A Life: Julia Fifield, 1905-2012; ‘Everybody Was Just Delighted To See Her’

Julia Fifield, of Orford, at her home at age 98. (Courtesy photograph)

Julia Fifield, of Orford, at her home at age 98. (Courtesy photograph)

Orford — In Orford, the question on Election Day last November was less whether a Democrat or a Republican would be elected, and more whether Julia Fifield would cast her vote in person at Town Hall.

Fifield had long ago established a reputation for robust civic participation. With each successive birthday following her 100th in 2005, the public’s fascination, and admiration, for her dedication to voting only grew.

As the 2012 election neared, “People were hoping that she would be able to come and vote,” said Peter Thomson, Orford’s longtime town moderator.

Yet it’s unlikely that anyone would have faulted her had she not made it to the polls that late fall morning. At nearly 107 years old, Fifield’s mind remained sharp, but she had experienced a bad fall several months earlier, making for a difficult summer and autumn.

Staying home, however, was not something Julia Fifield was accustomed to doing, and at 106, she had no intention of starting.

On Election Day, Fifield was driven to town hall by her daughter Ann Davis, and with her walker, she made her way up a side ramp to the ground floor.

Peter Thomson was waiting for her at the entrance, and guided her as she obtained her ballot and sat down to vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, keeping true to a Republican voting allegiance that she said started with fellow Vermonter Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.

“She had one thing in mind when she came through that door,” Thomson said, “which was to get her ballot, cross the Xs where they needed to be, and then fold the ballot and give it to me as moderator to put in the box.”

After Fifield deposited her ballot, she was greeted with applause.

“Everybody was just delighted to see her,” Davis recalled.

Though no one knew it at the time, Election Day 2012 would be Julia Fifield’s last appearance in public.

Fifield died on Dec. 10, leaving heirs and friends with memories of a feisty yet friendly matriarch, a resilient Yankee who made do with the resources at hand, and resolved in her quest to better her community.

The same words used to name British warships — indomitable, indefatigable, invincible — come to Judy Cross’ mind when she thinks of Fifield, her friend of nearly 20 years.

“It brings a certain presence to your mind when you just say those words,” Cross said. “I would think of Julia in that way, because she certainly was a presence in everybody’s life that she touched.”

By its sheer length, Fifield’s life could read like a book, divided into chapters for each phase.

Late in her life, Fifield still had vivid memories of growing up in North Williston, where she moved with her parents when she was in the second grade. At an oral history night held in North Williston in 1990, historian Richard Allen said Fifield “pretty much stole the show” telling stories from her early life.

“She didn’t hold back. She had a wonderful memory, and she liked to tell it like it was,” Allen said. As he was working on his book, North Williston: Down Depot Hill, Allen and his wife Lucille turned to Fifield’s oral recollections and letters in piecing together a picture of the small farming community in the early 20th century.

“The years in North Williston were so perfect that it is almost impossible for me to translate it all into writings,” Fifield recalled in the book. “For me life was enchanting. I was a fanciful child and a happy child.” As an only child, Fifield was encouraged by her parents to befriend other children her age. She became particularly close to another Julia: Julia Wright, with whom Julia Mentzer would take long rides on horseback around North Williston. She also rode horseback to get to Essex Junction High School, an eight-mile, round-trip journey she made in all forms of weather.

It was an ideal childhood, but not idyllic. In 1923, as Julia Mentzer was about to graduate high school, her father, Charles Mentzer, died. After Gertrude Mentzer sold their home in North Williston, she and her daughter began life anew in the Boston area. At 17, Julia Mentzer was too young to enter the Lesley Normal School (now Lesley University), but the headmistress took a liking to her, and admitted her to the school’s homemaking course. Mentzer transferred to Lesley’s teacher training program, then taught third grade in Melrose Highlands, Mass., for four years until marrying Golding in 1930.

Her husband’s work in the utilities industry took Julia and her family, which grew to include daughter Ann and son Charles, Jr., to Longmeadow, Mass., then to South Dartmouth, Mass. Their family’s life was emblematic of its time, Ann Davis said. “Dinner was always at 6 o’clock, but it was always a family dinner. It wasn’t like today, where so much of it is on the run.”

The family weathered tragedy when Charles Golding, Sr., who had enrolled in flying lessons, died in a plane crash in 1947. A second generation widow, Julia Golding continued to raise her children in their South Dartmouth home, and supported the family through landscaping and knitting. “It wasn’t a piece of cake,” Davis said, “but it wasn’t a disaster either.”

