Neil Rolde: author, public servant, philanthropist, Renaissance man, and a gentleman

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

October 17th, 2012 

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Neil Rolde, outside the Capitol in Augusta in 2011. Rolde’s been involved in state politics for over forty years, has written extensively about Maine, is a philanthropist, a Renaissance man, and a gentleman. photo by Ramona du Houx

“I always wanted to be a writer from the very start. When I was eight, I think, I said I wanted to go to Columbia Journalism School, and strangely enough I ended up there,” said Neil Rolde, who is a prize-winning historian, prolific Maine writer, philanthropist, community activist, Renaissance man, former Maine State Representative, political activist and theorist.

Most of Rolde’s 15 books involve the history of Maine — the state he loves deeply — and its people. With his wealth of historical knowledge about politics, the author recently has turned his skill and wit to highlighting political incidents that happen today in a historical context. The results are thought-provoking blog narratives that strike the cord of humanity in us all.

The last blog in his History in Today’s Politics series is entitled: “LePage’s Research and Development Bond Veto Says, ‘High Tech Industries Keep Out.’”

“History is an amazing thing and teaches us all something, if we give it time,” said Rolde. “What happens today has happened — in a different incarnation — in the past. Giving today’s events a historical context can allow us to understand them better.”

With a degree in literature from Yale and a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism, Neil became a writer who soon found himself involved in politics.

Rolde started writing in high school. After two years of public high school, his parents transferred him to Phillips Academy Andover; there he met mentor and teacher Dudley Fitts. “He was the best teacher I ever had,” said Rolde.

At Yale he took part of a special writing program, got involved in making movies, and graduated cum laude. Then he moved to New York City and worked as a freelance writer, doing documentaries for a movie producer. From there he went to California, fell in love and moved back to Boston. On a trip to Maine, the young couple took the opportunity to have a look at York Hospital.

“My wife fell in love with it and told me, ‘That’s where our baby will be born,’ so we moved to Maine.”

In Maine he got involved with the York Democrats, and at one political event he met Ken Curtis, who left a lasting impression on the young Rolde.

“The next time he ran for governor I sent him a letter saying, ‘If you need someone with a degree in journalism let me know,’” he said.

Rolde ended up working on Curtis’s campaign and was eventually put in charge of press and speech writing.

“Curtis was the greatest governor of Maine,” said Rolde with respect in his voice. “He was a self-made guy from a small Maine town — a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, who went to law school. He worked with a passion on economic development, so everyone’s income could improve. He wasn’t political. He was smart and did smart things. Curtis was courageous and did not worry about elections. He put in a bill for gun control and introduced taxes for Maine citizens.”

The courage of Curtis to take on important, controversial issues made Rolde’s public relations efforts tougher.

“He moved Maine out of the do-nothing state of mind but that made his reelection campaign a bit of a challenge,” said Rolde. “And I was in charge.”

It’s important to consider that back in the 1970s Republicans worked hand in hand with Democrats on environmental issues, transportation, and many economic development issues.

“The most conservative representative I knew at that time was a Democrat,” said Rolde. “Curtis had bad polling numbers, and he faced a primary. I was running for the Legislature at the same time. I lost by less than 200 votes. Curtis won by less than 500 votes. That took three years off my life.”

Rolde served six years as assistant to Governor Kenneth Curtis and for sixteen years as a member of the Maine House of Representative. While working for Curtis, he helped to grow Maine’s middle class, affording them more opportunities and improving education, the environment, and healthcare issues. He was instrumental helping with big changes.

“We put in an income tax — it’s hard to believe now, but we didn’t have one,” said Rolde.

He also helped construct the state’s first “site selection law” for unorganized territories, because the state had no oversight for these wide stretches of Maine land.

Back in the 70s oil companies set up shop most anywhere without many regulations.

“Portland is the second largest oil port on the east coast. But there was no mechanism to protect the city if an accident happened. So we put a tax on the oil companies, to be used in case of emergencies. At the beginning, we used the funds for basic infrastructure requirements. It was a landmark piece of legislation for the U.S.,” said Rolde.

After being Curtis’s right-hand man, Rolde understood state government inside and out. As a state lawmaker, he had many accomplishments. Rolde made huge inroads that helped raise the awareness of alcohol abuse by putting a tax on alcohol sold in the state. The effort had previously been talked and debated for 40 years.

He brought together a coalition of groups favoring the issue with those opposing it, to come to a solution about how to move forward.

“I was the coordinator,” he said modestly.

Rolde brought speakers to the Augusta Civic Center to talk about the issue and a special select committee was set up. In the end pubic opinion swayed the measure in favor of a tax.

“It was considered a tax, but we called it a premium,” said Rolde, reflecting. “We put a limelight on substance abuse.”

Rolde’s committee work was instrumental in improving everyone’s quality of life in Maine. He has served on the Maine Health Care Reform Commission, the Maine Children’s Health Care Task Force, the Laptops for Learning Task Force, the Maine Arts Commission, and the Maine Humanities Council.

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Neil Rolde, outside the Capitol in Augusta in 2011.photo by Ramona du Houx

“One day I got a call from the sheriff of York. He wanted me to run for senator. So I did,” said Rolde. “My father beat it into me that politics is ‘evil’ and ‘dirty.’ He wasn’t exactly thrilled about me being in it.”

When he ran for the U.S. Senate, against Bill Cohen, the state representative got 40 percent of the vote.

Rolde is very involved in his York community and is still Chairman of the board of the Save our Shipyard nonprofit that fought the potential cuts to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard proposed by the BRAC federal commission, twice.

