One evening a couple of years ago, when her husband suddenly developed the classic symptoms of a heart attack — radiating chest pain, lightheadedness, a cold sweat — Lesley Cosmano of Stockton Springs dialed 911 in a panic. It seemed like forever, but it took only a few minutes for the ambulance to arrive, its red lights flashing, in the driveway of the couple’s home on Cape Jellison.
Then things got better, fast.
“The first person through our door was Phil Dion,” Cosmano, a member of the town’s three-person board of selectmen, said in a recent conversation. “He already had the blood pressure cuff in his hand. He was so professional, so knowledgeable, so calm and comforting. It was like my husband was the only person in that room.”
The capable ambulance crew brought Cosmano’s husband to Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. A heart attack was ruled out, and he was discharged home the next morning. But the frightening incident deepened Lesley Cosmano’s respect for Phil Dion, a man she already knew from his service on the Stockton Springs planning board and harbor committee, as a volunteer firefighter, a reliable helping hand for organizing fundraisers and other events and an all-around, go-to guy in the small coastal town. Dion also is a fixture at Hamilton Marine, a marine hardware and boating supply business in neighboring Searsport, where he has worked since 2002.
Cosmano is also well-acquainted with Gay Dion, Phil’s wife and the owner of The Good Kettle, a popular specialty food, wine and sandwich shop on busy Route 1. In the winters of 2013 and 2014, Cosmano and Gay Dion hosted bi-monthly public luncheons in the town hall, aimed at bringing older residents together for cold-weather socialization. Gay did all the cooking at The Good Kettle, which was closed to the public during the winter, then brought the hot food over to the town hall.
“I may have had the idea, but she was the do-er,” Cosmano said. “I had no idea how much work was involved, but Gay jumped right on it.” The luncheons were a success, but fell victim to insurance regulations. Cosmano was quick to credit Gay Dion’s many other contributions to Stockton Springs, which have included serving on the planning board of appeals, organizing school fundraisers and a college scholarship fund, auditing the books at one of the village churches, helping to obtain a nonprofit designation for the community center, supporting the development of the public harbor and boat launch and establishing a free fuel oil program for needy homeowners and renters.
Phil and Gay Dion, both 66, have been so involved in this community in so many ways that their friendly faces and can-do attitudes are familiar to just about everyone in town. But now, after 15 years of making friends and tending to the needs of this place they’ve called home since 2002, they’re leaving, returning to their former home state of Rhode Island to be closer to children, grandchildren and other family members, including Gay’s sister and aging mother.
“People like this are the thread that pull our community together,” Cosmano said. In small towns such as Stockton Springs, not many residents have the time, energy or ability to engage as deeply as the Dions have done. Now that they’re leaving, she said, “it will be hard to find others to do what they have done here.”
Not a spectator sport
According to Eric Conrad, director of communications and educational services at the Maine Municipal Association, small towns are experiencing a turnover in the population available to fill volunteer positions on municipal boards and committees.
“There’s no epidemic of vacancies,” he said, but as couples like the Dions approach retirement, many are faced with opportunities to relocate. Issues include proximity to family members, travel ambitions and the attraction of living in a warmer climate. Their departures leave a vacuum.
On the flip side, many communities are seeing an influx of retirees, Conrad said, a potential source of new energy and ideas in small-town governance and other volunteer positions.
“They often have time on their hands and may bring expertise and new ideas from other parts of the country,” he said, cautioning that people new to town should tread gently as they get to know their new communities or risk running afoul of long-established attitudes and relationships.
Gay Dion knows what Conrad means. During one of her early school fundraisers, she said, she got a phone call from an irate resident who took her to task for interfering in local affairs.
“She said, ‘How dare you meddle in this when you don’t even have kids in school here?’” she said, shaking her head. The incident taught her to do her homework and proceed with tact and respect for local ways. “You can get a lot of grief all all your hard work and good intentions,” she said.
Peter Nielsen is the town manager of Winthrop, which has a population of about 6,000. He also lectures about state and local government at the University of Maine in Augusta and speaks to student groups of all ages.
Towns rely on capable, energetic volunteers, Nielsen said, and struggle to fill the void when they leave. One reason, he said, is a “dearth of knowledge” about the participatory nature of a democracy and the importance of taking part at the local level. Most students no longer study civics in school, he said, and even many adults do not know how their local government is structured or appreciate the effort that goes into keeping services in place.
“It’s not a spectator sport,” he said. “You can’t just check out and expect everything to keep running the way you want it.”
Gay Dion grew up in Rhode Island, but she spent every summer of her childhood at her grandmother’s cottage on the sandy shores of the Penobscot River in Stockton Springs. It was an idyllic time, one she wanted to replicate, when she was older, for her own grandchildren. And she always felt that, somehow, this was her heart’s home.
So in 2002, when she and Phil had the opportunity, they left the bustling Kingston area and moved to tiny Stockton Springs. They had already bought a piece of land on the road leading to the historic Fort Point lighthouse, and now they built a 3,000-square-foot house there. It was too big for the two of them, but they needed the space, they told each other, for all the grandchildren who would someday come visit.
“That didn’t really work out,” she said with a sigh. “Everyone is so busy.” A few years later, they sold the house on Lighthouse Road and moved into one of the hillside condominiums that had sprung up near the harbor. Gay ramped up her volunteer projects, then opened her business, where she continued to serve the community with fundraisers and other events.
“I’ve always been very community-minded anyway,” she said. “Unless you participate in your town, you really don’t know what’s going on.” In small towns, she said, it’s easier to make a difference. But, she acknowledged, even for someone with a claim to belonging in the community — as she feels her long-ago summers confer — it’s not always easy to have a voice.
Gay and Phil have already bought a new home in rural Richmond, Rhode Island. They’ve sold their home overlooking Stockton Harbor and packed up their stuff. Phil’s last day at Hamilton Marine was April 7. He has already started a new job in Rhode Island with the same company he left 15 years ago, and he has signed up with the local fire and rescue service, too.
The Good Kettle is closed and the building is for sale. Gay is spending the next couple of weeks clearing out the equipment and leaving the place clean for whoever buys it. She’s looking forward to having more time with family and old friends, but she’ll miss her good friends here and the community where she has had such an impact — and which, she said, is still her heart’s home.
Last Sunday morning after the 9:15 service at the Sandy Point Congregational Church, about 45 friends, neighbors, co-workers and other well-wishers gathered with Phil and Gay for a farewell party. They spoke of their deep appreciation for the Dions’ many contributions to Stockton Springs, for their ready friendship and moment’s-notice availability to help in a crisis.
They recalled Phil’s reassuring presence on the ambulance crew and chatty gatherings with Gay at The Good Kettle. There was cake and coffee, tears and laughter, promises to visit soon.
Many echoed the sentiments of Lesley Cosmano, who was unable to attend the party. “We hate to see them go, but we wish them the very best going forward,” she said in her earlier interview. “Phil and Gay never wanted accolades. They just wanted to help.”