John Hickenlooper, who plans to run for president next year, is the former governor of Colorado, a past mayor of Denver and a pioneer of the craft brew trade. But in the summer of 1970 he was a lanky, ponytailed Pennsylvania teenager volunteering his time to help fix up an abandoned sardine factory on Maine’s far eastern fringe.

Hickenlooper, then 18 and a member of a practicing Quaker family, had traveled here as part of an American Friends Service Committee work camp assigned to help an all-volunteer free school get off the ground in Robbinston, 15 miles up Passamaquoddy Bay from Eastport. He and a dozen other young Quakers spent the summer scraping, painting and renovating the cavernous building facing Canada across the St. Croix, which opened the following fall to 31 pupils ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“One of the women who started it had been teaching in the public school, and they claimed she had Ho Chi Minh’s pictures on her wall and (North) Vietnamese flags, so they forced her out,” Hickenlooper recalled in a 2016 interview when he was governor. “They created their own school because the parents had said they were the only teachers they liked.”

Indeed, co-founder Susan Tureen, a newly minted graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, had learned earlier that year that School Administrative District 69 would not renew her contract to teach Robbinston Elementary’s kindergarten, first- and second-graders. Administrators claimed it was due to her lax “philosophy of pupil control,” according to press reports at the time, though Tureen said there had never been any complaints or even oversight of her classroom conduct.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, one of the newest Democratic presidential candidates, plays piano during a visit to the home of Jack Wertzberger in Dubuque, Iowa, earlier this month. Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP

“It was just a horrible time for me, because I was young, impressionable and had fallen in love with these kids and was looking forward to going back the next year,” Tureen says. “A bus driver saw a blue and red decoration a kid had drawn, freaked out and said it was a Viet Cong flag. It didn’t even have a star on it.”

In reality, her dismissal may have had more to do with the feathers her husband, lawyer Tom Tureen, was ruffling up representing the Passamaquoddy Tribe in a massive land claim case against the state that would eventually result in a cash settlement and federal recognition for tribes east of the Mississippi River that had previously been excluded. Tureen’s predecessor, Don Gellers, had been run out of the country in the face of an orchestrated conspiracy directed by the Attorney General’s Office and executed by the Maine State Police, who sought to imprison him for the “constructive possession” of a marijuana cigarette allegedly found in a closet, in the pocket of one of his jackets.


Such was the scene when Hickenlooper arrived in Robbinston to help Susan Tureen and 17 families prepare Our School, an all-volunteer, tuition-free alternative school, for its September 1970 opening. The school was featured in The New York Times in 1971 because one of his fellow volunteers was the daughter of the reporter, Thomas Laskoct, Tureen said.

“Hickenlooper was a pimply adolescent with a stringy ponytail when he worked with us,” she recalled. She didn’t see him again until the late 1980s, when he invited the Tureens to visit him at his family’s cabin on New Hampshire’s Squam Lake, 75 miles west of Portland, where he still spends part of each summer.

Hickenlooper and his spokesperson did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Maine to COLORADO governorship

After leaving Robbinston, Hickenlooper enrolled at Wesleyan College, earned a master’s degree in geology and moved to Colorado to work for an energy company. Laid off during Denver’s 1980s energy bust, he famously started a microbrew pub, Wynkoop, which helped turn the city’s derelict LoDo neighborhood into a thriving entertainment district, a process he backed when he served as mayor from 2003 to 2011, when he was elected governor.

While governor, he learned a reporter he was speaking to was from Maine and immediately interjected: “You must know my friend David Geary!” – founder of Portland-based D.L. Geary Brewing and a pioneer of Maine’s own microbrew industry.


Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at a campaign house party in Manchester, N.H. Associated Press/Elise Amendola

Indeed, Geary says he met the future governor at a craft beer industry conference in Denver and the two brewers became fast friends. “Our personalities matched – he was funny, smart and articulate, and we just hit it off,” Geary recalls with a laugh. “He’s all about the grassroots and connecting one-on-one with people, ordinary people like me and you. I’m really excited he’s running for president.”

Hickenlooper joins 14 other Democrats who have announced they are seeking to take on President Trump in the 2020 election. Pragmatic, socially progressive and entrepreneurial, he won statewide office and policy allies in a purple state. Many national pundits expect he will face an uphill battle, given the energy in the party’s progressive wing and his lack of name recognition outside of his home state.

“Nobody there knows who the hell I am,” Hickenlooper said last year of New Hampshire, his summer retreat, in an interview with The Atlantic. “It’s perfect. If I did run for president, it would be less than perfect.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

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