In Memoriam: A Tribute To Dennis E. Rindone
Saying Goodbye to a Dedicated Public Servant
There was an episode of Cheers in which a character none of the viewers had ever heard of died, and the cast agonized over what they should say about this man, because no one really liked him. But how do you speak ill of the dead?
That's kind of the way I feel today, as I contemplate the man I once described as "the bane of my existence," the man whose very voice would give me a headache, and prompted me to keep a bottle of pain reliever in my desk at all times, the man who was directly responsible for me writing eight letters of resignation over three years, but only submitting the last one.
His name was Dennis E. Rindone, and he died on Sunday, March 2, 2009. I first met Dennis in 1991, when I was working as a reporter for the Athol Daily News, in Athol, Mass., and then for The Recorder, in Greenfield, Mass. Between the two papers, I spent nearly six years covering the Erving Board of Selectmen, of which Dennis Rindone was a member. As a freelancing reporter, I was paid by the story, so the more I wrote, the bigger my paycheck would be. In that regard, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dennis and his board mates Daniel B. Hammock and Edward G. "Pete" Kavanaugh, for they were always more than willing to give me leads on stories, practically on a weekly basis.
Then in 1996, the Administrative Assistant to the Board of Selectmen left her post in Erving to take a higher paying position in the town of Orange, next door. I was intrigued by the opportunity, because two years previous, taking advantage of the fact that I was working as a freelancer, I had become politically involved in Greenfield, which I was able to do by virtue of the fact that Greenfield and Erving politics rarely intersected.
And so I applied for the position, and much to my elation, I was hired by the Board of Selectmen, led by Chairman Dennis Rindone.
It was at that point that I saw a different side of Dennis Rindone. My job was 26 hours a week, but week-in and week-out the board would give me easily 40 hours of work to do, much of it assigned by Dennis. Efficiency and deadlines were of incredible importance to Dennis, so as the work began to pile up, the stress of the position began to take its toll on me personally. After I had been in Erving for one year, I wanted out. The problem was that I had just one year experience as an administrator, and I had become far too political to return to my career as a journalist. The only thing I could do was build my resume and bide my time.
Ironically, that time came about a month after Dennis left office, in June of 1999. The man who was elected to replace Dennis falsely accused me of helping organize the campaign of his competitor. I later learned that this man's opponent did, in fact, have campaign assistance, from another member of the Board of Selectmen.
Despite that, some people won't let the facts stand in the way of a perfectly held bias, and the newly elected Selectman vowed he would have my head on a platter, after my performance evaluation in June.
As I mentioned earlier, during the three years I worked in Erving, I wrote letters of resignation eight times. Seven times I shredded them, but by this point I had concluded there was no way I would let this newcomer fire me without cause from a position I had been longing to quit for years. And so before my performance evaluation was to begin, I read a scathing, blistering, unapologetic letter of resignation to the Board (copies of which had been sent to my friends at the newspapers in Erving and Greenfield). I enjoyed it enormously when the new selectman very quietly made a motion to accept my resignation "with regret."
It's ironic that my career in Erving began a year after Rindone was elected, and ended a month after he left the board. Along the way, we worked together to help shape legislation that deregulated the electric utilities in Massachusetts. Northeast Utilities was, and presumably still is, the largest taxpayer in the town of Erving, paying about 75 cents on the dollar of every tax dollar spent before deregulation, and about 90 cents on the dollar after the deregulation law took effect.
We also worked together on a downtown enhancement project, called a "streetscape." This project had been initiated by my predecessor, when she wrote and received a grant through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act (ISTEA). When the board went out to bid on the project, they received just one bid, and it was about $400,000 more than the grant allocated. Further, this bid was only for phase one of the project, and with egg still dripping from his face, the engineer who designed the project told the board it was likely that the second phase would be equally out of balance.
The solution that was arrived at was to combine the two phases into one, making it a bigger project that would attract more interest from contractors. Also, Chairman Rindone gave me my marching orders. He didn't care what source of funds I had to tap, he wanted me to come up with the $800,000 needed to cover the project, so they would not have to curtail it.
