked at Hardee’s, dad on the overnight shift and mom on the breakfast shift. Our family took in boarders to make ends meet, including a World War II veteran, Jesse, and his wife, Ruth, who taught me to play poker and rummy, and taught me about the war and history.

Growing up, we weren’t poor, exactly. Or I didn’t realize it if we were.

Eventually, Dad got a job with the gas company working on furnaces, in crawl spaces, in basements and on roofs. Mom got work at a factory that made compressors for air conditioners. She never made more than $8 an hour.

They didn’t like President Jimmy Carter, loved President Ronald Reagan and never trusted unions.

Dad was good at what he did. Despite poor health and addiction that dogged him until the day he died, he rarely missed work and retired at 65. Two years later, he was dead of a stroke.

Mom is still with us, but her body and mind survive in the shadows.

The wear and tear of nearly two decades of repetitive work, standing on concrete, took its toll. Multiple operations on her wrists, knees and hips would have left most people hobbled and feeble. Not her. She endured heart attacks and strokes that would have felled most of us.

But dementia and likely Alzheimer’s are different. She’s still strong; still determined. The strength and determination have no outlet.

I live in Portland with my wife and two kids. My daughter is 7 and my son is 5. We’ve been here for eight years, and we’re in Maine because we want to be.

I don’t believe poverty is a necessary condition or that we spread prosperity by raising the retirement age or undermining public pensions, denying people health care or making politics about us vs. them.

After today’s column, I’ll try to stay away from “I” and focus on you instead. Your ideas, thoughts and feedback are always welcome.

David Farmer is the former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. He may be contacted at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

Editor’s note:

Today, the Bangor Daily News editorial page debuts a new columnist. David Farmer is a veteran journalist who most recently served as deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John Baldacci. David will provide insightful analysis of state policy and government decisions, from a center-left perspective, on Thursdays.

Rosa Scarcelli is considering her political options and will no longer be writing a column for the BDN. You can follow her on her blog at rosaformaine.com.

Stephen Bowen will cease writing a column for the BDN with the Jan. 18 edition. He is now a special policy advisor for Gov. Paul LePage. We hope to introduce a new opinion page columnist in coming weeks.

— Susan Young, Editorial Page Editor

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