CAMDEN, Maine – She was a small-town girl, who grew up doing small-town things. Camping. Swimming. There were neighborhood games of kickball and hard-fought Whiffle ball contests. There were bags of penny candy at the corner store.
And as little Julie Drinkwater grew, she developed a large group of close friends, who knew her as a prankster. An imp. A master of disguise. A fierce and loyal ally. The kind of girl you could confide in and — as time went on — sneak a beer with on a Friday night.
She knew early on what she wanted to do with her life. And then she went out and did it.
“Oh, if you came to my house to play when she was little, she would put a dish towel around your neck and pretend to cut your hair,’’ said Glenna Drinkwater, Julie’s mom. “All the dolls had their hair cut. She just pretended to cut hair. That’s what she wanted. And she knew it.’’
And so for 35 years, from her post at Eric’s Barber Shop in downtown Camden, she was the unofficial chronicler of life in her hometown. As she clipped hair, she collected news of weddings and breakups — of championship football glory, of college acceptances. Of the births of babies.
But she also had some news of her own — life-changing news — that she kept mostly to herself.
“If she didn’t tell you she had cancer, you wouldn’t know," her longtime friend and co-worker Brenda Miles told me the other day. “With this being a really busy barbershop, a lot of people have had cancer and she’s watched people pass.
‘’But she never once said, ‘Poor me.’ She always hugged the other person, knowing what was happening to her. She never said anything.’’
That loyalty, that longevity, that steady presence at the little shop on Mechanic Street here help account for the remarkable reaction to the death a couple weeks ago of Julie Drinkwater Landwehr, a victim of the cancer that she battled with uncommon grace.
Local fund-raising efforts brought in thousands of dollars. You almost didn’t have to ask.
Then, days before her death, friends organized a major event that raised nearly $40,000 that helped pay off her mortgage. Some 500 people crowded into the local Elks lodge determined to celebrate her life that day. Many of them returned not long after for her memorial service at the First Congregational Church on Elm Street.
“She did not want to stop living and who can blame her?’’ the Rev. Dr. Ute Susanna Molitor asked at her funeral service. “Even when the diagnosis of bone cancer emerged, she remained convinced for a long time that she would make it through.
“She defied all odds for so long but eventually her strength waned. Julie would ask from time to time, ‘What color will it be? What will it be like to die?’ What tender questions. A [barber] still thinking in color after losing her sight.’’
As he heard those words, Julie’s husband and childhood sweetheart, Peter Landwehr, could remember the woman whom he married in that same church in the summer of 1984.
They made their home in nearby Appleton and raised two sons, Ryan and Adam. It was the family that Julie had dreamed of. And adored.
“She was the greatest mother anyone could ever have,’’ her husband told me through tears the other day. “She was a friend to everyone. I’m going to miss her. I’m lost right now.’’
He’s not alone.
There are lots of Julie stories being shared in the shops and along the streets here where she built her life.
Stories about Julie the bargain shopper. Julie the confidant. Julie the cancer survivor, the woman who quietly held her disease at bay after finding a lump in her breast in 1996 when she was just 33.
“She called me from the barbershop,’’ her husband recalled. “She said, ‘I’ve got bad news.’ I was surprised the doctor told her over the phone. But that’s what happened. There was a biopsy. A double mastectomy. She went to Boston for other treatment. The kids were 7 and 3.’’
She looked ahead. She was determined to live. There was radiation and chemotherapy. When it was time to shave her head, her kids helped.
“She was positive all the time," Peter Landwehr said. “She just did everything she had to. She was very lucky for a long time. When they removed her breasts, the margins were so close. So close. Just fight it out, I thought. I thought she’d live forever. Through the first 25 years, I wasn’t as nervous as the last year."
She didn’t talk about it. She thought she would beat it.
Still, her bones ached. She grew tired. Her cancer did not.
“She would always leave with a headache,’’’ Brenda Miles, her co-worker, said. “She was getting headaches all summer. She was dizzy. And she lost some of her vision. She worked until November 11. She told me she was tired. I told her not to come in because she looked tired. But she came in anyway.’’
There were some mileposts she was determined that she would not miss. When her son Adam got married in 2018, she danced with him at the wedding.
“Oh my God,’’ Brenda said. “She loved that night. The whole family was there.’’
Her mother said Julie dreamed of being a grandmother. A wish unfulfilled.
“We were best friends,’’ Glenna Drinkwater, now 77, said, smiling at that bond and at that memory.
In the days since her death, there have been small acts of kindness committed in Julie’s name.
Customers paying for the haircut for the next guy in the chair. A friend posted a Facebook photo of Julie smiling into the sunshine of Bermuda. Her name adorns a commemorative T-shirt, a gift to volunteers at the “Join in For Julie” fund-raiser.
“Julie lived pretty much all her adult life with cancer,’’ said Amy Rollins, her longtime friend. “She had this urgency in her life. For herself. For her kids. For everybody in her family. She just plowed ahead and never procrastinated because she knew how precious life was.’’
It was the life she built in the town she loved.
The place where she once held hands with the boy who would become her husband.
Where she floated in the waters of Coleman Pond with her schoolgirl friends.
The place where she once cut John Travolta’s hair.
Where she made her home and built her family and never regretted any of it.
“She was the best daughter,’’ her mother said.
“She was an awesome person,’’ Brenda Miles said.
“She was a good wife. And mother,’’ her husband, wiping away tears, said quietly.
The small-town girl — just 56 years old — who left big footprints.
“We’re thinking of ways that we can continue to keep Julie’s spirit and everything that she stood for alive,’’ Rollins said. “We’re looking for some meaningful way so that people won’t forget what an important person she was in this community.
"In that little barbershop she just created something amazing.’’
Something real. Something important.
A slice of Americana that people here won’t — and can’t — forget.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at email@example.com.