Having just established many strong relationships with legislators, when I was working on the Electric Deregulation issue, I started making phone calls. I was able to persuade Senator Stephen Brewer, Erving's state Senator, to include funds for this project in the Transportation Bond Bill. Once the Bond Bill was passed with the funds in place, the next phase of the project was to convince the administration to release the funds to us. Even though the funds were allocated, it was the discretion of Governor Paul Cellucci to actually release the funds, so Dennis and I went to work on that project.
Finally, having secured a committment from Cellucci, we had to move the project through the morass of bureacratic red tape in several different offices of state government before the funds would be available to us. The board had, in the mean time, gone out to bid a second time, and received bids that were on budget. The contractor was ready to roll, but we couldn't give him the go-ahead until we knew that the funds would be in place.
Dennis and I worked through the bureaucracy, and ultimately I am pleased to say that it was a phone call I made that got the job done. It seems that there was a native of Erving who worked in the last office that needed to sign off on the project who just happened to answer the phone on the day I called his office.
We received the funding approval literally two days before the contractor would have needed to put our project on hold in favor of another more secure project.
Nowhere was Dennis Rindone's legacy more renowned than his work on improving safety in the Route 2 corridor. Route 2 is a highway that runs from Boston all the way out to the Berkshires in Western Mass. and beyond. About 15 miles east of Erving, the highway goes from a four-lane divided highway to a two-lane road. Once traffic passed around the corner by Ervng Paper Mill, a serious bottle neck occurred, and would not improve until the road passed through Greenfield, 15 miles to the west of Erving.
For 50 years, people had been arguing about expanding the highway to four lanes all the way to Greenfield, where Route 2 emptied into Interstate 91 for a couple miles, before continuing westward to the Berkshires and beyond.
Rindone was very politically astute. He knew the Route 2 issue would never go away. There were two paths that had been prominently discussed over the years that would allow for a four-lane highway. One would have completely wiped out the village of Erving Center on the east end of town. The other would have the highway cross the Miller's River into Wendell State Forest. That, obviously, was the path favored by past Boards of Selectmen in Erving, but environmental groups went ballistic about running a highway through the pristine land of Wendell State Forest. Lawsuits were threatened, and ultimately the state refused to do anything about the problem until a local consensus could be reached.
Rindone took the bull by the horns and organized a task force of public officials from all along the Route 2 corridor. Only this time, instead of debating the age-old debate of four lanes, Rindone suggested an alternate approach. He and the task force developed a plan to improve safety along the corridor from Templeton/Phillipston in the east and Greenfield in the west.
I don't get down to that area too often any more, but already I can see the changes sought by Dennis Rindone. The most noticeable one was re-routing the highway by Erving Paper Mill, one of the most dangerous spots on the highway, with tractor trailer trucks often blocking both lanes of traffic so they could back into the loading docks at the mill.
Rindone and the selectmen worked a deal with Erving Industries to swap land. Erving Industries would give up land to the north of the existing road, and in exchange, the state of Massachusetts would give the land where the current highway was, which would essentially become Erving Paper Mill's driveway. That project has already happened, because of the leadership of Dennis Rindone. It is ironic that Rindone should die so young, because the work he did as the chair of the Route 2 Safety Improvement Task Force has saved countless lives, and will continue to do so for years to come.
They say that time heals all wounds, and that is definitely the case with how I view Dennis Rindone. Even when we were butting heads when I worked under his leadership, I knew his passion was rooted in a desire to give the citizens he served the best he could give. Some people run for local office with the idea that they would like to seek higher office, and though Rindone entertained the idea early in his career in Erving, I never heard even a rumor of his interest in such offices in future years.
So Dennis, I hope that you find the path that will lead you to the Pearly Gates to be not so rocky. If it is, there's a good bet that by the time he reaches his final destination, the road will be much safer.