“I had two minutes to do the history of the oldest shipyard in America,” said Rolde.

During BRAC’s first round in the 90s, Bill Cohen was still a U.S. senator and was on the stage participating with all the commissioners when Rolde testified.

“Chairman Dickson apparently knew that I had run against Cohen for the Senate. After I gave my remarks, he said, ‘Anyone that can encapsulate the history of the oldest shipyard in two minutes should be in the U.S. Senate.’ Sen. Cohen pretended not to be pleased,” smiled Rolde.

Rolde’s first love is writing and got involved in supporting Harpswell Press. Eventually, he transformed that publishing company into Tilbury House. He’s first book about Maine was a history of York, which he has just updated and will be in bookstores soon.

“I’m certainly proud of Tilbury House. It’s turned out better than I ever thought. We’re doing books that probably never would be published anywhere else,” he said.

How Rolde came to write Unsettled Past, Unsettled Future: The Story of Maine Indians—

The plight of Native Americans has been a reoccurring theme in Rolde’s life.

“When I was five or six I remember seeing the Seminole Indians in Florida then when we came on vacation to Maine we visited Indian Island. I remember being shocked at the shacks people lived in— it was really bad,” reflected Rolde. “When I worked in the Curtis administration one of my assignments was Indian affairs. They had just gotten the right to vote and said that he was the best governor they ever had.”

Campaigning for Curtis and during his own run for U.S. Senate Rolde returned to Indian Island.

“Conditions had improved, some,” said Rolde. “I felt obligated to tell their story.”

Later on he embarked on a research journey.

“I discovered that there is very little material about New England Indians in Washington D.C., most of it is about the Western Indians,” he said.

Rolde’s research was meticulous and he met with tribal historians, elders and state representatives. He sent the people he interviewed his writing before publication because he respected them so much he didn’t want to create misunderstandings.

“Their history tells of so many wrong doings on our part. I just wanted to tell their story,” said Rolde. “I’m convinced so much of our democracy came from the Indian tribes.”

Niel’s research in a Continental Liar From the State of Maine: James G. Blaine unveils the who Blaine really was—

“The Blaine book is the one I’m most found of,” said Rolde. “During my research I found stuff that had never been written about him in any other books. He had to buy supplies for the Civil War soldiers like bayonets, bullets— and underwear. How he went about it was fascinating, there was no manual, and there were no supply lines like today. He did it all from scratch.”

James G Blaine, a United States Representative, U.S. Senator from Maine, and a two time Secretary of State, was a controversial politician. In 1884 the Republican came within 1,047 votes of becoming the President of the United States in what has been called, “the dirtiest campaign in American history.”

The Interrupted Forest: A History of Maine’s Wildlands has deep roots with Neil’s life—

“Katahdin is a symbol not only for Maine but for the world,” said Rolde. “The basic idea of our environmental movement in Maine came from Thoreau because he saw Katahdin. He came here and said, ‘this is the uninterrupted forest.’ Which is why I called my book on the North woods the ‘interrupted forest.”

The book, which is considered a classic, is still selling well. Again Neil’s experiences involved him enough to make him want to research more, and he did discovering more about the lumber wars and life in lumber camps. Initially he got involved with the north woods when he flew over and toured the area campaigning with Curtis.

“As a legislator Rep. John Martin put me on a special select committee to look at a land dispute problem up in Maine’s north woods. We got back 400,000 acres that really belonged to the state which had been usurped by private companies over the years,” said Rolde.

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Richard Barnes, Neil Rolde, and Lois Lamdin at the Constance H. Carlson Awards Ceremony, 2005

Wealthy landowners had viewed the northern woods as a great investment where future towns or cities would be built.

“All this land was laid out by potential developers long ago starting with Henry Knox, the Barings brothers, and Bingham. They bought millions of acres and subdivided it into townships figuring people would build towns— but people never did,” said the historian. “In each township, of 22 thousand acres, 4 thousand acres were put aside for the school, the school master the church and for the preacher. Over the years the land got sold and that 4 thousand acres was sold with it. Until a reporter did an in-depth investigative piece all those different parcels of 4 thousand acres, which totaled 400,000 acres, were lost to the state.”

The select committee, Neil served on, formulated a solution.

“The 400,000 acres that the state legally owned was swapped with other land owned by the paper companies,” said Rolde. “They are now called public reserved lands.

Rolde sits or has served on numerous nonprofit boards.

“I never ask to get on a board,” said Rolde. “It has to be something that interests me and since most things interest me I’ve ended up on a lot of boards. Now I just tell people I’ll be on their advisory board.”

He was a former Trustee of the University of New England from which he received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

The distinguished gentleman is also known for his philanthropy.

“I always like to give things a chance. I was on the ground floor when the University of New England first started. I’m proud of that, it has been a great investment. It’s an incredible success. And seeing Bigalow Laboratory start to take off makes me feel good, too,” he said.

Rolde is forever active meeting people throughout the week to talk about their projects, traveling, enjoying his family, researching, and writing. Rolde and his wife have four children and eight grandchildren.

“If I had nothing to do except write I’d probably wouldn’t be as prolific as I am,” he joked. “I just sit down and write. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to be inspired beforehand. I’m usually working on three or four books at the same time. I’ll never stop writing.”

His new historical masterpiece, Breckenridge Long: An American: An American Eichmann??? An Enquiry into the Character of the Man who Denied Visas to the Jews, will be published later this year by Polar Bear & Company of Maine.