The Wanderer Announces 2021 Keel Award Recipients

            The Wanderer created the Keel Award in 1994 and ever since has recognized a dedicated person in each of the three Tri-Towns whose actions exemplify the spirit of community and volunteerism. Like the keel of the ship that keeps the vessel from sinking, the recipients of the annual Keel Award are recognized for their stalwart efforts in keeping the community on an “even keel.”

            The year 2021 has been one of recovery on multiple fronts, albeit under the caution flag of abiding uncertainty in the effort to sustain a post-pandemic lifestyle. A potential resurgence of the coronavirus lurks amidst a recent uptick in local cases and the worldwide threat posed by COVID-19’s variants.

            Local questions abound, such as can the Old Rochester Regional School District sustain the great work accomplished through the 2020-21 academic year in providing an anti-racism environment and in maintaining safety in school buildings? Will the economy continue to thrive as evidenced by the spike in property values and the price of a gallon of gasoline? As entrepreneurs and business owners, educators, first responders, healthcare workers, and public safety officials march on, the 2021 Keel Awards recognize special contributors to our local society.

            We are proud to present to you the 2021 Wanderer Keel Award winners: Alan Harris (Marion), Mike Hickey (Mattapoisett), and Laurell J. Farinon (Rochester).

            Understanding Laurell Farinon‘s impact on the Town of Rochester would take almost as many years of research as the 27 she served, but a clear indicator of her importance as the town’s first conservation agent and environmental planner is that the occasion of her resignation resulted in a detailed analysis of her job, the extra things she did, and how the town can realistically define her title and divvy up her duties going forward.

            In other words, it will never be the same without her.

            “In Rochester, we’ve been lucky enough to have an agent who prioritizes what she does. She’s an extremely nice person, highly, highly ethical,” said Rochester Land Trust Treasurer Russ Keeler. “She works well with people in all walks of life, very fair…. I’ve seen her deal with very difficult people in a very productive way.”

            For 15 years, Keeler has worked alongside Farinon mainly on land conservation projects. “In that 15 years, she was always bend-over-backwards to do whatever she could to help,” said Keeler, who was RLT president for five years, vice president for three, and treasurer the last seven.

            Noting that Farinon helped get the Rochester Land Trust started several years before he would join, Keeler said Farinon was “always enthusiastic, always helpful, and always made time for us…. She’s one of the rare people who makes time and gives you her best.”

            Whether it was assisting in the arduous application process for grant funding, conducting site visits for wetlands delineation purposes, or researching topics that will affect the fate of substantial projects, Farinon consistently went the extra mile to put Rochester in the best possible position to succeed.

            “The more things get developed, the more valuable each piece gets. What’s left is a lot of land that’s challenging from a wetlands’ standpoint,” said Farinon. “I’m lucky to have worked with a town that takes that seriously.”

            Rochester Selectman Woody Hartley worked with Farinon as an elected official but also as a citizen in the building of his cranberry bogs. Hartley said Farinon was known to always be ultimately prepared at Town Meeting.

            “I’m not a big fan of giving people awards just for showing up and doing their jobs, but in this case she did much more than her job. In this case, she goes above and beyond in many ways,” said Hartley. “All the town boards trust Laurell as being a person of reason, and all the town boards trust Laurell as being a person of thoughtfulness.”

            Originally from Somerville, Farinon attended college in North Adams (now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) and wound up in the region because her husband worked in textiles. Rochester, she said, was attractive because of its commitment to the environment.

            “I chose to be with the town for that reason,” she said, referencing the “very committed Conservation Commission” along with the Board of Selectmen, town administration, and co-workers in each department. “It’s a great, great group that’s dedicated to public service. I’ve worked in other communities and I can tell you that Rochester employees see themselves as public servants.”

            Farinon’s transition into a nursing career is something she has thought about for a little while now, but she reckons every day with the sadness she feels leaving her Rochester family behind. “It’s been a struggle just because of how much I’ve enjoyed it,” she said.

            She will engage in an intense, seven-month LPN program that could take her in many directions.

            Mattapoisett Fire Chief Andrew Murray says Mike Hickey‘s involvement has been crucial in the role of Fire Station Committee chairman. Clearly visible from Route 6 east of North Street, the new facility has taken shape and is nearing completion.

            “It’s been a long time coming,” said Hickey. “There was an attempt to do this about 12 years ago; it came very close but didn’t make it. [The matter] sat dormant, but the need just continued to grow and grow.”
            “Mike’s knowledge and expertise in this field has been invaluable to the project,” said Murray, who noted that the effort toward a new fire station predated his 13 years as chief by 17 years.

            A retired engineer and former call firefighter for a decade that spanned from the 1970s into the ’80s, Hickey said, “It gets in your blood.” So, when he learned three years ago that funds were being sought to establish preliminary planning for a new fire station, he offered his experience.

