A Life: Celestine ‘Da’ Wiggins, 1929 – 2020;  ‘Da was always there with a kind word’

  • Da Wiggins reads to Sawyer Willis, her first great-grandchild, in 2008. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Da and Frank Wiggins on their wedding day, Sept. 10, 1949. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • Da and Frank Wiggins in a late 1969 photograph. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2021 7:57:42 PM
Modified: 1/31/2021 7:57:40 PM

GUILD — In 1980, there was a knock on Da Wiggins’ front door.

It was Peter Burling and he was going door-to-door campaigning for a New Hampshire Senate seat against a popular Republican. Wiggins lived down the street from the Sturm, Ruger gun plant “where I was not a popular fellow,” Burling recalled.

Upon answering, Wiggins looked at the Cornish Democrat and said, “Are you crazy to be going around here? Come in here.”

“We were just fabulous friends from that moment on,” Burling said.

Da Wiggins — first name Celestine, though few called her that — died at 91 on Nov. 30, 2020, after a period of declining health. A lifelong resident of Guild, an old mill village in Newport, N.H., she spent decades involved in Democratic politics in Sullivan County where she helped support and mentor up-and-coming candidates before winning a seat in the New Hampshire House, which she held for two terms.

“Da was always there with a kind word, a thought about a way you were presenting yourself, how you could do something better,” Burling, who served as House Democratic Leader, said. “Anything that involved caring, fairness and advancing the cause of our children, Da Wiggins supported. She was there for it.”

Wiggins was born in Newport on Nov. 29, 1929, to William and Elizabeth Kennedy, who both worked at a mill in Manchester before moving to Newport. Her mother had lost parts of two fingers working at the mill. Wiggins’ father was a union organizer and “Roosevelt Democrat,” Wiggins’ son, Frank “Fuzzy” Wiggins said.

“He was a strong personality,” Da’s daughter, Marie Wiggins, said. “He was a good example to my mother, too, in standing up for justice and taking a risk.”

Wiggins and her husband, Frank, met in high school and married after she spent a year at the University of New Hampshire. The couple settled in Guild where they raised their four children in a home where copies of The Catholic Worker were always around. Wiggins never earned a degree, but her sense of learning was strong and she continued to pursue knowledge, with a vested interest in politics.

“She used to darn socks when she was watching Watergate,” Marie Wiggins said. “She was just glued to the TV.”

Wiggins also worked outside the home. Marie Wiggins remembers her stocking vending machines at the Dorr Woolen Mill and as a telephone operator beside some of her old high school classmates. But it was in the United States Postal Service where she worked the longest — though it wasn’t easy at first.

“They didn’t want any women and they were forced to let women in there, so they made it as difficult as possible,” Fuzzy Wiggins said.

Sometimes, Wiggins would get a call in the middle of the night and tell her she had an hour to get to White River Junction to help unload a mail truck. She also worked a stint at the East Lempster Post Office, where a group known as the Jolly Farmers would ship plants, making the work more difficult.

“She was tough. She just kept working,” Fuzzy Wiggins said. It was part of the mantra she instilled in her children: “You never give up. You just never give up.”

Wiggins penned a column for the postal national newsletter and was a member of the postal national legislative committee where she lobbied Congress, according to her obituary which was written by her daughter, Patryc Wiggins. She also worked at the post office in Guild where she eventually became postmaster. That’s where Gaila Kennedy met Wiggins. Kennedy grew up across the street from the Wiggins family after her father became postmaster in Guild. Wiggins worked at the post office on Saturday mornings and Kennedy was often by her side.

“She was a very engaging person when you got into a conversation with her and you knew you weren’t going to be there for a minute. You needed to be there a long time,” Kennedy said. “Conversations were not quick.”

Kennedy grew up alongside the Wiggins’ kids and would often get rides to school in Newport from Wiggins. There was only one catch: They’d usually be late for school.

“Whenever you went to Da’s house for dinner and you planned to eat at 6 o’clock, you’d eat at 8 o’clock,” Kennedy said with a laugh. “She was never on time.”

That extended to wrapping Christmas presents late into the evening and using tinfoil when she ran out of wrapping paper. When Kennedy would return to Guild during college breaks, she’d share a cup of coffee and conversation with Wiggins, who encouraged her to pursue her education studies. Later on, the house Kennedy shared with her husband, one of Wiggins’ nephews, and their two young children burned down before Christmas one year.

“We went into the house and Christmas morning we opened up the slider and it was full of things from Da,” Kennedy recalled.

Each year, Wiggins would drop off handmade Christmas ornaments late at night for Kennedy’s children which they still have to this day. She also made donations to public television in their names for birthdays and other special events.

“Da always supported artists, so when she would get gifts for people they would either come from a craft fair or she would go into a shop where she would support local people,” Kennedy said. “That was so important to her.”

Wiggins generosity was felt among her sisters-in-law and she could always be counted on to help when in need. When she was 29, Marlene Kennedy had to have emergency surgery but she was reluctant to go to the hospital and leave her young children at home.

“All I had to do was call her and she was there,” Marlene Kennedy said.

Marlene Kennedy was married to Wiggins’ younger brother, Eddie, whom she was incredibly close with and was responsible for nicknaming her “Da” because he called her that when he was a toddler.

Marlene Kennedy was an only child and relished the relationship she had with Wiggins.

“For awhile I thought that was the only sister he had until I met the rest of the family,” she said.

After retiring from the post office, Wiggins decided to run for office herself. She ran for a House seat the first time in 1994 and narrowly lost the election to her Republican counterpart during a recount, state Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, recalled. Two years later, she tried again and won.

“For her to get elected in Newport shows how much people liked her,” Fuzzy Wiggins said. “Most of the people who voted for her voted for her because she was Da Wiggins, not because of her political views.”

Cloutier commuted to the Statehouse with Wiggins and other legislators. Spirited discussions were common and during one about the impeachment of a state Supreme Court justice, Cloutier was pulled over for speeding.

“She wasn’t afraid necessarily to speak up and criticize her fellow Democrats if they weren’t doing the right thing,” Cloutier said. “Once she made up her mind she stuck to her guns, win or lose.”

Wiggins felt strongly about education — and how it was funded. She was supportive of the Claremont decision that established the state had to pay for an adequate education and believed in instituting an income tax to make the state less reliant on property taxes.

She never forgave then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen for opposing that, Fuzzy Wiggins said. Workers rights, unions, collective bargaining and a fair wage to preserve the middle class were also causes she rallied for.

“She would stand up for things that grumpier folks in the Sullivan County area wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole,” Burling said, describing her as “fearless.”

Wiggins won re-election in 1998 and lost in 2000.

“I don’t think she had the ambition to be a politician,” said Virginia Irwin, a Newport Democrat who served in the House after Wiggins. “I think she saw a need and filled it.”

When Wiggins had political differences with people — and there were many — she respected those she debated with, provided they backed up their arguments with facts. If someone said something unkind about Wiggins, anyone in Newport, regardless of political party, would leap to her defense, Burling said. It was the same she would do for anyone she considered an underdog and couldn’t stand up for themselves.

“I think she did her best and set a mark for public service which I hope future people, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, would emulate,” Cloutier said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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