Just doing his job — for 50 years — in small-town Maine
AURORA, Maine – We’re bouncing around in the front seat of his green, mud-splattered Chevy pickup truck and Don Jordan – wearing a battered ball cap and a well-worn barn jacket — becomes the inadvertent narrator of his half-century of public service.
There are roads to plow. There’s trash to collect. Taxes, too. The local fire department has eight volunteer members and needs new blood.
The population is about 120. And dwindling. Last year there were no births in the town. And one death. And one marriage.
“There’s no tax base out here,’’ Jordan tells me over the din of country music that spills from his truck’s dashboard speakers. “That’s the biggest problem. The school costs us $100,000 or so. You know how it is. People hate to pay taxes. We try to keep it as low as we can.’’
He’s been doing it for 50 years now, which makes him one of Maine’s longest-tenured public servants, a record that began when a now-forgotten neighbor basically pushed him into it.
“I come to Town Meeting one day and nobody was running and they said, ‘I nominate Donnie Jordan for selectman,’ ’’ he recalled. “I was 22 years old. Nobody else wanted the job. In the 50 years I’ve had it, I think only three people have run against me.’’
No one could beat the guy who shovels snow from the Town Hall roof. Makes sure poor people are taken care of. Knows every inch of this town of blueberry fields and million-dollar vistas half an hour north of Bangor.
Every three years, stretching back to the early years of the Nixon administration, when the war still raged in the jungles of Vietnam, the Beatles performed for the last time and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Don Jordan has been on the local ballot.
He’s 72 now. And quiet. He welcomes a Globe reporter and photographer into his daily routine with the enthusiasm of a dental patient. Polite. Reluctant. Wearing a small enigmatic smile familiar to his lifelong neighbors.
“Pretty much what I tell everybody about Donnie is that I’ve known him long enough that you listen to half of what he tells you and believe half of that and you’ll be pretty much close to the truth,’’ said fellow Selectman Tim Cote, who’s married to Jordan’s niece. “But his experience and his knowledge after being here for so long has been a great benefit.’’
This town, named for the goddess of dawn, was settled at the turn of the 19th century. The economy eventually shifted from farming to lumbering. Aurora sent 26 men to fight for the North in the Civil War. By 1880, only four of those soldiers remained and, according to local history, the population began its slow decline.
But as he stood atop Silsby Hill the other day, squinting into brilliant sunshine, Don Jordan wore the face of contentment earned over a lifetime in tranquility. “Every day when you come up here,’’ he said, pointing out Cadillac Mountain in the distance, “you see something different.’’
Jordan attended school in the same small schoolhouse where he now presides over the meetings of the three-member Board of Selectmen. His twin sister, Donna, sat in the desk not far from him. They walked home for lunch each day. Their parents ran the local country store, named for the family and founded by his grandparents in a paper company town.
“They sold everything from nails, grain, food,’’ he said. “A lot of stuff we raised in our own garden and sold in the store.’’
His sister is now the reluctant town clerk. “Last September I said I’ll take it on a temporary basis until they find somebody else,’’ Donna Manzo said, sitting by the wood stove in her parlor. “Well, I’m still on a temporary basis. And I don’t know what I should do. I’ll be the first to admit it.’’
If people don’t like the job she’s doing, she has a blunt message: “Do it yourself.’’
And the same goes for people who have the nerve to criticize her brother’s long record of public service to her face.
“They say he’s been there too long,’’ she said. “And they say it’s time to get rid of him. I said, ‘Good. Why don’t you run?’ They said, ‘I don’t want it.’ Then I said, ‘Be quiet.’ Maybe it’s just a small town. We need to probably end up going – Donnie’s going to kick my butt on this one – we need to combine these [area] towns under one town manager.’’
If Jordan agrees, he doesn’t say so.
And he doesn’t say much about the current corrosive state of our national political discourse either. He’s a Republican but he holds a non-partisan office.
“I’ve voted for Democrats, too,’’ he said, mentioning Edmund Muskie, the former longtime Maine senator who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice president in 1968.
In a town with 91 voters, party affiliation means less than a willingness to make sure the trash is collected on time and that the town’s sand and salt shed is abundantly stocked.
“If you ask anybody, they would say he would give you the shirt off his back,’’ said Andy Bryan, the teaching principal at the local elementary school. “He’ll do anything for people. He isn’t necessarily approachable, but when you ask him for something, he’ll do it.’’
Then Bryan paused, held up his hand and said: “Sorry. I have to run. You know why? Because I have to drive the bus. I do some bus driving. I coach. I do it all. That’s why I’m here because I love it. This is a special place.’’
On an hour-long tour of his hometown, Don Jordan – in his own way – made it clear that he feels that way, too.
He pulls into an old farmhouse where his grandfather used to live and is now home to his niece. It’s 150 years old. There’s a dirt floor in the cellar and old wainscoting in the pantry.
“Let’s get out of here before I get shot,’’ he said, pausing a beat before adding: “I’m just kidding you.’’
What followed passed for one slice of my interview.
Q. Ever married?
A. “Nobody would have me.’’
Q. You must know every inch of this place.
A. “Yup. Why wouldn’t I? I grew up here.’’
Q. You own a lot of property?
A. “Five or six houses. I got ‘em all leased to people like you from Massachusetts. I shouldn’t tell you that.’’
As nightfall approached, Jordan headed over to the selectmen’s meeting.
An American flag hung in the corner. The meeting commenced without fanfare. No Pledge of Allegiance. No Robert’s Rules of Order. Just three neighbors reviewing correspondence, paying bills, chatting easily as if over their kitchen table.
Jordan was be 73 in June. Will he run again?
“If they want me,’’ he said. “If somebody nominates me, I’ll run for the job.’’
Mo Sheehan, the town’s third selectman, an irrigation contractor in Ellsworth, said it would be difficult to replicate the institutional knowledge that resides in the head of a man who has spent 50 years accumulating it.
“When Donnie’s done working here, we’re in trouble,’’ Sheehan told me.
As he spoke, Don Jordan looked over the local ledger, examined the figures on a page, and handed it off to his fellow board members for their review.
“We each have to sign it,’’ he said, the voice of authority, “to make sure there’s no hanky-panky.’’
And with that, as dusk settled across Don Jordan’s nearby blueberry fields, the official business of Aurora once again had concluded for the night.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.