VASSALBORO – A crowd of more than 1,000 that included Maine Game Wardens and law enforcement officers from across the state filled the Maine Criminal Justice Academy on Monday to say goodbye to Maj. Gregg Sanborn.
And to everyone’s surprise Sanborn, who touched so many lives across the state during a 23-year career, said goodbye to them.
In a 20-minute video that Sanborn made during the final year he was battling a rare form of cancer, Sanborn told his fellow Maine Game Wardens what the service meant to him, and how precious the Maine outdoors was to his heart. And then he said goodbye, the man his colleagues and friends called the one warden who epitomized the Maine Warden Service’s tradition and values better than any other.
“Gregg was an ambassador for the service, the department and the people of the state of Maine. He will be missed by anyone who ever knew him,” said Game Warden Sgt. Ron Dunham, a 16-year veteran of the service.
Sanborn died on Feb. 6 at 47 after his year-long battle with the cancer called cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, fighting it the entire way.
“He is hands down, the toughest man I have ever known. He said it in the video: ‘I lost, but I did not quit,’” said game warden Lt. Adam Gormely.
Monday there were 900 who sat in the academy hall and hundreds more who stood to hear the life story of a game warden many said exemplified perfectly the hard-working, never-give-up ethic of the service. And to the amazement of some, but not those who knew Sanborn, he reminded all of them of that ethic in his final farewell.
“He was still teaching us, right up until the end. But Gregg was a teacher,” said Chandler Woodcock, the commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Sanborn was called a genuine person, a faithful public servant, and always one of the first at the scene of a disaster.
Don Kleiner, head of the Maine Professional Guides Association, said Sanborn treated everyone with respect, no matter the disagreement at hand.
The honest, transparent and welcoming way Sanborn had charmed many. And he became famous for his friendly, calm approach on the job.
“I met people he picked up on violations. I talked to a couple of them and they said, ‘I was wrong, but he was very much a gentlemen in the way he made the arrest,’ ” said Fred Westerberg of Fryeburg, Sanborn’s neighbor growing up.
In his 23-year career, Sanborn worked nearly everywhere in Maine from the Sebago Region to Aroostook County, the Downeast corner of Maine, and around Millinocket before he was promoted to major and the Augusta office in 2004.
Then he worked on changes to improve the service as a whole, including tirelessly and successfully lobbying to reinstate five divisions within the state under the direction of five lieutenants, up from two.
He also improved the interviewing process for new wardens, to hold the guidelines for hiring to a higher standard. And he worked to see that field wardens were armed with rifles, not shotguns, so when dealing with poachers who had criminal backgrounds, the wardens could do their job safely.
First and foremost, he watched over and out for the wardens in the field.
When Maine Warden Pilot Daryl Gordon’s plane was lost in the line of duty on March 24, 2011, Lt. Tom Ward in Ashland said four hours after he reported the lost plane, Sanborn walked through the door, four hours from his Sidney home.
“It was the middle of the night and he walked in the door. I couldn’t have been prouder,” Ward said. “It was just a very tough time for everyone, but Gregg was there. I never knew until I saw him then just how much this guy did behind the scenes.”
Dunham said this was typical.
On several search and rescues for children or hunters, Dunham remembers his friend staying at the command post, sleeping on the floor.
“He would take a blanket and lie down where he was. He was not willing to leave until the search was resolved,” Dunham said.
The story of how Col. Joel Wilkinson became chief commander in 2008 perhaps best typifies how intent Sanborn was on improving the Warden Service.
Wilkinson was promoted to Colonel and Sanborn, who was acting Colonel, had put in for the chief warden post. Yet he supported Wilkinson and agreed to stay on as second-in-command.
“I met with Gregg and although he probably had some disappointment that he was not selected, he said I had to step up, that it was my job and he was concerned who the warden service would get if I didn’t. He became a huge advocate for me taking the role,” Wilkinson said.
“Now when I look back, me as colonel and him as major, they were just titles. We were a team. He was as dedicated to to our mission as they come, to our core values. He preached it. He lived it. He loved it,” Wilkinson said.
One of his closest friends, Dunham said the same ferocity with which Sanborn tried to strengthen the Warden Service was directed at his fight against cancer the past year.
“He was very committed to whatever he was doing. He was committed to win. There are just some battles you can’t win,” Dunham said.
“I saw it right to the very end. I saw him fight just to stand. And them I saw him, finally, resolve that he would soon be passing. He did it very dignified. He definitely was unique. There will never be another like him.”