ELLSWORTH — If you’ve been anywhere near the city of Ellsworth in the past 50 years, you probably know Gary Fortier (and his signature tie pins).
From the high school theater to the Fire Department, Fortier has been there: repairing electrical systems at Demeyer Field, responding as a firefighter to fires and as an emergency medical technician to car crashes, shoveling the Knowlton Park skating rink and hanging curtains to deaden the sound at the basketball courts.
He’s cooked pizza and pancakes, been named Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year, directed that same chamber and chaired more committees than there is space to name.
But perhaps his most prominent role, and one that he will step down from this fall after a quarter-century of service, has been as part of the Ellsworth City Council.
“I don’t enjoy it the way I used to,” Fortier said. Besides, he added, “Nobody will ever step up until you step aside.”
Fortier said on Monday that he plans to retire from the council, which he’s served on for 24 of the past 27 years (he took three years off while his daughter was in high school to volunteer with the theater department).
“It is actually difficult to help with or attend an event in Ellsworth where Gary isn’t helping in some way,” said Ellsworth Fire Department Chief Richard Tupper in a letter, “completing critical tasks that would prevent if not cripple the overall success of the event if he didn’t ‘get-er done’!”
The Fortier family’s legacy of service to the city goes back generations.
City Manager David Cole called Fortier’s volunteerism efforts “endless,” and rattled off a long list of events that Fortier has been involved in over the years.
But beyond that, said Cole, “there are also the ‘quiet’ acts of help on Gary’s part, often when few are watching.”
Council Chairman Marc Blanchette also praised Fortier’s commitment to the city.
“Gary’s long service to Ellsworth, following the family generational belief in giving to community, has helped to drive Ellsworth to where it is today. For that, I thank him.”
Fortier first ran for council in 1992, and hasn’t lost an election since.
“I was dissatisfied with the way things were run,” he said, of his decision to run for council.
After he was elected, the “breadth of the city’s responsibilities” surprised him, he said. “The cost of everything.”
Fortier estimates he spent at least between 8 and 10 hours each week on council business, for which he was paid an annual stipend of $2,000. That’s a salary of $4.80 per hour to make decisions on everything from taxes to liquor licenses, accounting generously.
But that’s not the point, he said.
“If you’re here for the money you’re here for the wrong reasons,” Fortier said. “I’d do it for nothing.”
Asked which accomplishments he was proudest of, Fortier didn’t hesitate: upgrading the wastewater treatment plant and conserving land for the Branch Lake Public Forest. Fortier was the lead on the Branch Lake project, which required convincing the city it was worth it to borrow $1.5 million to buy 451 acres around the lake for the project.
“We were protecting the customer’s water,” Fortier said. “That was very fulfilling.”
He does have a few regrets, chief among them not being able to deliver on a promise to construct a new public safety building.
“Twenty years ago we promised,” Fortier said. “They’re still living in cramped quarters.”
“If I had to pick a baby it would be public safety,” he continued.
That may not come as a surprise. Fortier, along with his father, three brothers and grandfather, served for decades with the Fire Department, retiring as a captain.
“We were all on the fire service and when the pagers went off the store closed,” said Fortier, referring to the family business, Fortier Electric.
Just 16 years old when he started going on calls, he remembers fondly skipping out of school to climb in Jim Silsby’s car to go on brush fire calls.
“We all had fathers on the fire department,” Fortier said. “It was fun.”
He also served as an emergency medical technician for 17 years, running calls with Barry’s Ambulance and Funeral Service starting in 1972 and later with County Ambulance.
The soon-to-be-former councilor plans to keep himself busy in retirement, maybe with a part-time job bagging groceries or cooking, “something social,” as he put it.
The cook of the house, he’ll have at least one regular task.
“For the last 34 years my wife has started her day with two bran muffins,” Fortier said. “For the last 34 years, every 12 days I have to make 24 bran muffins.”
Maybe he’ll watch council meetings from the comfort of his home, mixing muffins.
“Ellsworth is in good hands,” Fortier said. “We’ve got top-notch staff.”