Politician, author, philanthropist Neil Rolde dies at 85

Posted May 16, 2017, at 1:43 p.m.
Last modified May 16, 2017, at 5:24 p.m.

YORK, Maine — Former Democratic politician, author and philanthropist Neil Rolde died Sunday at the age of 85, according to news reports.

Rolde represented York from 1974 to 1990 in the Maine House of Representatives, serving as his party’s majority leader from 1975 to ‘77. In 1990, he lost to William S. Cohen in a race for the U.S. Senate in which Rolde advocated for universal health care coverage.

After the 1990 race, he devoted his time to writing. Rolde authored more than a dozen books, including histories on Maine and its Indian tribes, a biography on Baxter family, a treatise on the U.S. health care industry and a couple of novels.

Funeral plans were pending late Tuesday afternoon, according to the Lucas-Eaton Funeral Home in York.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, the state’s lone Democrat in Congress, called Rolde’s death “a big loss to Maine.”

In statement issued Tuesday, Pingree credited Rolde with saving the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from closure twice.

“Neil also made a huge contribution to Maine as an author and historian,” she said. “He was a true believer in the adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That was evident in his in-depth writing on subjects ranging from the people who shaped our great state to, most recently, our country’s complex relationship with immigration.”

Rolde recently published a two-volume book titled, “More than a Teardrop in the Ocean,” a history of the War Refugee Board that helped 200,000 refugees relocate during World War II.

“I will remember him most as a mentor and friend,” Pingree said. “I first met Neil when I ran for the Legislature in the ’90s. He was brilliant, witty and always a pleasure to spend time with. Like many others whose lives he touched, I learned so much from his stories and opinions. He will be missed.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, and independent, called Rolde “a wonderful friend and a dedicated public servant,” in a statement issued Tuesday.

“I always admired his deep and abiding love of history and strived to learn from it whenever I could,” King said. “His commitment to helping the people of Maine — whether it be through his service in the state Legislature or on countless commissions, or his generosity on behalf of a multitude of good causes — has left an indelible mark on our state. He will be dearly missed.”

Former Gov. John Baldacci represented his hometown of Bangor in the Maine Senate from 1982 to 1994, while Rolde was in the House. He described Rolde as “thoughtful and analytical with a calm demeanor.”

“He worked with everybody — Democrat, Republican or Independent,” Baldacci, 62, of Holden said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “He focused on the issues and never blew up the bridges behind because he might need to go back to work with people on a different issue.”

Mal Leary, a long-time State House reporter who now works for Maine Public, recalled Rolde as an example of political generations gone by when Democrats and Republicans could disagree on policy but remain friendly in other settings. As a politician, Leary said Rolde embodied transparency and accessibility.

Leary said Rolde’s legacy remains imprinted on the Legislature in both the existence of the criminal code and the abolishment of the executive council, which used to confirm gubernatorial appointments. The Senate does that now.

“Neil Rolde was very much new school as a legislator,” said Leary. “We really lost him when he decided to leave politics and start writing books.”

Lee Umphrey, 58, of Addison, who served in Baldacci’s administration, met Rolde in the late 1980s at a gathering of nonprofit organizations. They remained friends over the years, Umphrey, now the head of the Harrington Family Health Center, said Tuesday.

“We had a lot of common friends and interests,” Umphrey said in a telephone interview. “He was a historian who cared about the future and he was very generous. He gave a lot of money to a lot of causes.”

One of Rolde’s financial contributions helped fund a 2,300-square-foot building at the Fields Pond Nature Center in Holden owned by Maine Audubon, according to BDN archives. The building was named for Rolde’s father, L. Robert Rolde, in 1997 after Neil Rolde gave $150,000 to the $400,000 project.

Umphrey said Tuesday that he learned some very important lessons from Rolde.

“I learned the importance of being genuine to yourself and to your friends and to your community,” Umphrey said. “He was all about how can we make our community better.”

BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.

 

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