WEST GARDINER — All Mert Hickey knew Saturday morning was that his son Gary was going to run him by a tree they wanted to look at in Judy Abbott’s yard.

The elder Hickey didn’t know that it was a ruse to get him to the town garage where friends and neighbors were waiting to honor Hickey for his 40 years of service to the town and its residents.

When he walked through the door, shortly after noon, he was greeted with a round of applause and cheers from nearly 100 people who turned out.

Hickey, now 85, wrapped up his time as a selectman a year ago, when he declined to run for another term. At that time, he had served 33 years as a selectman; before that, he had served on the Gardiner-area school board.

“I was fortunate to have 26 years working alongside Mert as a selectman, and if you didn’t get educated, it was because you weren’t paying attention,” Greg Couture, chairman of the West Gardiner Board of Selectmen said in brief remarks at the start of the event.

Now, he said, he gets to pass on what he learned from Hickey to two selectmen he serves with now: Randy Macomber and Steve McGee.

Former selectman Mert Hickey smiles Saturday during a surprise party for him in the West Gardiner town garage. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Mert, thank you very much for all those years of service,” Couture said. “And, as you can see, there’s a lot of love and appreciation for everything you’ve done for us.”

Hickey, who is soft-spoken, not given to making speeches and doesn’t care to be the center of attention, remained true to form and did not make a speech. Instead, he spent his time visiting with friends and swapping stories.

About his time serving West Gardiner, Hickey said it’s been good, and people have mainly been good. He said he stops by the Town Office once in a while for Board of Selectmen’s meetings, but he’s been enjoying spending his time doing other things.

Where Hickey was reticent, his friends and neighbors were not. The stories about Mert Hickey rocketed around the town garage over the potluck lunch — trays of sandwiches, biscuits, cold cuts, cookies, cupcakes and other desserts, provided by many of the people who turned out.

Mike Flynn, now 55, has known Hickey for more than five decades, since his family built a house next to the Hickeys when he was 4 years old. Between him and his five siblings and the six Hickey kids, all around the same age, they could get a ball game going within minutes.

“It’s been a blast growing up next to him,” Flynn said. Now as an adult, Flynn lives in the home his parents built and they get together most every weekend over a cup of coffee and discuss just about everything and their ongoing agricultural competition.

“He has a potato farm and I  have an apple tree,” Flynn said. “We compete for who yields the most. Last year I harvested two apples and he harvested six potatoes. Apparently, we need to find someone who can teach us how to grow things.”

From Hickey, he said he’s learned what he calls the Mert system. When as a teenager, he went to work for Hickey cutting wood, he learned if he did something, he would try to do it faster the next time. Now as the nutrition director for the Sheepscot Valley School District, he uses it when prepping food, trying to shave time off his tasks.

“He’s very inspiring,” he said. “There’s a drive not to disappoint him.”

Judy Marsh, who served with Hickey on the School Administrative District 11 School Board, recalled when a new teacher at the time was wearing overalls, and it was drawing comments.

“Mert informed them all it didn’t make a damn bit of difference what she wore,” Marsh said.

People fill plates from a potluck lunch table during a surprise party Saturday for Mert Hickey in the West Gardiner town garage. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

People shared stories about Hickey’s work with his wood cutting and tree service business and his time racing canoes and the war canoe he donated to the YMCA camp.

Shirley Yankura said she always appreciated the hay rides Hickey gave over the course of about a decade to the town’s kids.

“I had the best job, because he’d pick me up first,” Yankura said, and she would help the kids on and off the wagon.

McGee, who owns and runs McGee Construction, was elected to the Board of Selectmen after Hickey decided he wouldn’t run again. He has his own stories about Hickey to tell.

“I don’t know how many years ago this was,” McGee said. “A person came to West Gardiner, and he asked Mert, ‘I’d like to build a house. What do I need?’ And Mert said, ‘First, you’re going to need some boards.’ And it went from there.”

He said he’s appreciated the common sense approach that Hickey has brought to his public service.

Saturday’s celebration took some planning. In ordinary times, it would have been held a year ago, after Hickey decided not to seek reelection, but public health restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic ruled out a large public gathering.

Couture said keeping the event a surprise wasn’t too hard, since Hickey doesn’t do computers and doesn’t have a cell phone.

Gary Hickey, who is West Gardiner’s road commissioner, said his father didn’t know anything about the event until they pulled into the town garage.

“When I pulled in, he said, ‘There’s no trees around here,” the younger Hickey said. “I said the tree’s right inside that building. I think he realized everyone was here for him.”

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