‘Mr. Southport’ has held nearly every elected municipal position for almost four decades

Gerry Gamage is town’s longtime fire chief, selectman, and water and library trustee
Posted:  Tuesday, September 12, 2017 - 7:30am
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At 19, Gerry Gamage knew he needed a place where he belonged. So after one year attending Maine Maritime Academy, the young Southport resident decided it was time to forsake a maritime career and build a life in his hometown.

Gamage didn’t think a career where he spent an extended period at sea then returned home would lead to a fulfilling life. So he realized he belonged in Southport and followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as a seasonal cottage caretaker.

Since 1973, it’s been a familiar ritual for Gamage. In the spring, he goes to Damariscove Island and drains a cottage. In the afternoons, he hauls floats and boats into the water. In the summer, he often takes seasonal residents around the island in his boat. In the fall, he’s busy closing the cottages for the season.

His decision to build a life and career in Southport is one Gamage has never regretted in the past 44 years.

“I needed a place to belong,” he said. “I saw classmates spending between three weeks to three months at sea and knew that wasn’t for me. I knew when I came back (home) I’d feel out of place because everybody would be working and I’d have too much free time.”

Once Gamage returned, he and his fellow Southport residents realized his caretaker business made him available for other tasks. This is when Gamage began doing whatever needed doing on his island hometown.

It began with him winning municipal elections in 1973 as road commissioner, and later, as water commissioner. Since those first two elections, Gamage has served in nearly every elected municipal position in Southport. In 1977, he was elected fire chief. In 1981, he won election as selectman and has served 33 out of the last 36 years. In 1974, all three people on the Southport Memorial Library Board of Trustees resigned. He won election to that board and has served ever since. In 2010, his position as water commissioner ended when Southport joined the Boothbay Region Water District. It didn’t take long for him to find a new position. He won election as one of two Southport trustees to the regional water board.

Forty-four years ago, it didn’t take long for Gamage to become involved with the town’s operations. He became immersed in municipal projects as road and water commissioners. Still a teenager, it didn’t take much convincing that he was the right man for the job. With a population of 600, Southport didn’t have many residents interested in the two positions.

“I ran unopposed in both races. As time passed, they kept finding more things for me to do,” he said. “Once I started working for the town I never stopped.”

For his years of service and dedication to the community, one resident dubbed him “Mr. Southport.” When asked about his nickname, Gamage paused, thought about his response, and grinned.

“It’s a feeling of pride. I’ve devoted my life to Southport. That’s a good feeling. It’s the same feeling as when they dedicated the town report to me this year. You don’t do this for the glory, but it’s a good feeling when people appreciate your efforts.”

Last week, the Southport Fire Department along with its counterparts in Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor and Edgecomb hosted the 54th Annual Maine Firefighters Convention. Around the state, volunteer fire departments are in decline. In Southport, that’s not the case. Chief Gamage has 25 firefighters on his volunteer roster. Gamage described today’s volunteers as having more responsibilities than when he started 46 years ago.

“When I joined it was show up and do what you’re told. Now it requires a lot more time and energy to meet all of the Bureau of Labor standards. We meet the first Tuesday of the month and drill and afterwards have a meal. Today, it takes a lot more training and dedication to be a volunteer fireman.”

Gamage has a lot of busy nights due to his public service. Besides his duties as fire chief, the selectmen meet every Wednesday and water district trustees meet the second and fourth Tuesdays each month. Southport Selectman Smith Climo described Gamage’s service to Southport as being “non-stop.”

“He is all about the town,” Climo said. “A normal human would be spread pretty thin, but not Gerry. I think he’s superhuman.”

During his public service, he has only lost one election. It occurred in 1984. Gamage was seeking re-election as selectman for the first time. In a three-way race, Gamage finished second, losing by five votes.

“I felt terrible. It was the worst feeling. I thought I had done my best and people didn’t appreciate it,” he said.  “I felt so bad I didn’t even want to go into the town hall.”

Gamage attributed his loss to being outworked. His opponent campaigned, and he didn’t. He has never considered himself a politician so he didn’t campaign.

“I think actions speaks louder than words. My opponent knocked on doors and I didn’t,”  he said. Three years later, Gamage regained the seat. “I didn’t campaign, but I did more as far as promoting myself. It was a two-man race, and this time, I won.”

While most residents admire Gamage’s work as a public servant, he does have a few detractors. When Climo ran for selectman eight years ago, residents asked him about handling Gamage who “seemingly ran everything.”

“I answered, ‘You mean what am I going to do about Gerry Gamage,’” Climo said. “I told them I’ve known the man since high school and we’d have a reasoned debate. The bottom line is Gerry is someone I admire deeply. He does it all in the town’s best interest.”

Gamage’s public service reputation extends beyond the island. Boothbay Harbor Police Chief Bob Hasch has known Gamage since his birth. “He’s my hero,” said Hasch, 46. “He’s a great role model and taught me about how a community should work together.”

Climo added there is one other important community service Gamage provides. “His Memorial Day speeches are legendary. He does it every year by memory and they are very moving,” he said.

Besides both serving as selectmen and water district trustees, Climo is also proud to share another distinction with Gamage. The two are friends. “I’m proud to call him my friend. If you got one like Gerry then you don’t need many more.”