Whitcomb Rummel Jr., sad about his gravely ill brother, went online to the Morning Sentinel website Tuesday night as he often does when he feels nostalgic for his native city of Waterville.

Rummel, a screenwriter who grew up in Waterville but now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was surprised and heartened by a story on the site about his grandfather, former Waterville Mayor Lorenzo Eugene Thayer, who died in 1934.

A long-missing bronze plaque imprinted with “Thayer Memorial Bridge” had been turned over to city officials by Jim Goodwin. Goodwin’s moving and landscaping crew found it in a house they were cleaning out 10 years ago. Goodwin dropped it off at the Public Works Department several weeks ago but didn’t leave his name. He told the Sentinel he was the one who had dropped off the plaque after reading the Sentinel’s original story Sunday.

City officials did some research and found the plaque was originally on the Gilman Street Bridge over Messalonskee Stream and decided to plan a bridge rededication for September, near the 80th anniversary of when the plaque was first put on the bridge. A firm date hasn’t been set for the ceremony.

City officials learned the bridge had been renamed for Thayer after his death in 1934 at 51 and were trying to find relatives of Thayer to invite to the rededication.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Rummel said in a phone interview this week.

Rummel, 68, was both heartbroken and heartened by the story, he said — heartbroken because his brother and only sibling, Merrill Thayer Rummel, 71, was in hospice care in South Carolina, unable to communicate.

His brother, he said, loves everything having to do with family history and would have been delighted to read about his grandfather.

Rummel said he was also heartened, because out of the sadness of his brother’s illness has come a rebirth with the discovery of the plaque. He plans to read the Sentinel story over the phone to his brother, he said.

“The plaque must have disappeared from the bridge after I left Waterville sometime in the mid-60s because I always remember crossing that bridge and seeing it,” Rummel said. “My mother was so proud of it. I always remember seeing that sign and thinking, ‘Hey, that’s my granddad.'”

Whitcomb and Merrill Rummel’s mother, Ann, was the daughter of Thayer and his wife, Florence, who had one other child, Mary. Ann died in 2008 at 94. Mary died in 1975.

Ann Rummel and her husband, Whitcomb Rummel Sr., owned Rummel’s Ice Cream and The Silent Woman Restaurant on Kennedy Memorial Drive. They lived with their two boys on Silver Street in front of the ice cream shop, which is now Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream.

Rummel said he and his only child, a son also named Whitcomb, 25, come to Maine about every three summers and stay in a relative’s cottage on China Lake in China.

Whitcomb emailed several photos of his grandfather to the Morning Sentinel this week. In one of the pictures, Thayer, the mayor, and Amelia Earhart are seen at the Waterville municipal airport in 1933. The aviator, who disappeared in an attempted around-the-world flight in 1937, flew Thayer to Boston and then back to Waterville. Another picture shows Waterville High School graduation photos of Thayer and his wife in 1900.

MISSING PLAQUE

Public Works Director Mark Turner surmises the plaque was stolen many years ago, but exactly when, how and by whom remains a mystery.

Turner solved the first mystery of the plaque by discovering an indentation in the Gilman Street Bridge that fit the plaque. Then officials learned the bridge had been renamed for Thayer.

After the first story about the plaque was published, Goodwin, owner of Goodwin’s Unlimited, a Benton company that does moving, mowing and landscaping, solved the second mystery by stepping forward as the person who brought the plaque to the city.

Goodwin said the 50-pound plaque had, until recently, been under a pile of plywood in his garage about 10 years.

But there was yet another mystery related to the plaque, and that mystery was solved this week by Whitcomb Rummel Jr.

About a week before Goodwin returned the plaque, a man visiting City Hall had a chance conversation with Amanda Esler, executive assistant to City Manager Michael Roy and Mayor Nick Isgro, about Thayer’s portrait hanging on the hallway wall next to the city’s other former mayors.

Esler remembered the man telling her he was Thayer’s great-nephew, and after the plaque surfaced, Esler said she wished she had asked his name.

Rummel said the man is Henry Dillenbeck, 86, of Winslow. Rummel and his son stay at Dillenbeck’s cottage on China Lake when they visit Maine.

Dillenbeck said in a phone interview Wednesday that Thayer’s wife, Florence, was an aunt to Dillenbeck’s mother, Emilie Vigue.

As a child, Dillenbeck was close to Florence, who remained in the home she had shared with her husband and family at 10 Nudd St. after Thayer’s death in 1934.

“Ann had only daughters and she was crazy about me and took me under her wing,” Dillenbeck said. “She was very nice to me. I still have the chisel that she gave me for my birthday when I was 6 years old.”

