Jim Kenyon: The Rock of Pomfret

The Town of Pomfret's treasurer Hazel Harrington will step down after 40 years of service Monday, February 24, 2014. Harrington worked as Pomfret Town Clerk from 1973 to 2003 when she dedicated her work to the treasurer exclusively.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

The Town of Pomfret's treasurer Hazel Harrington will step down after 40 years of service Monday, February 24, 2014. Harrington worked as Pomfret Town Clerk from 1973 to 2003 when she dedicated her work to the treasurer exclusively. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Hazel Harrington is Pomfret’s most trusted public servant. With a steady hand and poker face, she has, at one time or another during the last 40 years, collected the property taxes, recorded mortgage deeds and issued marriage licenses.

She was even given the task for a while of “checking in” deer that hunters shot in town. As always, she did what was asked — although I suspect she didn’t much mind when the state made keeping track of the annual deer kill someone else’s responsibility.

Since 1973, Harrington has served as Pomfret’s town clerk, treasurer or both. She gave up her town clerk duties in the 2003, but continued on as treasurer.

During a visit to the town offices last Wednesday on some other reporting business, I happened to ask Harrington if she would be running for re-election at Town Meeting. She indicated that she’d be announcing her intentions at that night’s Selectboard meeting.

I didn’t press her for a scoop. I’ve learned on my occasional trips to the Pomfret town offices during the last 15 years that it wouldn’t do much good. Ask Harrington a question, and she’ll give you a straight answer. But Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t have broken Watergate if they were dependent on Harrington being their source.

A small handcrafted sign that Harrington picked up at a fair, hangs in her office. “Everyone brings joy to this office,” the sign reads. “Some when they arrive and others when they leave.”

I wasn’t always sure which category I fell in.

But her flashes of dry humor and wit had left me wanting to know more about her. On Monday, we talked at her office. (And after a mild protest, she agreed to allow a Valley News photographer join us.)

The daughter of dairy farmers in nearby Sharon, she moved to Pomfret after marrying Walter Harrington, a carpenter in town, in 1958.

In 1973, with her daughter, Brenda, in kindergarten, she started to look for work outside the home to help with household finances.

“I needed to work,” she told me.

With Town Clerk Gwendolyn Payne planning to retire, Harrington’s father-in-law suggested she run. Another resident also wanted the job. Harrington was such a reluctant campaigner that she didn’t line up anyone before Town Meeting to nominate her for the position.

“I figured if they wanted me, somebody would do it.”

It was the last time that Harrington had an opponent. The following year, Payne gave up her treasurer duties. Harrington performed both jobs for 29 years, before retiring as town clerk in 2003. She stayed on as treasurer.

“I didn’t want to get out of it entirely,” she said.

Pomfret, which has roughly 1,000 residents, has become more gentrified over the years. Still, folks have different ideas about how the town should be run. In this Town Meeting season, the town’s highway equipment reserve fund (or not enough of one) and who on the Selectboard has the authority to respond to public records requests seem to be points of contention.

Selectboard Chairman Michael Reese and Neil Lamson, who has been elected to the board three times, represent the different political camps. With two years remaining in his term, Lamson relinquished his seat on the board last week and is now running against Reese in next Tuesday’s election.

Harrington’s value to the community might be one of the few things the two men agree on at the moment. She “exemplifies the very best of public service and her integrity is an example we should all strive for,” said Reese.

“She really has been a godsend for the town,” said Lamson. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene raised havoc with Pomfret’s roads and bridges, causing $1 million in damage.

The day after the storm, a half dozen local contractors stepped up to clear debris and make repairs to re-open roads. After the contractors had worked almost nonstop for a week, Harrington came to the three-man Selectboard.

“ ‘Boys,’ she said — and that’s exactly the word she used — ‘we need to pay these guys right away,’ ” recalled Lamson. Being in “crisis mode,” the board had forgotten that the local contractors, who dropped everything to help out the town, had bills of their own that needed paying, he said.

“These kind of people are the backbone of our community, and Hazel knew it,” said Lamson. “She was looking out for them.”

After next Tuesday that job will fall to someone else. At the Selectboard meeting last Wednesday, Harrington announced that for the first time in 41 years, she won’t be running for election.

At age 76, “I feel it’s time,” she said. “My memory isn’t as good as it used to be.”

It’s still good enough that when town clerks from other communities have a question about the way things were done in the past, Harrington is the one they call, said Lynne Leavitt, who has been Pomfret’s town clerk since 2009.

“She’s taught me a lot about the job and the town,” said Leavitt. “It’s been a privilege to work with her.”

Along with town clerk, Leavitt is running for treasurer at Town Meeting. If she wins, Harrington has agreed to stay on to help her for a while.

I just wouldn’t ask her to “check in” any dead deer.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jim.kenyon@valley.net.