CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Retiree volunteers time, skill and cannons

Posted Oct. 20, 2011, at 4:37 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 21, 2011, at 12:34 p.m.
Robin Clifford Wood
Robin Clifford Wood
Photo by Robin Wood

Since starting this column, several times I’ve been asked the same question: “Where do you find these people?”

Sometimes I find them through personal connections or chance encounters, and sometimes they find me. Then there are times when I go looking, not knowing where a search might lead me.

Thinking about the annual Fright at the Fort haunting event opening Oct. 21, I made a call to the Friends of Fort Knox office, which landed me at a kitchen table in South Orrington. For an afternoon, I heard stories from John Wedin and a few more from his wife. Together they charmed me with their picture of a life both humble and enormously generous.

Wedin’s father emigrated from Sweden to South Brewer in 1923, hoping to find work at the paper mill where his brother had a job. He spoke no English. On his first day, a man pointed at some tools: “There’s a wheelbarrow. There’s a shovel. There’s a pile of gravel.”

Forty years later, Wedin’s dad was a manager in the mill and father of an American family. He used to take Wedin out in a rowboat on the Penobscot River from the end of Cove Street. Using homemade nets, they hauled for smelt which they sold at the local A&P.

Another youthful activity Wedin recalled was visiting the ruins of the old fort in Bucksport. In the late 1940s he and his friends enjoyed exploring the grounds.

“Sometimes we’d invite girls down, you know, and chase ’em into the dungeon. It was a lot of fun,” he recalled.

Wedin didn’t know at the time that he later would spend 20 years as a volunteer, working to preserve and restore Fort Knox to its present glory. In fact, volunteerism would become the heart of Wedin’s lifetime endeavors.

After high school Wedin saw a brief stint in the service, curtailed by the end of the Korean War. In 1955, on leave from the Army, he met Mary-Jane on a blind date. They soon married and started a family.

“I thought she was something else,” said Wedin with unabated admiration. The admiration is reciprocated by his wife, who made sure I knew what Wedin neglected to mention.

“He made all the furniture in this room,” she told me, touring me around their 150-year-old home. I admired an old stone chimney; “He made that too,” she said, proudly. I exclaimed over some beautiful pocket French doors — “He made those too!”

It was clear without his mentioning it, but Wedin made sure to tell me, “Mary-Jane has always supported all of my activities.”

Wedin began to study accounting at Husson College, working part time at the U.S. post office, but when their second child was born, he withdrew and went to full-time work. He glossed over 30 years at the U.S. Postal Service with a brush of the hand. In 1988 they offered him a promotion to a New York City job or early retirement. Maine was home, and Wedin chose retirement.

“I’m retired. I’m 55 years old. I want to do something for the town,” he recalls saying. What followed was decades of dedication to local organizations.

What inspired the volunteering? I asked. There was a Mr. Grindle, Wedin told me, who taught his father English so he could advance at work.

“That always stuck with me,” and led Wedin to years as a Literacy Volunteer. After losing a teenage son in a car accident, Wedin joined the Big Brother program. He still remains close to some of his “little brothers.” Wedin has also been a troop greeter and a Maine Airs volunteer.

Another of Wedin’s volunteer activities was restoration and repair of stone monuments in graveyards. Soon he developed a reputation as a “cemetery technician,” and the skill became a part-time business. During one job estimate, Wedin saw two Howitzer cannons at Oak Hill Cemetery in Bucksport and learned that they were original to Fort Knox. As a dedicated Fort Knox volunteer, Wedin was keen to get the cannons back to the fort. He struck a deal with the sexton of the cemetery — in lieu of payment for his restoration work, he asked that the cannons be returned to Fort Knox. Now the cannons are back where they belong.

Even now, Wedin dreams up new ways he would like to contribute, but he knows he needs to take it easy, because — oh, by the way — he had a brain tumor a few years ago. He brushed that aside, as well. It was benign, he said. “I came back like a million bucks!”

Wedin is still close to his father’s family. He and his wife have filled their home with souvenirs from visits to Sweden. They have opened their home to Wedin’s Swedish cousins on multiple occasions. His cousins love U.S. history, and especially like to visit Fort Knox. They are amazed at our country’s practice of volunteerism.

“So many of our organizations couldn’t even run without volunteers,” said Wedin. They don’t see that in Sweden. Their cousin John Wedin may be an extreme case of volunteerism, but it makes me glad to know that he is such a positive example of U.S. citizenship.

As Wedin walked me out to the driveway, I saw a wooden sign, painted Swedish blue and carved with: Valkommen till vart hus, or “Welcome to our house.” From back inside the kitchen, I heard his wife call out, “He made that too!”

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

 

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