            Hickey was “just trying to give back to the community,” according to Murray. “We were fortunate to be able to take advantage of that. He’s gone above and beyond in every aspect of his role as the building committee chairman. He worked on this project every single day.”

            Having been raised in Mattapoisett and returning to the town after college, Hickey’s volunteerism extends back to involvement on building committees and additions to existing school buildings.

            In summarizing the 2017 planning for the new fire station and its 2018 approval at Town Meeting, Mattapoisett residents Ann and Bob Marklin wrote to The Wanderer about Hickey’s leadership.

            “Mike heard the call for volunteers and stepped up. It was then that Mike’s former experience as a Mattapoisett firefighter and his 50-plus years as an engineer made him a perfect fit for the many responsibilities he has, including becoming the chairman of the committee,” the Marklins wrote in an email.

            “Since then he has worked countless hours on the new station, educating all of us how important a new station was, hosting meetings, and passing out information on the dire conditions the current fireman must endure without a proper firehouse. He hosted small citizen, town organizations informational sessions, and was the spokesman for the project at town meetings.”

            “Up to today, Mike has spent countless hours of his time devoted to bringing this major project from concept to completion for the benefit and enhancement of safety for present and future Mattapoisett residents,” said Alan Apperson.

            “The Fire Department and the town are extremely grateful for everything he has done,” said Murray. “It’s been an honor to be associated with Mike, and I look forward even after this to continuing with my friendship with him. I couldn’t be happier that he was selected for the Keel Award.”

            From the 2018 Town Meeting vote approving the project to the ballot override that reinforced the town’s support, Hickey has continued on to this day meeting with the Fire Station Building Committee. “It’s been a labor of love; it’s been a lot of work,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it, seeing it come to fruition.”

            Hickey noted that the new facility will provide public meeting space that the current town hall does not have.

            Recently retired from his membership on Marion’s Open Space Acquisition Commission, Alan Harris is the president/director of the Sippican Lands Trust where he continues to help Marion conserve its land and create walking paths for public access.

            “Alan’s been an amazing, great board member. He’s a great team player and great at soliciting ideas from other board members to advance the mission of the Sippican Lands Trust. He’s always thinking strategically, but also thoughtfully about that. And he’s always bringing energy and joy to it, too,” said Jim Bride, executive director of the Sippican Lands Trust.

            Harris has served on the SLT’s board of directors for over 20 years, including the last three as president/director. “He’s given his heart and soul to the Sippican Lands Trust. Every day he’s doing something for our organization, truly personifying the spirit of volunteerism,” said Bride, telling of Harris’ creative additions to nature hikes, such as an expert to talk about using found mushrooms to cook healthy meals and the shark fin signs he and his family crafted and posted around town to promote a July 20 event.

            “It’s been great fun; you get to know people in town,” said Harris when informed of the Keel Award. “It’s great working with all the folks who have come through there. It really has.”

            A devoted husband, dad, science teacher at Middleborough High School, and former assistant scoutmaster of Troop 32 Boys Scouts, Harris’ volunteerism even takes on informal shapes; helping others, including animals, have a better world to live in is his lifestyle.

            “He deserves this award for his selflessness. He is an inspiration to me and everyone who volunteers. Being around Alan makes me want to be a better person; my son is better for being around him in Troop 32 and in other adventures he has gotten to experience with Alan,” said Kristen Saint Don-Campbell, a former member of the Marion Conservation Commission and Planning Board who chairs the town’s Cultural Council, sits on its Master Plan Committee and Sippican School Council, is a Scouts leader, and volunteers for Marion’s upcoming Town Party.

            Harris’ knowledge in the preservation of wildlife habitats has been especially helpful in land acquisitions and conservation restrictions.

            “Alan was always good to give a naturalist’s view when we’re looking up properties. He was always looking up the wildlife habitat and he’s a lot of fun to work with,” said MOSAC Chair John Rockwell, who has served on the commission since 2004 and has served on several boards in town.

            For over a decade, Harris and his family have been involved in the Buzzards Bay Coalition swim and collecting donations. He has been known to hold a raffle for donors and make the winner a pie.

            After serving two terms on MOSAC, Harris is confident the commission has landed an excellent replacement in Debbie Ewing. “She’s going to be great,” he said, alluding to her extensive work with the Buzzards Bay Coalition and the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance (NECWA), an all-volunteer, non-profit organization that works with turtle habitats in the southeastern region of the state.

            Harris may have gotten out of the way to garner MOSAC new blood, but he shows no signs of slowing down in the volunteerism that typifies his identity around town.

            “I cannot think of a more calming, level-headed, fair, trustworthy, or phenomenal individual to receive this award,” said Saint Don-Campbell. “I feel if you ask anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting Alan, they would say the same.”

            Editor’s note: The Keel awards are traditionally limited to residents in the Tri-Towns. The Wanderer has waived the residency requirement for the 2021 awards.

By Mick Colageo

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