Dick Shaw tried to retire without much fanfare at the beginning of this year, after a long career in newspapers and later working for the city of Bangor.
But three weeks after his last day as switchboard operator at Bangor City Hall, the City Council surprised him with two honors at its meeting on Monday, Jan. 25: a proclamation naming him Bangor’s honorary historian, and the key to the city.
“I’m not very good at goodbyes. But they ended up coming to me,” Shaw, 68, said. “It’s really a big honor for me. It’s really wonderful.”
For the past decade, Shaw was one of the friendly faces and voices that greeted visitors and callers to City Hall. But for anyone interested in local and state history, he’s better known as a living repository of information about Bangor’s storied past, both distant and recent — from its glory days in the 19th century as the lumber capital of the world, to the downtown revitalization of the past 15 years.
“It’s very fortunate for a community if there is in each generation a person that cares about the history of that community, and delves deeply into it,” said Earle Shettleworth, Maine’s state historian, who has worked with Shaw on a number of projects over the years. “Dick is certainly that person for Bangor.”
Shaw has written eight books about the history of Bangor and other eastern Maine towns. He regularly gives talks and interviews at historical societies and libraries, and, as he puts it, he lives in a house packed with his own carefully assembled historical archives of newspaper clippings, photographs, manuscripts and other ephemera.
“Every room of my house is stuffed with things. I’ve got filing cabinets in my kitchen. I’ve got shoeboxes under my bed,” he said. “A lot of the fun for me is just in the archiving of these things, so that it isn’t lost to history.”
Born in 1952 and raised in the Little City neighborhood in Bangor, Shaw was the youngest of the three children of Ward and Frances Shaw, who were both schoolteachers and local musicians. Ward Shaw played trumpet in a local big band, while his mother was a violinist. Though he was raised with two creative parents who valued education, Shaw credits his mother with instilling the history bug in him at a very young age.
“My mother would pack a picnic and get in the car, and we’d pick some roadside marker or historic site, and go visit it and learn about it,” Shaw said. “I think hearing all those stories about seafaring and the Revolutionary War and all that had a big impact on me as a kid.”
Shaw’s mother also was an eyewitness to the Brady Gang shooting, the infamous 1937 ambush by FBI agents of gangster Al Brady in downtown Bangor — a story he heard countless times growing up. In 1987, Shaw helped lead the effort to lay a plaque in downtown Bangor commemorating the 50th anniversary of the shootout, and he’s participated in several reenactments of the event in years following.
In college at the University of Maine, Shaw majored in education, as it was all but foretold that he’d become a teacher like his parents. But one professor in particular changed his outlook forever: Sandy Ives, the legendary folklorist who founded the Maine Folklife Center.
“He took all these stories that were passed down through the generations and made them very engaging, and his classes were really fun,” he said. “And all his exams were true-false, so it was easy.”
A few years after college, Shaw started working for the Bangor Daily News as an editorial assistant. As a newspaper buff, the job suited him well — not only did he stay with the paper for the next 30 years, but he amassed reams of clippings of events both major and minor, from his era and earlier eras. He still has those clippings today.
“Bangor has always been a big newspaper town,” he said. “There’s a pretty remarkable chronicle of our history in those pages.”
Shaw also was mentored by Bangor historian and author James Vickery, who was himself named Bangor’s historian by the City Council, an unofficial position he held until his death in 1997. That generosity in sharing knowledge that Vickery showed the younger Shaw is something Shaw does today for other students of history.
“Not only is he sincerely interested and dedicated to what he’s doing, but he’s also very willing to share his knowledge and what he’s found,” Shettleworth said.
There are several historic events in Bangor about which Shaw is still trying to find more information. One is the murder of Effie MacDonald, a maid at the Bangor House who in 1965 was found dead in a hotel room. Her case remains the oldest cold case on record in Bangor, and it’s a story Shaw remains puzzled by, all these years later.
He also wants to know more about the later life of Hannibal Hamlin, the Bangor native who was Abraham Lincoln’s vice president in his first term, before being replaced by Andrew Johnson.
“Nobody really knows exactly how he felt about being passed over as vice president, or how he felt about then not becoming president,” Shaw said. “What would Reconstruction in the South have been like, if he’d been in charge? Those are the kinds of historical tidbits that intrigue me.”
Though Shaw is now retired, the work of documenting the history of Bangor and eastern Maine is far from complete.
“People who have a passion for history and genealogy never really retire,” said Shettleworth. “There’s an intellectual curiosity and collector’s interest that never really goes away.”
He’d also like to try his hand at telling some other stories.
“I’d like to write a novel,” Shaw said. “And I’ve got some time to do it. There’s a third act for me out there.”