By the time you read this, the Calumet Club Citizen of the Year ceremony honoring Richard “Dick” O’Connor will be just an echo.

This column goes beyond all the platitudes and testimonials for O’Connor’s business successes and philanthropy. It’s about citizenship and a man for whom some contributions and support for Augusta and its residents are best known primarily to those of us who witnessed them firsthand.

Beyond O’Connor Motors, Kennebec Savings Bank, Boothbay Coastal Botanical Gardens (of which he is a trustee) and Augusta’s newest bridge, O’Connor will always be to me the person who for three decades has supported the best local political candidates and helped his neighbors when they were in trouble. O’Connor has always been a champion for Augusta.

I first met Dick when I joined him, the late Joe McCarthy, Bill Perry, Norm Elvin, Paul McClay, Roger Pomerleau and others for regular meetings at J.S. McCarthy printers to promote good local government. We were all much younger men then. (Elvin eventually became the city’s most active local political contributor).

O’Connor was an obvious leader. People who belonged to this group formed the backbone for business promotion and economic development. We supported and brought attention to many successful projects and jobs for Augusta, as did the Board of Trade. None of this could be accomplished without the interest and cooperation of city government, so O’Connor led others to understand that nothing would be more important than individually supporting outstanding candidates for local political office.

The responsibility fell to me to help identify potential candidates and to raise the money needed while conducting their campaigns. O’Connor was always there with an individual contribution and outspoken support for the best candidates. During that time, in the opinion of many, Augusta city government became the best in Maine.

One of my fondest memories is O’Connor’s strong, aggressive style of leadership, displayed several years ago during an environmental (pollution) threat that we faced to our east side Augusta neighborhoods.

A proposal to allow location of a large, foul-smelling septage waste plant in Augusta appeared headed for approval. The east side neighbors needed help. We formed the Protect Augusta Neighborhood Association, the first formal neighborhood group in the city, and sought to hire the best environmental attorney in Maine. That would be Jeff Thaler, of Lewiston, who said, “Help costs.” He would be very expensive; the lawsuit would cost thousands. I went to see O’Connor, who said, “I’ll help. Sign him up and see how it goes.”

We thought that with the help of O’Connor and Kirschner’s that we could swing it.

When the money was gone, I told the late activist Ingeborg Lapointe and Councilor Jay Ray that it looked like our cause was sunk. I prayed hard that night, and the next morning, I went back to O’Connor. He listened quietly, and then said, “Tell you what, Don, whatever it takes.”

The lawyer got his money, found the “smoking gun” in case law, and when the proponent of the environmental threat learned what O’Connor had promised, he withdrew his project.

I always liked O’Connor’s highly competitive style when we were in political wars.

When it came to business, O’Connor must be recognized as an incredibly successful auto dealer, a business that he has since transitioned to a loyal employee, Randy Hutchins. Dick’s leadership as chairman of the board at Kennebec Savings bank has supplied much of the impetus for the amazing growth of that highly respected institution.

And, every time I scoot over the convenient “third bridge” — officially, Cushnoc Crossing Bridge — to the north end for shopping and restaurants, I think about O’Connor, who would not give up until the bridge was built connecting the city’s east and north ends and Route 3 to the coast, opening economic development opportunities. O’Connor truly is an outstanding citizen.

Men and women of impeccable integrity and personal character are hard to come by. I have never been in awe of anyone, but everyone needs a hero, someone who could always be counted upon, without equivocation. As corny as it may sound, Dick O’Connor will always be one of my heroes — Augusta’s, too.

Note: I join other Augusta residents in mourning the passing of former Mayor Stan Sproul.

Don Roberts, a former city councilor and former vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta, is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District.

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