FORT KENT, Maine — To just about everyone who knows him, he’s “Arms,” as much a fixture along Main Street as the family-owned business he has been part of for close to half a century.
On Jan. 27, Ellery “Arms” Labbe was recognized by his community after being named the Fort Kent Citizen of the Year at the annual Greater Fort Kent Area Chamber of Commerce banquet at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
“Holy jeepers, I was surprised,” Labbe said Tuesday morning. “I do a lot of things, but I don’t do them for any recognition.”
Labbe, who turns 77 next month, is originally from Wallagrass and has called Fort Kent home since graduating from community high school in 1954 — the same year he married Muriel Cyr.
Together, the couple has raised five children — Pat, Phil, Dave, Dianne Labbe Guerrette and Elaine Labbe Levesque.
He spent 24 years as a noncommissioned officer with the Maine Army National Guard and, in 1976, purchased Nadeau’s House of Furniture.
“This business started in 1882,” Labbe said. “When we bought it we had hardware, sporting goods, caskets and LP gas.”
Labbe sold off all but the furniture and appliance portion of the business and over the years, working with his sons Pat, Phil and Dave, built a business with a solid reputation for customer service around the state.
For years the store also has housed the Fort Kent bureau office of the St. John Valley Times, where many interviews and stories have been told by people sitting on the recliners and couches on display.
With the furniture business well established, Labbe next turned his attention to civic duties — he has been a central figure in the Fort Kent Lions Club for 52 years.
“And yes, [Arms] has appeared, scantily clothed, on a certain famous revealing calendar,” George Dumond, said in presenting the award to Labbe.
Several years ago Labbe, posed for a popular fundraising calendar featuring club members and other Fort Kent residents in various stages of dress — and undress.
“He is even better known as one of the ‘End Beast’ characters in the ever popular Lions Minstrel Show,” Dumond said. “His participation in this now biannual event has contributed in raising tens of thousands of dollars for worthwhile community projects.”
Labbe’s most recent, and most-loved projects have involved the local senior citizens club.
“I chummed around a lot with Irvin Roy and he was president of the seniors club,” Labbe said. “When I joined he made me chairman of the membership committee.”
Labbe may have very well found his true calling as, under his direction, the club’s membership grew from 147 to more than 800 in just four years.
Labbe then was tapped to serve as chairman of the St. John Valley Senior College, which offers a range of courses and activities to area senior citizens for a nominal fee.
For Labbe, serving as the chair was as much ironic as it was an honor.
“I was the only one on that whole board without a college degree,” he said. “But I love the senior college and take all the classes I can — some of them are out of this world.”
In his younger years Labbe was a popular athlete excelling in bowling and baseball.
In fact, it was his participation in sports that earned him the nickname Arms, thanks to his elder brother Emery “Legs” Labbe — himself a past Citizen of the Year honoree.
“When Legs was in college he was a pretty good athlete and fast on his feet so people called him ‘Legs,’” Labbe said. “When he came home to visit and his friends met me, his little brother, they decided to call me ‘Arms.’”
The name stuck, especially after Labbe made a name for himself as a starting pitcher on the local team.
Several years ago he retired and sold the furniture portion of the family business to his sons Pat Labbe and Phil Labbe. A third son, Dave Labbe, took over the flooring end of the business.
Retired? Maybe, but Arms Labbe remains a daily fixture at the family business where these days his attention is on volunteer efforts more than selling furniture.
“I love the people of this area and I’ve gotten to meet a lot of them over the years,” he said. “Say ‘no’ when they come and ask me to help with something? Why should I?”
Other awards presented at the Chamber banquet on Jan. 27 included the Ingenuity award to Heidi Carter; Small Business Award to GEIPC Inc.; The Betterment Award to Rogers’ Sport Center; the President’s Award to Rita Canaan; Member of the Year to Paradis Supermarket & Pharmacy; and the Longevity Award to the Lakeview Restaurant.