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A Life: Paul Flanders ‘wanted to stay busy and be productive’

  • Paul and Gladys Flanders on their wedding day -- the Fairlee, Vt., couple were married for 60 years. (Family photograph)

  • Paul Flanders with his companion Pauline Cote Gray in an undated photograph. The couple spent the last eight years of Flanders' life together. (Family photograph)

  • After Paul Flanders graduated from Lebanon High School, he immediated enlisted in the Navy and served during World War II. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2020 7:28:34 PM
Modified: 4/26/2020 7:28:33 PM

FAIRLEE — Paul Flanders never stopped learning. Most often, the building trades provided his classroom. But it could extend to the garden. Or the kitchen.

At one point late in his life, Flanders decided to take a stab at baking. His wife of more than 60 years, Gladys, had made delicious cinnamon sticky buns as part of a traditional family Easter dinner up to her death. In her absence, Flanders assumed the task.

“My grandfather took it upon himself to make those rolls,” said granddaughter Kelli Williams, of Schenectady, N.Y. “We all quietly looked around the table, whispering behind our hands and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I think Grandpa’s rolls are better than Grammy’s. I hope she didn’t hear what we’re saying.’ He loved mastering a new skill.”

Flanders was best known for his work in various building trades. He absorbed plumbing, heating, home construction and house design knowledge over a lengthy career that ultimately led to the founding of Lebanon’s Central Supply Inc., in the 1970s. Flanders — who after Gladys died in 2011 enjoyed the companionship of Pauline Cote Gray for the last eight years of his life — died on Feb. 28 at his Fairlee home from congestive heart failure. He was 92.

Whether it was interactions with Fairlee town or Lebanon city officials, tenants of the homes he built, his employees or his family, Flanders made his points through typically taciturn New England ways combined with a dry sense of humor.

“Sometimes, when he was talking, it would be in an advice sort of way,” said his son, James Flanders, of Berlin, Vt. “It’s funny because I remember, as a kid, he never physically punished me, but it was always what I’d call psychological punishment. He would sit me down if I did something wrong — and I was a pretty wild kid, always doing something to get into trouble, silly stuff — and he’d say, ‘Think about what you did, who you affected and how you’re going to make it right.’ ”

Paul Flanders quickly started to get his hands dirty after his 1947 graduation from Lebanon High School. He enlisted in the Navy and, working as an electrician’s mate stationed on Maryland’s Delmarva peninsula, “he took an interest in anything mechanical,” James Flanders said. “He could figure out anything mechanical.”

His knowledge base grew from there.

Paul Flanders began to learn how to service furnaces and appliances working for a gas company once he and Gladys settled in Fairlee. He and a friend, Perley Colby, operated a plumbing business, doing work on cottages and homes around Lake Morey. Flanders also helped in the construction of the Moore Reservoir dam north of Littleton, N.H. Salesmanship skills came from a stretch as a Keebler deliveryman.

“He was very, very industrious, and he wanted to stay busy,” James Flanders said. “That was the hallmark of his whole life. He wanted to stay busy and be productive. He had a young family to support, and that played into it. He always felt responsible to provide for us.”

He also was willing to share lessons learned to those interested in improving themselves.

“He built some spec houses when the housing boom was going on (in the 1980s), and that’s where I learned,” recalled grandson Shannon Williams, of Warren, Mass.

“He taught me how to do plumbing. … My grandfather didn’t just sell plumbing supplies; he was a bona fide plumber, and he actually knew his stuff.”

That ultimately turned into an interest in providing supplies for others.

Flanders started Central Supply in the early 1970s, beginning first on a Commercial Street site in West Lebanon before buying and renovating a larger Water Street building in Lebanon where the business remains today. Along with two other partners, Flanders specialized in plumbing and electrical supplies, eventually branching into appliance sales until he sold the business in the early 1990s.

“Paul was one of those guys who told you to have two fuels in a house: ‘When one goes out, you’ve got another one,’ ” Enfield-based plumbing and heating contractor Jamie Martin said. “It’s funny, but I still practice that to this day. People want heat pumps all the time, and he would tell me to add a second fuel — like a wood or pellet backup — for when they’re out for a few days. … He was quiet, sharp, a pretty sharp guy. He knew his heating business for that era.”

Flanders extended his productivity beyond the office, too.

“He had a piece of plywood with a big notch on it; he’d put it on his recliner, and that would be his desk,” Shannon Williams said. “He’d use it to design houses. … My grandmother would watch us after school, Kelli and I, and as soon as he got home, the desk would come out, and he would lay everything out on his recliner desk.”

“When I was a kid, I loved sitting at his big desk with his graph paper and design my own dream homes, the footprints,” Kelli Williams said. “He never got irritated or annoyed at me for using all of his graph paper, but he would take a look at my attempts at architecture and point out to me that you can’t have five porches on your house. He said they were like blisters; they stand out in a bad way.”

After retiring, Flanders took particular pride in his home garden, James Flanders said. He’d purchased a farm on the south end of Fairlee in the mid-’80s, cleaved off a few sections on which he built spec houses and would sometimes share what he’d grown with tenants.

“He grew everything: Potatoes, onions, a lot of stuff that would keep over the winter,” Shannon Williams noted. “The garden itself was probably a third of an acre; it was pretty big. He had some fruit trees and raspberries and blueberries, and it was kind of a communal thing for the apartments on the property. If you wanted fresh berries, you could pick berries out of his garden. He was always very generous when it came to stuff like that.”

If the benefit came in the sharing, the joy came in the learning.

“He was always interested in learning something new,” James Flanders said. “He wasn’t afraid of getting in and trying something. It might work; it might not. But at least you were learning something in the process.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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