'You always knew when Dale was in the room': Cumberland mourns civic leader Denno

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CUMBERLAND — As he drove Dale Denno door-to-door last summer to campaign for re-election to the state House of Representatives, Tom Gruber was amazed by his friend’s fortitude.

“I asked him why he felt compelled to do this while he knew he had cancer,” Gruber recalled April 17. “He told me while I was driving him around that he felt an obligation to the community.”

Although diagnosed with lung cancer last August, Denno remained confident in his ability to continue serving his Cumberland and Gray constituents. Four weeks ago, he announced his resignation from the House, saying it was no longer realistic to continue as a state representative, and he wanted “only the best representation for the people.”

After a rapid decline, the 68-year-old died at home April 16. His wife, Diane Dahlke, was one of hundreds who shared a personal testimony on Facebook.

“You always knew when Dale was in the room,” Dahlke wrote. “He had a booming voice, big, extroverted personality, a sharp intellect and was the wittiest person I ever knew.”

Gruber, a town councilor who championed Cumberland’s Aging in Place initiative alongside Denno, called the Main Street resident a “true friend” and “caring family man.”

Dahlke shared that sentiment, saying her husband “felt truly blessed to be ‘Abu’ to his two wonderful granddaughters.”

Denno, a father of two, lived in Cumberland for half of his 68 years. He retired in 2013 from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, where he was director of the Office for Family Independence and worked with the Legislature for more than two years.

Along with chairing the Aging in Place Committee, Denno was an adjunct professor of business law at Saint Joseph’s College, and volunteered at Preble Street in Portland and the Cumberland Food Pantry.

He served on the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors from 1991-1997, and was chairman from 1995-1996.

Denno was first elected in House District 45 in 2016, and served on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“He worked as a lawyer for many years, but found his true passion in politics,” Dahlke remembered, calling his work as a lawmaker “a job he enjoyed and took very seriously.”

Last month, Denno called being a state representative one of the greatest honors of his life.

“I will always be grateful to my friends and colleagues in the Legislature, and especially the folks in Cumberland and Gray, for placing their confidence in me and offering me nothing but best wishes in good times and bad,” he said.

A special election to fill his seat is scheduled for June 11.

“He continued to work as hard for his constituents as he was able to, and when he felt he couldn’t do that to his own satisfaction, he chose to focus solely on his health and family,” Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said in a statement. “It was extremely difficult to say goodbye to him, but we are so grateful he made that decision and that he was surrounded by those he loved and who loved him most during these days.”

Gov. Janet Mills also paid tribute.

“He served his constituents with honor and distinction, fighting every day in the State House to improve their lives and build a better, brighter future for our state,” Mills said. “While we have lost a cherished friend, we undoubtedly are better off because of Dale’s dedicated service, and we remain forever grateful for his contributions to our state.”

Town Manager Bill Shane remembered Denno for his service and friendship alike.

“I’m comforted by knowing he is in a better place,” Shane said in an email. “One of the real ‘good guys’ of the world was taken from us way too soon. His example set a high bar for us all. His friendship will be treasured by many. His legacy of Compassion, Community Service, and Respect for all will be long lasting and hopefully give us comfort in this time of tremendous loss.

“We all just lost a ‘Best Friend.'”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Dale Denno, right, a former Cumberland legislator, died from cancer April 16. He is mourned and remembered by many, including Town Councilor Tom Gruber, with whom Denno posed in this 2016 photo.

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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.