A common theme running through recent political cartoons and Facebook posts has been how happy many of us will be to see the year 2020 draw to a close.

The sentiment is understandable, but of course it’s naïve to assume that the mere flip of a calendar page grants us a global do-over, a chance to get things right after so many wrongs crammed into a single year. The rampant spread of the coronavirus, the accompanying sudden onset of an economic recession, the epic corrosiveness of our national politics and racial inequality that has provoked a fresh surge of outrage are only the most obvious crises we’ve had to face.

The year 2020 is over, but keep your guard up. We will still be the same flawed people with the same capacity for error.

Good health and 40 years of experience in journalism enabled me to produce On This Date, a daily newspaper column that celebrated 200 years of Maine statehood by focusing on various events and people who formed the state’s rich historical tapestry. In the fall of 2019, I turned my frequent bouts of insomnia into a virtue by rising out of bed in the middle of the night to plow through books and the internet in search of material to feed the column, which started seeping into publication on Jan. 1, 2020.

Nobody can know everything about Maine history, so the past year has led me to a number of surprises that I reported in print in the On This Date column. Here are some examples.

• Feb. 2, 1915: In an act of World War I sabotage directed at Canada, German army Lt. Werner Horn plants a bomb in a failed effort to blow up a railway bridge linking the Maine town of Vanceboro with the village of St. Croix, New Brunswick. The bomb shatters windows all over Vanceboro’s center and Horn suffers severe frostbite while carrying out the deed. Tried and convicted of crimes both in the U.S. and Canada, Horn eventually is deemed insane and is deported to Germany.

• March 22, 1848: Dr. Valorus Perry Coolidge, of Waterville, is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang for having killed Edward Mathews in 1847 in Waterville to rob him of about $1,500 that Mathews had just withdrawn from a bank to lend it to Coolidge. Coolidge was one of four people who took part in an Oct. 1 autopsy on the body, and he tried during that procedure to cover up evidence of his crime.

• June 6, 1944: Charles Norman Shay, a 19-year-old member of the Penobscot Nation, rescues drowning and wounded soldiers while under enemy fire as part of the D-Day invasion in France. His actions there earn him a Silver Star. Shay also participates in combat in the Korean War.

• June 14, 1834: Leonard Norcross, of Dixfield, patents a diving suit made of rubber with a metal helmet attached to it with a water-tight seal. Other diving suits had been invented, but the Norcross suit allowed the driver to move about freely and bend over, or even lie down underwater.  Norcross later named his son “Submarinus.”

• Dec. 6, 1931: Botanist Kate Furbish, 97, dies in her hometown, Brunswick, after a six-decade career in which she walked all over the state to describe, depict and catalogue the state’s flora. A plant named for her, the Furbish’s lousewort, is so rare that the rediscovery of it in 1976 influenced the cancellation of a planned $1.3 billion hydroelectric project on the St. John River.

I have to say, 2020 has been good to me. Sheltered by the fortuitous timing of a recent retirement, I have been able to avoid illness and remain productive.

My former boss, Scott Monroe, managing editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, provided the genesis of the column when he asked me in mid-2019 to join a committee that would plan the MaineToday Media newspaper chain’s observance of Maine’s statehood bicentennial. When the committee met, I suggested that the papers publish a column every day that would commemorate some event in Maine history that had occurred on that date.

I assumed blithely that others would do all of the actual work. That’s not how things turned out, although Portland Press Herald metro editor John Richardson and online content producer Julia McCue certainly pulled their share of the weight, as did various copy editors at the Press Herald and the Kennebec Journal when they challenged my occasionally turgid writing or faulty grasp of facts.

By November 2019, it was apparent that the columns might be suitable for publication as a book, so our company’s CEO, Lisa DeSisto, put me in touch with Dean Lunt at Yarmouth-based Islandport Press. Lunt asked for a first draft of the book, “This Day in Maine,” by mid-January, thinking his company should get it into print by late spring in order to capitalize on an anticipated statewide wave of bicentennial-themed events and on summer tourist traffic. That forced me to ramp up my efforts significantly.

As it turned out, if not for the demands imposed by the book deadlines, the newspaper column might not have survived for a full year. Beginning in March, the spreading coronavirus shut down not only the bicentennial festivities, but also my access to various research sites, especially the Maine State Library in Augusta, where I had consulted old editions of various Maine daily newspapers on microfilm. By then, however, I already had done almost all the research and writing for the full year.

I also realized that in effect, I subconsciously had begun setting the stage for the column and the book in my head many years ago.

In a 1978 memoir titled “In Search of History: A Personal Adventure,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and presidential historian Theodore H. White recalls growing up poor during the Depression. After his father died, he earned money for his family by working as a teenager on the streets of Boston.

“It was a ten-hour-a-day job selling newspapers on the trolleys. Ten hours meant ten hours – from five in the morning until three in the afternoon, with no time off for lunch,” White wrote, describing how he had to squeeze his way through standing passengers while yelling out a summary of the day’s top story in order to entice trolley riders to buy a paper. “It was good for the lungs and learning.”

A generation later, in the mid-1960s, I rose in darkness six days a week for three years to deliver newspapers to dozens of Kennebec Journal customers on the west side of Augusta, braving raging snowstorms and snarling dogs to supply readers in that pre-internet era with the latest developments in the world of politics, sports, finance, crime and “Beetle Bailey.”

Unlike White, I grew up in a two-parent, working-class family whose income, while not a princely sum, generally was secure. Also unlike him, I rarely saw my customers except when I went to collect their subscription fees every week.

What we undoubtedly had in common, however, was that we both had to wash newspaper ink off our hands when we finished our work. It was only a matter of time before we began wondering about the events that the ink was used to describe. In my case, as a newspaper reporter for 18 years beginning in 1979, that curiosity first led to covering town meetings, murder investigations, house fires and fatal wrecks on the Maine Turnpike; then to writing for another newspaper about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the calamitous U.S. intervention in Somalia.

Returning home to Maine in 1998 after 13 years overseas, I developed a new appreciation for the layers of history that cloak the state and began to learn more about it. As a result, when the call came to put that interest to use, I was at least marginally ready to respond.

Now that project, like this benighted year, has reached its end. I’m grateful to all the editors who encouraged me and improved my work. I’m grateful to the readers who suggested topics and who needled me when they spotted errors in the column. Most of all, I’m grateful to the panoply of Maine moguls, misfits, benefactors, buffoons, blowhards, sages and saboteurs who provided all the subject matter I could ever need to carry out such an undertaking.

Thank you, all of you, for having made this collective journey into our state’s past so worthwhile.


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