In spite of the difficulties she faced as a single mother, Julia Golding “had high ideals for her children,” Davis said. In the mid-1940s, Davis said, the school system in South Dartmouth was not geared toward educating children past the age of 16, when most left to work in mills and in the fishing industry. So Julia Golding enrolled Ann and Charles, Jr., in area private schools, and Ann Davis later graduated from Middlebury College.

In the meantime, Gertrude Mentzer had remarried, and with her new husband purchased one of the 19th century Federal-style homes on the Orford Ridge, where the Golding family began spending summers and holidays. Julia relocated to Orford for good in 1963, three years after marrying Clifford Fifield, primarily to support her aging mother, but she would stay in Orford for the rest of her life. And while she could have enjoyed a serene retirement in her spacious Ridge home, the lengthiest chapter in Julia Fifield’s life was only getting started.

Tom Thomson was a young man when Julia Fifield became a permanent Orford resident, yet he can scarcely remember a time when Fifield wasn’t living there, “just because she was so involved in the community,” he said.

Fifield had a hand in the start of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Fairlee and the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. Politically active, she hosted a tea for George H.W. Bush at her Ridge home in 1980, and developed a rapport with Barbara Bush, with whom she reconnected in 2011 while the former first lady was visiting the Norwich Inn. Yet of all the places that Fifield served, few were as dear to her as the Orford Social Library.

As a library trustee, Fifield wanted the building to not only be a warm place for community members to congregate, but pleasing to the eyes. When the library saw increased use, Fifield led the library’s board of trustees through an expansion of the building in the late 1980s. In the new space, librarian Sarah Putnam was able to expand the library’s hours and volumes, thanks to Fifield’s “great support of growing the library into the new space and being a place in the community that would be welcoming and be there as a resource or the community,” Putnam said.

Fifield sat on nearly every board and commission in Orford, including the school board, and conservation and cemetery commissions, and she was a regular presence at the meetings of other decision-making bodies in town. At each year’s Town Meeting, Fifield sat in the front row, then took center stage during debate of one or more items on the warrant. Moderator Peter Thomson said that in her later years, Fifield may not have stayed for the entire meeting, but she never failed to make an appearance.

“She felt that this was a very important gesture that we need to make in our lives,” he said. “It’s government at the lowest level and we want to make sure that we continue to do it. That was her feeling.”

When a proposal came to the Town Meeting floor for debate, Fifield had no qualms about taking to the floor to articulate her views. One year, the town debated whether to replace the old wooden siding at Orford Town Hall with vinyl, which was less expensive to maintain. This did not sit well with Fifield, a trustee of the Canterbury Shaker Village and a longtime chairwoman of the New Hampshire Preservation Association Review Board.

“She just believed in keeping things historical and she got up and spoke out that we should keep it the way it is, that we should paint it,” Tom Thomson said. “That’s exactly what happened, and it’s still painted today.”

Directness was a hallmark of Fifield’s public service, yet she didn’t rule with an iron fist, said Eva Templeton, who served with Fifield on the boards of the Hanover Garden Club and the Friends of the Hopkins Center for the Arts. “Julia was very straightforward, she was very practical, she was very honest. She didn’t cause any controversy, but she got the job done.”

Age never impeded Fifield from taking charge, either. When the Hanover Garden Club took a trip to New Bedford, Mass., Templeton said that the members traveled in a bus that followed Fifield, then in her mid-80s, who traveled in a separate car. Even after she stopped driving at the age of 102, Fifield was adamant about keeping her license. With the intervention of the late Gale Thomson, who also needed to renew her license, Fifield and Thomson were administered an in-person driving test by Virginia Beecher, director of the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles, on Columbus Day 2009. One woman drove to a restaurant across the river in Fairlee, and another drove back to Orford, and both passed, with flying colors.

“Ginny said to my mom and said to me a number of times that (Julia) was an excellent driver,” Peter Thomson said. “Everything she did about driving was excellent at that time in her life.”

In the end, even reduced mobility could not prevent Julia Fifield from fulfilling her civic duty on Election Day. Shortly before the election, Tom Thomson went to visit Julia when she was recuperating at home, and asked her if she wanted to vote by absentee ballot.

“She said, ‘No, Tom. I’m coming to the polls to vote, and if I have to crawl there, I’ll be there,’ ” he said.

“When she was first voted, it was her grandfather that insisted she go and vote,” Thomson added. “And I think that’s something that she’s passed on to people over the years, that it’s your duty to vote, and freedom isn’t free in this nation. And she understood that very clearly.”

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.