A Life: Maureen Elizabeth Casey, 1942-2014; ‘A Hell of an Example of A Human Being’
Maureen Casey poses in the early 1960s near her home in New Haven, Conn., where she was born and spent much of her life. (Family photograph)
Maureen Casey sits outside the Griffin restaurant on the Floridian island of Matlacha in 2004. The Griffin was one of three restaurants -- including Casey's Tavern in Hartland, which preceded Skunk Hollow -- that was renovated by Casey and her husband, Jack. (Family photograph)
Hartland — In the late 1960s and for much of the ’70s, Casey’s Tavern was the place to go in Hartland Four Corners for a well-cooked meal and a pint, and sides of good cheer, honest advice, camaraderie and conversation.
Maureen Casey, recognized by friends and neighbors as a local treasure, was often the one dishing out each of them.
“She was a great friend and she had incredible insights. She advised people on the money more than anybody I ever saw in my life,” said her husband of 48 years, Jack Casey. “She was just incredibly insightful and kind, and when she needed to kick somebody in the ass, she could do that too. She’d say, ‘Whew, you’ve got to stop that.’
“She wasn’t perfect but she was a hell of an example of a human being,” he continued. “If everybody followed her rules, we’d be a lot better world.”
Known to friends as Mo, and to Jack, for her moxie, as “Mox,” Maureen Casey would leave her mark on her adopted village in memorable ways: as a painter, a poet, a “legendary cook,” a dedicated gardener who toiled from last frost to first, and a bohemian free thinker who challenged authority and ignited new ideas.
She was the catalyst behind the Hartland Experiment, a series of free courses held at the tavern on off-nights, exploring such varied topics as medieval literature and fencing.
And in 1975, she became founder of the local chapter of the Democratic Party, a first for Hartland in a time when the state’s conservatives outnumbered liberals and flat-lander hippies were seldom embraced.
“There were more unicorns in Vermont at the time than there were Democrats,” Jack Casey said. “Everyone on the list either worked for the tavern or they were our lawyers, they were customers.”
Using Jack’s eye as an engineer and Maureen’s as an artist, the Caseys bought, renovated and ran the historic tavern from the late 18th century in 1968, when they moved to the area from Maureen’s native New Haven, Conn. They lived in the back of the property (now Skunk Hollow Tavern), surrounded by Maureen’s lovely gardens, while they fixed up the barnhouse across the road, its backyard marked by the quiet gurgle of Lull’s Brook.
Life would send them around the world on sailboat adventures, a multi-year stay in Spain and a cherished Sahara safari, and they would ultimately move back to New Haven and then to the Floridian island of Matlacha. They completed another pair of successful historic renovations, one in each location.
But they stayed good friends with the tavern’s current owners and never let go of their Four Corners barnhouse, making many trips back over the years. The village’s grip on the couple held strong.
And so, when Maureen knew that her body was failing — the final struggle following a lifetime of smoking — it was to Hartland that they returned, where she would spend her final months in the barnhouse she had loved so much, surrounded by many of the friends and neighbors whom had loved her.
She died in the evening on Feb. 11, 2014, at Mt. Ascutney hospice in Windsor, succumbing to respiratory failure at age 71.
“A bright light has gone out in the little universe of Hartland Four Corners,” her obituary read, “but the ember that it left will warm all those who knew her and loved her as long as Maureen’s memory remains.”
Maureen Elizabeth Casey, nee Howard, was born in New Haven in 1942. Her father vanished from the family when Maureen was 2, and her mother, Lillian, forged on despite the difficulties of war-time living. Her older brother, Raymond, was often left to babysit Maureen and their sister, Barbara.
She picked up cigarettes at age 13, an addiction that gripped her for the rest of her life, even when a doctor eventually commanded she use an oxygen machine, Jack Casey said.
As high school set in, at her mother’s command, Casey attended a Catholic school, where she was an all-star student. But when her mother denied her wish to transfer to public school during her junior year, she rebelled to the point that the Catholic school officials finally banished her.
She later graduated from New Haven’s Pair School of Art with a degree in interior design, working to involve herself with that city’s art scene. She would often visit her brother in New York City, where he was living on East 83rd St., and working as a model, and he would arrange playful fashion shoots. The results are several series of black-and-white photos, Maureen gazing into the camera, dressed up or holding flowers.
She met Jack Casey, who was running his own engineering business, through mutual friends around 1968, “and that was the end,” he said. “We just blew them off and we went.”
A ceremony in 1973 in actress Tallulah Bankhead’s former house on Long Island marked the start of a 48-year marriage.
“We laughed all the time. We had a good time. We spent more time laughing than we spent sleeping,” Jack Casey said. “It was just a lot of fun, Maureen was fun to be around.”
Jack Casey brought three daughters and a son into the marriage, including Eileen, who said the joke was that Maureen was the “wicked stepmother who hid the wart on the inside of her nose” because she was so beloved.
A tribute written by the couple’s friend from Matlacha, Robin Alcober, called Maureen “a true mother,” because she could “poo poo anything in the most subtle, yet skeptical way” and a “short raise of an eyebrow or quick turn of her head confirmed she doubted the validity of what one had carelessly said.