Though Dillenbeck was very young when Eugene Thayer died, he remembers his physical presence well.

“He always seemed like a big man. He was what they used to call ‘stout.’ He always seemed very tall,” he said. “He’s the only Waterville mayor to die in office.”

Dillenbeck repeated the story he had told Esler at City Hall about the day Thayer died — the family was enjoying lunch and having a grand time at the camp in Belgrade and what occurred next made a big impression on Dillenbeck, then 5.

“The phone rang and someone went into the kitchen to answer the phone and came back with the shocking news that Gene had died. All of a sudden the adults just sat there kind of numb — they were all so silent.”

Thayer had been admitted to the hospital two months prior for treatment of Bright’s disease, a kidney condition, and died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Both Dillenbeck and Rummel said they are looking forward to attending the bridge rededication, which city officials say they plan to host in September on the 80th anniversary of the original dedication of the Thayer plaque on the bridge.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Rummel said. “I’d love to have my son come up, too. He loves Waterville. Every time I go up there I drive around and show my son all the places.”

Rummel, a former movie producer and director now focusing on screen writing, owned a film production company in Boston for several years and sold it and moved to Chapel Hill, which has a small-town feel like Waterville.

“There’s a script that got my career started set in Waterville, or I always imagine it as Waterville,” he said.

The film, “The Secret Boy,” won a Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 10 years ago, he said.

“I’ve been trying to get this movie made for 10 years because it’s so much about Waterville.”

Rummel has historic relics of his grandfather’s days as one of the city’s leading residents with him in North Carolina.

In his Chapel Hill home, Rummel has the antique kidney-shaped desk that his grandfather used in his City Hall office while serving as the city’s 28th mayor. After Thayer died in office, the desk was returned to his wife’s home at 10 Nudd Street.

Rummel also has Thayer’s grandfather clock, which was the subject of a Morning Sentinel article that is kept with the clock. The story’s headline is “An old Grandfather Clock owned by L. Eugene Thayer May be Oldest Clock in Waterville.”

Thayer was related to the Thayers for which the Thayer Hospital on North Street was named. It’s now MaineGeneral’s Thayer Center for Health.

Rummel’s mother, Ann, was the last of the Lorenzo Eugene Thayer line because her only sibling, Mary, never married, Rummel said.

“My mother was it, and my brother and I are the last,” he said.

THAYER LEGACY

One might say Thayer was a large man, not only in stature but also in deeds.

When he died Sept. 3, 1934, in the hospital after a cerebral hemorrhage, the city not only honored him by naming the bridge after him, but residents from all walks of life turned out for his funeral held at the Universalist Church. The church was so full of mourners that hundreds had to stand on the sidewalk outside the church, according to a story that appeared in the Morning Sentinel on Sept. 6, 1934.

Thayer, a Waterville High School and Colby College graduate, had served in many public service roles for the city, not only as mayor, but also as city auditor, tax collector, treasurer and a member of the city’s Common Council.

The city’s annual report from 1935 says he was a hard worker who was in office during the Great Depression and was successful in re-establishing the city’s credit after banks had closed. He headed the local federal Relief Administration, helping the needy and unemployed, it says.

Colby’s dean, Ernest C. Marriner, eulogized Thayer at his funeral, describing him as a “great public citizen.”

“Gene Thayer has gone, not to rest, but to work, as he always worked, for the welfare of others,” Marriner said.

Marriner called Thayer a “lofty example of the private citizen in public service.”

Thayer was one of the founders of the Morning Sentinel, which began publication in 1904 with Thayer as its treasurer. He then worked at Boothby & Bartlett Co., an insurance company, and was appointed special agent of the Queen Insurance Co. of New York. In that capacity, he represented the company in the Maine territory for many years, his obituary says. As part of the job, he traveled all over New England and was “known throughout the insurance world as one of the ablest and best-informed insurance men in the state.”

A Democrat, Thayer ran for mayor in 1933 and won and then ran for re-election in 1934, winning by what was then the largest majority in the city’s history.

“His wide knowledge of business and social conditions made his opinion much sought in matters of civic interest and improvement,” the obituary says. “He was always eager and willing to devote of his time and effort to any enterprise that was for the betterment of the community and its citizens.”

Thayer was a director of People’s National Bank for 10 years and was a member of many social and fraternal organizations which remain a fabric of the community today, including Waterville County Club, Waterville Rotary Club and the Order of Masons.

Thayer is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery near his family, including his parents, Frank Lorenzo Thayer and Nellie Nora Thayer.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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