Topsham personified: Library honors Don Russell

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TOPSHAM — Don Russell is probably about as Topsham as a person can be.

He has lived nearly 80 years in the same Winter Street house where his parents moved to from Stoneham, Massachusetts, when he was 6 months old. And he has spent nearly half a century in public service. And the meeting room at the Topsham Municipal Building is named after him.

Thinking back during an interview at his more than 250-year-old home, Russell said the evening last October when he was honored by town and state representatives for his service “was more than I ever dreamed of. The honor of having that room there, at least it leaves a part of me here.”

New to Russell’s list of honors is the Topsham Public Library‘s second Sarah Whitten Community Award, which will be presented Friday, Feb. 5.

“To leave (public service) with those honors, it’s a good feeling,” Russell said.

Library director Susan Preece said Russell is the kind of person the library has in mind when considering a winner of the Whitten award, named for the woman who donated her family home to the town for use as a library in 1941.

“Don Russell’s service, in our view, matches that kind of dedication,” Preece said. “He didn’t donate a family home, but he donated a significant part of his life to the town of Topsham, and to supporting what the Topsham community is all about.”

Russell served on the Board of Selectmen from 2002 to 2005, and again from 2009 until he retired last year. He spent six years of those two terms as chairman.

His public service resume also includes time on the Planning Board (2006-2009), School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors (2006-2008), Local Redevelopment Authority for the Topsham Navy Annex (2005-2008), Sagadahoc Budget Advisory Committee (2002-2008), and the Board of Assessment Review.

It all started when the phone rang one day in 1969.

“I got a call from Clarence Johnson, who was the head selectman at that time, wanting to know if I wanted to go on the Board of Appeals,” Russell recalled. “I said I would, and it’s been all straight ahead from there.”

Russell spent 33 years on that board, including 28 as chairman.

“I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and it’s quite obvious, or I wouldn’t have stayed on these boards the length of time,” he said. “… I would do it again, if the same circumstances presented themselves, and wouldn’t regret a day of it.”

When not sitting at the dais, Russell’s career included six years in the 1960s in the U.S. Army, 10 years as field supervisor for Ralston Purina Co., and 20 years as owner and operator of a poultry farm.

Now semi-retired, he has been the owner and operator of nearby residential rental properties for more than 40 years – although he said he wouldn’t mind selling them at some point.

While he used to do all the maintenance on those houses, “right now, to stand on a ladder for three or four hours at a time, I’m not looking forward to that,” he said.

Russell and his wife, Barbara, have been married for nearly 50 years ago, and have two sons and three grandchildren.

Russell spent time away from Topsham during his three active years in the Army, and thought about staying longer, but, “I sort of like to put down roots,” he said. “… So I decided to get out, and come back to Topsham. And here I am.”

Asked what the town that has encompassed nearly his entire life means to him, Russell responded, “It’s just part of me; that’s who I am.”

“It’s hard to know what kept me here, because I was just so familiar with the town, and sort of evolved with it,” he noted, adding that leaving “was the furthest thing from my mind.”

Besides his love for the community, there were also commitments that kept him tied to Topsham. He had only recently left the service when his father died in 1965, leaving the future of the family’s farm uncertain.

“If I didn’t take it over and keep it going, then my mother would have had to sell it,” Russell said. “To keep it in the family, I decided to operate that.”

That was a full-time responsibility, along with his other jobs. The poultry industry in Maine went into recession around the mid-1980s, and Russell now rents out space in his vast 37,000-square-foot barn – the oldest section of which was built in 1760 – for storage.

“People put stuff in, and sometimes they just leave it and forget to come back,” Russell said with a laugh. “That is always a problem with storage.”

“I can say it’s my workshop,” he joked.

Russell has witnessed much change in his 79 years. One of the most major recent changes was Topsham Fair Mall which is only a short distance from his relatively quiet street. Part of the mall property once belonged to Russell’s farm.

Russell said he is pleased with the course his town has taken, and the speed at which it’s occurred. He noted that the town was “very fortunate” to have  zoning ordinances in effect as far back as the late 1950s, to govern that development.

“The original residential areas are basically (still) all about where they were,” he explained, adding that the only zoning to see significant change was from around Elm Street, reaching west and north to the mall area.

“It’s been good change; it’s been controlled development,” Russell said. “… It’s been a great process, and that’s one of the things that I’m pleased about, leaving (public office) at this time, that I think the town’s in very great shape.”

But Russell may not be away long. Asked if he’d ever consider public service again, he quickly responded, “Oh, yes. I probably will go on one, maybe even two (boards); I don’t know. But I need to do something.”

“You don’t just stop that fast and dig in,” he added. “I don’t want to dig too far, and end up at the 6-foot level. So you’ve got to keep going.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Don Russell, 79, who spent nearly 50 years on various Topsham boards and committees before retiring last year, is the recipient of the Topsham Public Library‘s Sarah Whitten Community Award. Behind him in this Jan. 26 photo is the 254-year-old house where he has lived since he was 6 months old.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.