A Life: Donald Cantlin, 1925-2013; ‘He Really Was the Spirit of Our Community’

World War II veterans Donald Cantlin, left, and John Nicolson shakes hands at the Memorial Day ceremony in Enfield, N.H., on May 30, 2011. Cantlin was honored for his more than 9,000 hours of volunteer work at the VA hospital. (Medora Hebert photograph)

World War II veterans Donald Cantlin, left, and John Nicolson shakes hands at the Memorial Day ceremony in Enfield, N.H., on May 30, 2011. Cantlin was honored for his more than 9,000 hours of volunteer work at the VA hospital. (Medora Hebert photograph)

Enfield — There were certain rules that came with being a mailman that Donald Cantlin had to follow, but there was one he routinely broke in his nearly 20 years with the postal service: When he had mail for people who were housebound, he would bring it into their homes, not just leave it in the mailbox outside.

“He always did that,” said Leafie Cantlin of her husband, who died on Aug. 2 at 88. “He caught heck about it, but he still did it.”

The action was commonplace for Cantlin, a man who served Enfield, and the Upper Valley as a whole, through his volunteerism and simple care for the members of his community.

“My father was always someone you could depend on,” said daughter Casey Cantlin. “Whatever it was, he would go and help.”

Don and Leafie Cantlin moved to Enfield in 1948 from Lebanon shortly after they were married. Cantlin, a member of the Navy who served on the USS Fullam in World War II, was called back into the service to fight in Korea and Leafie Cantlin moved back in with her parents in Lebanon. When Cantlin returned from Korea, he and Leafie’s years of altruism truly began.

“He was very popular in the community,” said Peter Giese, a retired Enfield police chief and longtime friend of Cantlin’s. “When Don Cantlin was involved with something he was right up front and center. He led the crowd.”

Cantlin coached youth sports and was a Nordic combined ski coach at Lebanon High School and Cardigan Mountain School. He volunteered in the physical therapy department at the VA hospital in White River Junction, amassing more than 9,200 hours of service in about 15 years. He raised money and participated in the New England Paralyzed Veterans of America ski event for veterans at Mount Sunapee.

At the VA hospital Cantlin helped put together walkers and crutches and visited veterans. At Christmas he would put together baskets for the women he worked with, who his family affectionately referred to as “his girls.”

“He went up whenever he could,” Leafie Cantlin said in an interview at the home she shared with her husband, the living room walls adorned with awards and certificates for the couple’s community service.

At one point, Cantlin was told he could no longer help out because his lungs had gotten worse and it was difficult for him to get around. His “girls” disagreed and he was given a motorized scooter so he could continue to volunteer.

Cantlin also worked hard to raise money for the Veterans Memorial Park in Enfield. He played in the honor guard, even when he had to be on oxygen, Casey Cantlin said. He played an electronic bugle instead.

“He lead a great life,” Giese said. “He really was the spirit of our community.”

This month the Cantlins received a certificate recognizing Cantlin for his service in the navy. It was signed by President Obama.

For a time, Cantlin was Enfield’s water commissioner and drove a school bus. He and Leafie served on numerous town boards, one always seeming to seamlessly replace the other.

“The kids grew up in this town and we wanted to be involved,” Leafie Cantlin said. “We love Enfield.”

The Cantlins wanted a big family and they bought a 24-acre farm on Ibey Road in Enfield with that in mind. But they were unable to have more children, so they opened their three-bedroom home and their hearts to foster children. Some would stay a week or two until their living situation worked out. Others would stay years.

“At one time we had 12 living with us,” Leafie Cantlin said.

Each child was given chores to do and had an animal that they took care of. And of course, every child became involved in one of Cantlin’s favorite pastimes.

“Every foster kid learned how to ski,” Casey Cantlin said. “(Dad) would go out and find equipment.”

In the summer months, he would teach the kids to waterski on Crystal Lake, where the family owned a place.

“Mom and Dad treated them the same,” Casey Cantlin said.

On winter days when Ibey Road remained unplowed, Cantlin would use that opportunity to take the kids on sleigh rides. If there wasn’t much snow during the winter, Cantlin would gather what he could and put it in one place for the kids to play and sled, Casey Cantlin said.

When Enfield sent crews to plow the area surrounding the farm, public works employees would visit the Cantlins for breaks. If the family was asleep or wasn’t home, a door would be left open at night for the workers with coffee brewing inside.

The family’s first foster son, Mark E. Parker, was killed in the Vietnam War. Parker’s two younger siblings were living with another foster family and Cantlin made sure they made it to the funeral in Arlington, Va. Upon their return, the two asked to live with the Cantlins. They stayed for a few years.

Rusty Cantlin, a younger cousin of Cantlin’s, went to live with the family during his junior year of high school after he had caused a bit of trouble for his parents in Lebanon.

“Donald really taught me a lot. He was very instrumental in my straightening out,” Rusty Cantlin said. “I was glad that I had spent the year with Don and Leafie.”

Rusty Cantlin returned home for his senior of high school, then joined the army to study electrical work, which he attributes to being exposed to the TV and radio repair shop Don Cantlin owned in the 1960s.

“I wanted to do something like that because he did,” Rusty Cantlin said.

Cantlin also taught hunting safety courses and started an archery club on the farm along with his son, Don Cantlin III.

“He was a good guy,” said Joe Cross, who used to hunt deer and turkeys with Cantlin. “He did a lot up there for the community.”

Cantlin knew the woods so well that the Enfield Police Department would often call on him to help find lost hunters and hikers.

If there was a big emergency and Giese needed to gather people for a search party, “my first phone call was to Don Cantlin,” Giese said. “He was always eager to help. When he came there he didn’t just sit around. He was a very good woodsman. He would go in the woods and search for people.”

Giese moved to Enfield in 1977 and met Cantlin then. Giese admired the way Cantlin took care of residents along his postal delivery route, even when care sometimes looked like law breaking.

There was an elderly couple along Cantlin’s route that was barely scraping by and he used to take much of the junk mail he’d come across to them so that they could wet it down, dry it out and use it to heat their home. Someone tipped off the postal service about it, however, and officials came to investigate, Giese said. They went to the elderly couple’s home where they removed two box trucks worth of junk mail.

The postal service was going to charge Don because of his failure to deliver the junk mail to its rightful recipients, Giese said, but the police department had a long talk with the officials, assuring them that the act was committed out of care.

“We found out that the postal service did, in fact, have a heart and nothing was done about it,” Giese said. “That’s how Don was. He put principle over a lot of things.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cantlin opened Cantlin’s Snack’n Store on Route 4 after he retired from the postal service.

“It was one of those places in the village where everyone went to get coffee and tell gossip and get the latest rumors and lies,” Giese said.

Giese remained friends with Cantlin after the police chief retired and moved across the country.

“They always say you can count your real true friends on the fingers on one hand,” Giese said. “He was one of those fingers on that one hand for certain.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3305.