SWANS ISLAND — Four months before the bungled burglary at the Watergate Hotel and eight months before the re-election of President Nixon, Dexter Lee was first elected to the Board of Selectmen here.
That was 45 years ago. And except for a break of less than two years in the early 1990s, he has been serving the town in that capacity ever since.
Lee decided not to seek re-election this year, ending his run as the longest-serving elected official in Hancock County. His term ends next Wednesday, March 8, when voters at town meeting will choose his successor.
Will Lee’s knowledge and experience be missed?
“You’d better believe it,” said Myron “Sonny” Sprague Jr., longtime member of the Board of Selectmen and its current chairman.
“Dexter Lee probably knows more about the town of Swans Island than anybody does. No one could know more. He’s really a walking library.”
Town Clerk Gwen May, who has worked with Lee for many years, agreed.
“His knowledge of the history of the island has been invaluable and is really going to be missed. It’s irreplaceable. He’s definitely the go-to man if you want to know anything about any part of the town.”
Lee was born in Massachusetts. His family moved to western Maine in 1950, when he was 5, and to Swans Island in 1960.
Dexter has worked on Swans Island as a carpenter, a lobster buyer and an environmental technician at an aquaculture facility. He was manager of the Swans Island Electric Cooperative for 10 years in the 1970s and ‘80s. He currently works part time at the Post Office.
Swans Island doesn’t have a town manager, so for a number of years now, Lee has doubled as town administrator.
“Dexter has been the selectman who liked working in the office,” Sprague said. “That’s been his job, and he’s done it very well. The selectmen make decisions, and Dexter carries them out.”
Asked why he has stayed on the Board of Selectmen for more than four decades, Lee said, “I’ve got broad shoulders. And I like seeing projects start out and then seeing how they end up over the years.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes [including] affordable housing, housing for the elderly and the Mill Pond Health Clinic.”
Lee, 72, said he decided not to seek re-election this year because he is “sick of evening meetings” and wants time to do other things.
“I want to write a history of the houses on Swans Island – when they were built, who built them and maybe what they looked like at different stages,” he said.
As part of the run-up to the celebration of Maine’s bicentennial as a state in 2020, Lee plans to research and write about the residents of Swans Island in 1820.
“It will be about who was here, where they lived and what they were doing,” he said. “I’d like to know how they voted, but that’s probably going to be hard.”
(James Monroe was re-elected president that year.)
Lee said he inherited his fascination with history and genealogy.
“My father and his mother and her aunts were always interested in it,” he said. “So, for me, it’s just normal to look things up.”
Part of Lee’s service to Swans Island over the years has been as sort of an ambassador.
He is a former chairman of the Hancock County Planning Commission and former member of the Maine Islands Coalition. He has represented Swans Island on the board of the Acadia-area League of Towns since that group was formed. And he is a charter member of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, created by Congress in 1986 as part of the law that established the park’s permanent boundary.
Lee was part of the delegation of area officials who testified before a congressional committee in support of the boundary bill.
“There was a fear at the time that Acadia National Park was going to take over Marshall Island,” Lee said of the small island to the southwest of Swans. “The fishermen locally were very dead set against it for all kinds of reasons.”
Lee’s father, Henry, was a sea captain. And, yes, Capt. Henry Lee, the Maine State Ferry vessel that serves Swans Island, is named for him.
“The islanders got to pick the name of the boat, and it was a vote between him and another captain,” Lee said. “I tried to stay clear of the whole thing.”