WATERFORD, Maine — In the corner of H. Sawin Millett Jr.’s dust- and cobweb-coated barn is a worn kitchen chair, where decisions about how to spend thousands, millions or billions of taxpayer dollars have been made.
During more than 50 years working for five governors, Millett has settled into that chair to contemplate how to end a government shutdown, fill countless budget shortfalls and keep Maine government paying its bills.
More typically, it’s just a place to take a load off and forget about all that.
“Sometimes it’s nice to just sit and watch the animals, if you have time,” said Millett, who rarely has time.
The scene hasn’t changed much through generations: Cows and chickens munching and pecking, automated iron watering bowls the cows activate with a nudge of their noses, an under-floor manure removal system, rays of light criss-crossing the room from opposing rows of windows, illuminating the swirling dust like flashes of stars galaxies away.
The room is cluttered with tools, supplies and bales of hay and has probably never been truly cleaned — much like just about any family farm’s barn — but everything is functioning just as it should. That’s what’s important, both here and in Millett’s other life, where you’ll find him wearing blazers and buttoned shirts, more often than not with his nose planted in budget or policy documents
Like his farm, Millett is a throwback to the days when the increasingly rare concept of civil service — every definition of those words — embodied what it meant to be a Mainer.
He has been a teacher, coach, public school principal, selectman and moderator for his local town meeting more than 50 times. He has served 12 years in the House of Representatives, half of those as the Republican lead on the influential budget committee. When Gov. Paul LePage took office, he became commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs, where he led the development of $6 billion budgets and oversaw 1,200 employees.
At age 78, he has taken on a new challenge as the interim town manager in the beleaguered and contentious western Maine town of Paris, where several town managers have come and gone in recent years, where there is a revolt over rising taxes and where municipal employees are attempting to unionize.
None of those facts constitute the most interesting things about the man whose name almost everyone mispronounces — It’s “So-in,” not “Saw-in” or “Sow-in.” For one thing, he has owned dairy cows and beef cattle continually for 62 years — ever since he bought his first purebred Guernsey with his own money at age 9. He earned the money as the early-morning janitor for a one-room schoolhouse in Dixmont, where he and his family lived in his early years.
“I would get up early and help with the chores at home then load up a can of water, lug it to the school, sweep, light the fire and put the drinking water in the fountain,” Millett said. “They paid me 40 cents a day, and I saved every nickel for two years to buy that cow.”
Making laws, making hay
For decades, Millett has balanced running the farm with his jobs in Augusta, often distributing hay and collecting eggs in the early morning or after returning home at night. He and his wife of 58 years, Barbara, have four children who have pitched in at times. There are vast hayfields across Millett’s 145-acre farm to tend to, which has been a cause of stress over the years. You have to hay when conditions are right, not when you have a day off.
“I used to have to hay on weekends,” he said. “There were times I was in some committee meeting in Augusta, hoping to hell it didn’t rain on Friday and Saturday and Sunday.”
On a clear day, from the deck on the Milletts’ modest ranch house, you can see the farm, miles of the western Maine foothills and many of the small towns, such as Waterford, Norway and Paris, on which Millett has focused his career.
A Bates College degree and a resume full of lofty jobs mean the farm probably isn’t necessary to support the family. It’s about honoring the Millett family legacy, which stretches back to his grandfather’s farm on Plummer Hill in Waterford, just a few miles away. The similarities between Millett and his father, the late Howard Millett, are considerable.
Both went to Bates, had careers in education and were lifelong farmers. Both had several children and were physically similar, right down to their flat-top haircuts. As important as working in the public sector was and is for both, playing and coaching baseball and basketball have been Millett mainstays.
Howard Millett relocated his family twice for teaching, principal and school superintendent jobs, from Waterford to southern Maine and eventually to Dixmont, in Penobscot County. The Millett barn in Dixmont is remembered by locals for its makeshift second-floor basketball court, which was used by neighborhood kids, whether the Milletts were there or not. Doubling as a hayloft, the court was small in the fall but grew through the winter months as the bales were depleted.
“We’d have kids from all over Dixmont there playing basketball, even on the coldest of nights,” Sawin Millett, who graduated from Carmel High School in 1955, said.
Decades later, at Howard Millett’s funeral, several of Sawin Millett’s long-lost friends told him of their fond memories of the basketball hayloft. Millett — whose first name is actually Howard, after his dad — brings up his father frequently.
“I’ve pretty much followed my father’s footsteps in every respect,” Millett, who was one of five boys in his family, said. “Bates, being a teacher, administrator, farming — I kept the family tradition alive, just like he had.”
As with a lot of other things, Millett followed his father’s example with progeny. He and his wife had five children, who have produced 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Family reunions at the Millett farm have attracted more than 100, and Christmas morning is always crowded, with Barbara Millett in the kitchen baking chicken pot pies, which has been a Millett family Christmas morning tradition since Sawin Millett was a child.
