County Faces: Jim Gardner of Easton
Born in the former Presque Isle hospital that is now City Hall, Jim Gardner of Easton has spent much of his life working in the public sector.
“I think right from day one, maybe, this was my calling,” said Gardner, 63.
Gardner has been Easton’s town manager since 2010, after multiple-year terms as town manager for Washburn and Ashland.
Besides being born at a future city hall, he traces his roots in local government to his work in the U.S. Army and later as a civilian Department of Defense employee at Loring Air Force Face.
After graduating from Presque Isle High School, Gardner served in the Army from 1973 to 1976, including time in Thailand, where he helped with the drawdown of U.S. troops from the Vietnam War. After the Army, he fell in love and married his wife Averill, formerly of Ashland.
He re-enlisted in the Army in 1979 and for the next four years was stationed in South Korea, working in a support unit and as an aide to the U.S. general in Seoul as U.S. forces helped oversee the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
“It’s true what you see on the TV. It’s a table with a line down the middle of it,” he said.
Living apart from Averill and their young daughter and son was hard, but working abroad also provided good income and good exposure to other cultures, Gardner said.
“That was the sad part. You were away from your family. But in the same token it did us well. We worked closely with the United Nations and got to see their work. It was a great military career.”
Returning to Aroostook County in 1983, Gardner worked a variety of positions at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, including as a construction manager in the base’s final years.
He remembers being on a tour with the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure group as military leaders in the early 1990s were assessing which military bases to close.
“We had just built brand new housing for the non-married enlistees and a new runway. We were so hopeful that that base would stay open. It was a big part of our county.”
News of the closure came late one Thursday evening in 1991. “The next week, I was told that to stay in civil service, I would have to move to Gunther Air Force Base in Alabama.”
With kids in high school and middle school, Gardner sought another job. “My family was so rooted here that that wouldn’t be fair. My mom was here. My dad died in 1988. I’m the oldest of three boys and I told my dad I’d be here for my mom.”
He served as Presque Isle’s code enforcement officer through the 1990s and watched Presque Isle grow. Within a decade, he took the next step in municipal government, seeking a job as town manager.
“I applied to two different towns at the same time, Ashland and Washburn, and I got the offer for both. One night, sitting at Portage Lake, I took a coin and flipped it, and that’s how I ended up in Washburn.”
He served in Washburn for six years, then in 2005 became Ashland’s town manager. There he got a crash course in economic development, working on projects that included the Northeast Pellets mill, Katahdin Forest Products and the previous U.S.-Canadian softwood lumber agreement.
He also coached basketball and baseball, with the philosophy that youth sports are about having fun and learning lessons in collaboration and respect, in addition to competition.
“I never liked it when coaches got in kids’ faces and yelled at them.”
Now as town manager in Easton, Gardner has overseen one of the most unique towns in Aroostook County — home to two of the region’s largest employers, McCain Foods and Huber Engineered Woods, and one of the largest Amish populations. He’s also served as president of the Maine Municipal Association.
Gardner has always lived where he’s worked. “One of the things I always believed in is if you’re going to manage a town, you’ve got to live there. That way you’re going to pay the taxes just like everybody else.”