“Yet, she never judged or scolded,” the tribute continued, “and in spite of her amazing intellect, she was a most modest woman.”
The Caseys’ arrival in Vermont wasn’t totally by chance: With a rare break in their work schedules, Jack and Maureen decided to escape for a winter vacation in Plymouth, Vt., in 1968. The state took hold of them, Jack Casey said, and they started to search for a place to call their own — and a project to put them to work.
In the tavern, they found both. But first they had to win over members of the congregation at the church next door. Per laws at the time, they h ad to approve all liquor licenses within a certain vicinity. The vote passed, 17-1.
The Caseys made genuine connections quickly, especially for out-of-towners. Spurred on by Maureen’s famous cooking and the couple’s magnetic wit, the tavern became the preferred watering hole for everyone from fourth-generation locals to world-renowned athletes and Olympians and, during the Hartland Experiment, then-governor Thomas Salmon.
It was a place where you never quite knew what might happen, but you knew it would be worthwhile. Guests at a recent celebration of Casey’s life remembered random and unexpected reenactments of the British Invasion; nighttime dancing by the fire pit could last past dawn; or seeking out the tavern as a romantic first-date spot, only to look down and find a Playboy magazine at their placemat, playfully placed there by Mo.
“Sometimes we left,” Jack Casey recalled of the all-night celebrations. “We turned over the keys to the saloon.”
And it was a place, too, where they could look to Jack and Maureen for help with their problems, which Casey, in particular, always addressed head-on.
“It was indeed a privilege she generously allowed if she liked you or knew you well enough,” Alcober wrote in the tribute. “If you did express yourself to her, you knew in advance you’d have only a clear mirror of truth reflected back, like it or not.”
Maureen and Jack enjoyed their life beyond the tavern, as well. Maureen’s eccentric gardening pattern became one of her signatures: she meticulously worked one square foot for a day before moving on to another square foot the next.
It was akin to her style of “organization” – perhaps a generous description – for her artistic projects, Jack Casey said, whether they were paintings or poetry. Page 1 would be on one side of the room, Page 2 on the other, and Page 3 somewhere in between, but she knew where they all were and hated to have them moved.
She also tried her hand at selling dried flowers, launching a home business she called Friday’s Child. But she didn’t have the instincts for commerce, Jack Casey said. She was too generous.
Indeed, the couple also rented out apartments in town, and when Jack Casey returned from Spain at one point, he realized one of the tenants was more than two years behind on rent. The most current tenant, he said, was behind by a year.
“That was commerce to her,” he said, smiling.
The couple left their year-round home in Hartland in the late ‘70s, returning to New Haven, where Casey had been awarded an historic renovation grant for a house in the Quinnipiac River Historic District, the first renovation in that area. Around the start of the ‘90s, they moved to Matlacha, a tiny island on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where they used their magic touch once again on a restaurant that would later be called the Griffin.
Like anyone, Casey faced demons, as well. Some were small, like her avid love of gambling, especially on lottery tickets that she amassed in plastic bags. But none were greater than her steadfast addiction to cigarettes. Jack Casey said that when she was 28, he took her to see a doctor, who diagnosed her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and demanded she quit.
Casey found the experience so off-putting that she never stepped foot in a doctor’s office again for 35 years.
When she did, she was diagnosed with leukemia, which she lived with for the rest of her life. About five years ago, doctors gave her one year to live.
By that time, the couple had left Florida and returned once again to Connecticut so that Casey could care for her mother, who was then 100 years old. As Maureen’s ability to provide care waned, the Caseys started making arrangements to return to Hartland at the end of 2012, and Jack Casey spent months winterizing the barnhouse and returning it to a “livable” stage.
Before long, Mo could be seen around the neighborhood again — slower than before, and always with an oxygen tank, but still able to talk with friends and even hang out at Skunk Hollow.
She maintained her feisty nature to the end. Once, months before she died, she took an elected official out to eat at Skunk Hollow then took him to task. She was fed up that the town had posted a series of signs prohibiting certain activities, then posted one last sign — prohibiting the posting of certain signs.
She threatened to cause a fuss at the next Selectboard meeting, villagers said, but by the next day, the signs had been removed.
“She was witty, bright, fierce,” Jack Casey said. “If somebody was trying to push her around, forget it. Even her best interests couldn’t push her. She lived through life with her rules.”
Her death has already sparked celebrations of her life in Matlacha in February and Hartland last week, with a third and final celebration scheduled this week in New Haven.
In Hartland, the ceremony included adaptations of Viking traditions, including a fire where guests tossed messages to Mo, and Jack Casey threw in such varied items as a $15,000 dental bill for the time Maureen chose having her teeth pulled over quitting smoking and some of her many bags of lottery tickets.
They also set ablaze a small replica of a Viking ship, tethered to a rock in the gurgling Lull’s Brook, reminiscent of the embers from the bright light, now extinguished, in the little universe of Four Corners.
The stories and remembrances were varied, but they shared a theme: Maureen Casey was an unusual force, a person marked by talent, wisdom, humor and wit.
“Most of all,” Alcober wrote in the tribute, “Maureen loved to laugh, a glorious laugh which shook her shoulders and made her head toss back. A deep-throated loving laugh that made the day worthwhile.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3220.