Since 1993, though, that tradition has taken on a somber side. Barbara and Sawin Millett’s daughter Karla had long suffered from epilepsy, and it was over Christmas morning chicken pie, at the same dining room table the Milletts have today, that everything went horribly wrong. Karla had a seizure, worse than the ones before.
“They kept her alive for three days, but she didn’t make it,” Millett said.
Karla left behind a 3-year-old son, Sean, whom Barbara and Sawin Millett raised to adulthood. By then Millett was deep into his career in Augusta, so a lot of responsibilities were shepherded by his wife, who came from a family of nine children.
“We had our ups and downs, but it always worked out,” said Barbara Millett, whose homemade pot pies and pistachio ice cream continue to attract crowds. “Once Sawin gets something in his brain, it stays there. … He’s always looking for something to sink his teeth into.”
She said her husband’s devotion to public service took him away for long hours but that he made time for his family when it counted most. For years, Saturdays and Sundays were filled traveling as a family all over Maine for baseball and basketball games. There also were many family work days on the farm, especially in hay season.
“The kids always pitched in,” Sawin Millett said. “As you go through the years, you realize how much you treasure those times.”
The Milletts are confident their legacies will continue. They plan to someday pass the farm on to their children, including one who is interested in continuing the haying and cattle operations.
Managing Maine’s money
At the State House, some of Millett’s direct acquaintances know about the farm — he’s been known to playfully urge budget negotiations along with some variation of “I’ve got hay to cut in Waterford” — and his lost daughter.
Most know Millett as a fiscal wizard, a man whose institutional knowledge about the workings of the legislative and executive branches is virtually incomparable.
Richard Rosen took over as finance commissioner when Millett retired from state government in 2014. Before that, Rosen and Millett, both Republicans, served on the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, which has been known to deliberate through nights and long into the next day.
“He always used an expression in those negotiations, ‘Have we achieved rapture yet?’” Rosen said of Millett. In Christian teachings, rapture refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ, when believers alive and dead will be caught up together.
“It was a good term to use because that’s what it took sometimes to be able to continue to make progress,” Rosen said. “If you look at Sawin’s background, his personal history and his predisposition, and the influence of his father, it’s education, education, education. His approach has always been to inform and educate and bring people along. It’s just the fiber of who he is.”
Millett said he’s never thought of himself as someone who has all the answers, though he is widely known for having most of them when pressed.
“I always wanted to be teaching with information rather than arguing about questions and trying to one-up people,” he said. “I don’t see myself as a dictator or a know-it-all. I’m mainly trying to create a team that together, knows what to do.”
Ryan Low, who was finance commissioner for Democratic Gov. John Baldacci before Rosen and Millett, said Millett’s influence with Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature was of tremendous value to the overall process. Though Millett took his share of fire from Democrats for voting with Republicans, Low said he is an everlasting force for making progress.
“I would do just about anything for him,” Low said. “There’s no one more of an expert on budgeting and legislative process, but even more than that, he’s a genuinely nice person.”
A new challenge
Late last year, the town of Paris found itself — again — without a town manager. Several have come and gone in recent years, which many blame on an acrimonious local political scene that put groups of angry and vocal taxpayers at odds with Town Hall. The current fight is over tax increases in recent years.
“It’s a very contentious time right now,” Michael Risica, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said. “There’s a group of people who want to eliminate the police department and a strong group of people who want to keep it.”
Since selectmen unanimously hired Millett late last year, they have tasked him with finding at least $500,000 in cuts in the $4.2 million municipal budget, which equates to nearly 12 percent. Millett already has passed the $300,000 mark, and his goal is to make permanent changes — such as budgeting years ahead of time for roadwork and the purchase of major equipment, for example — that will make the town’s financial future less turbulent.
“I wish we could make him the permanent town manager. Even the people who are politically opposed admire him,” Risica said. “There’s no animosity during the meetings. … He doesn’t come out and say he knows it all, though deep down I think he does.”
The town is in the process of hiring a new manager but plans to keep Millett on to help with the transition.
“We would like Sawin to be able to be there to put a bow on it at the town meeting in June,” Risica said. “He wants to be able to retire, and we understand that.”
By June, the hay at Millett’s farm will be growing high and the cows will be outside. There will be a lot for Millett to do on a day-to-day basis, bookended by bowls of his wife’s ice cream, games of cribbage with her and visits from their family.
The physical chores keep him moving, but he knows his mind will yearn for new challenges when he’s done with the town of Paris. What’s next? Who knows.
On a recent Friday at the Paris town office, Millett was itchy to finish an interview with the Bangor Daily News. He had a budget meeting to prepare and questioned why the newspaper was interested in his story.
“I’m not sure anyone else cares about it,” he said. “I don’t need publicity, and I don’t need to call attention to myself. I’m comfortable being in my own skin.”