Al Cavanagh, seated, greets well-wishers on Sunday during the 96th birthday celebration in his honor on the Kennebec River Rail Trail in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Al Cavanagh, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of the Rail Trail,” still holds high approval ratings despite a charged political climate, as evidenced by his 96th birthday celebration on Sunday.

Dozens of friends and family members holding signs lined the northern entrance of the Kennebec River Rail Trail Sunday morning to wish Kavanagh a happy birthday. Kavanaugh, a World War II veteran assisted by an elaborately decorated walker adorned with balloons and flowers, walked about a tenth of a mile, stopping to speak with his friends and take pictures, before returning back to the entrance.

Kavanagh said he was surprised by all of the support.

“It blew my mind,” he said. “All of my closest friends; I was so surprised by so many.”

Birthday parties and other social gatherings have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic since restrictions on gathering came down in March. Loved ones have gotten creative in their celebrations, including organizing parades.

One of Kavanagh’s caretakers, Barb Sirois, said Kavanagh has regularly walked on the rail trail for the last five years. During those walks, she said, he began his mayoral campaign by asking passerbys for their votes.

“He tries to talk to everybody,” Sirois said, calling him a “jokester.”

Al Cavanagh greets well-wishers during the 96th birthday celebration Sunday in his honor on the Kennebec River Rail Trail in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“He just loves people and it shows in his interaction with them,” Sirois said.

Kavanagh’s daughter Ellen Johnston, of Augusta, called the moment, which fell on Father’s Day, “incredible.” She said this isn’t his first pseudo-political position; he was the former mayor of his nursing home before he moved back home under her care.

“When he was 85, he was the mayor of the nursing home, so this is a step up,” she said. “He kept trying to encourage people in the nursing home to be positive and smile even though he was really sad to be there.”

Kavanagh said he’s been asking for votes for so long that he often runs into people who have already pledged their vote.

“When I meet people, there are so many of them I didn’t remember completely that I already asked them and they would say, ‘Good Morning, Mr. Mayor,'” he said. “I’m practicing to be a politician.”

Johnston said Kavanagh, who also describes himself as an “illegal alien” from Long Island, New York, moved to Maine in 2011 after growing up in New York. Before moving to Maine, Kavanagh served in the Army Air Corp in World War II and also taught for a number of years in the Great Neck School District in New York.

“He grew up in a very poor family in New York,” she said. “He’s made a change for the rest of his family.”

Shortly after moving to Maine, Johnston said, Kavanagh broke both of his hips within two years. Despite the injuries, his rail trail excursions continued, helping spread his positive outlook to others.

“He’s just so resilient,” she said. “He intentionally looks for someone … who looks sad and he tries to pick out something positive he notices about them to brighten their day.”

“I’m always telling him that (he) has a purpose, it doesn’t matter how old you are, or how young you are,” she added.

Sirois said the strong turnout meant a lot to her, “because it meant a lot for him.”

“It made his day special,” she said.

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