DAVID FARMER

Retirement is just a new beginning for thought leader

Posted April 18, 2012, at 4:47 p.m.

Move to Maine. Write a book. Stay here for the rest of your life.

I suspect there are a good number of people, especially those who live somewhere else but long for a life in Maine, who dream of moving here, living in a cottage by the sea or a remote cabin, earning their paycheck from their words and ideas.

For most people, it doesn’t work out like that.

For Dick Barringer, it surely did.

For more than 40 years, Barringer has made a difference in Maine, advocating for and informing the debate around the environment, sustainable development and Maine’s quality of place.

Funny, quick-witted and always ready for a hearty handshake, a hug or a fight — dealer’s choice — Barringer is an activist, academic and author.

He has been called upon by the state’s top leaders for his insights and advice, has inspired countless students to put their skills to work making Maine a better place, and even dipped his toes as an unsuccessful candidate for governor.

Barringer retired last year from the Muskie School of Public Service in Portland. Last week, the school and his colleagues held a retirement party for him — perhaps in hopes that he’d stop coming to the office most days.

Or maybe it was more simply to think a thoughtful leader who has been advocating for his adopted home for four decades.

In 1971, Barringer was teaching at Harvard and got involved with a group of students in studying a plan to build an oil refinery in Searsport. Turns out his work and the work of his students caught the attention of legendary Maine newspaperman John Cole.

Cole was the editor of the Maine Times and convinced Barringer that he should write a book about Maine’s economy.

Barringer agreed and the book became “A Maine Manifest,” which was printed on newsprint by the Maine Times and sold for just a dime.

The book, which later was reprinted in a more traditional format, is still available today and still being used in classes around the state.

It was the beginning of a love affair between a man with big ideas and his adopted home.

Soon after the book was published, Barringer was recruited to join the Curtis administration and the head of public lands and so began a career of public service to Maine that included stops in the Longley administration as conservation commissioner and as an adviser to the Baldacci administration. He also served as director of the state planning office.

Barringer also was instrumental in the creation of the Muskie School for Public Service and is the person who actually convinced Sen. Edmund Muskie to lend his name to the endeavor. As a professor and a mentor at the school, Barringer has had a personal impact on countless students who also have gone on to help Maine become a better place.

In 1994, Barringer took a stab at elected politics. He ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, finishing a distant third behind Gov. Joe Brennan and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen.

But the loss didn’t temper his passion for public policy or for Maine.

In an interview in 2002, Barringer talked about the experience: “You really get this sense that the ballot and everything that’s behind it, these concepts of freedom and the union, you know, that really means a lot to Maine people. And that’s really quite inspiring.”

He returned to the Muskie School, where he has continued to have a major impact on the state as a policy advocate and author. He also led the Blaine House Conference on Maine’s Natural Resource-based Industries and on Maine’s Creative Economy and served on the Maine Quality of Place Council.

And he has continued to offer his advice and counsel to state leaders whether they asked for it or not. As one speaker during Barringer’s retirement event pointed out, Barringer was bringing Maine’s political parties together long before it became cool: “He is truly bipartisan: Both Democrats and Republicans hate him.”

Agree or disagree with his policy prescriptions — and there are many people across the political spectrum who fall into both categories — there is no denying Barringer’s love and commitment to Maine.

So far, retirement hasn’t stopped Barringer from continuing his work, which is a good thing. Here’s hoping that it’s just a new beginning of engagement. Our state needs thinkers like him now as much as we ever have.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He occasionally enjoys beers brewed by Shipyard. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dfarmer14.

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