A Life: John O. Stinson; ‘There was a right way to do things’

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    Jack Stinson, 88, of Hanover, N.H., likes to say that "it's all between your ears" at his age. "If I only got physical exercise from being a part of the group, that would be great, but the mental part of it is the most important," he said. As a lifelong hiker, Jack prided himself on always knowing where he was, where he was going, and how to return; but over time, he noticed his mental awareness beginning to fade. The mental focus he works on as part of the routine with the group helps him regain some of what he's lost, he said. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — John J. Happel

  • This family photograph was taken in 1967 when John Stinson was a town manager in Massachusetts. Along with Stinson and his wife, Barbara, their children are Jack (standing) and lined up in descending ages from left are Paul, Ray, Gretchen, Heidi and Lisa. (Family photograph) Family photographs

  • John Stinson cross-country skis at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt., about five years ago. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/10/2021 8:49:59 PM
Modified: 10/10/2021 8:50:00 PM

HANOVER — Power lifters have different methods in calculating their “top weight,” the amount of pounds they can lift. Old timers tend to bring notebooks jotted with notes, millennials use their cellphones.

John Stinson brought a slide rule with him to the gym to calculate his top weight.

“The young people didn’t even know what the hell that was,” fellow weightlifter Dave Cioffi said about what would happen when Stinson pulled the slide rule out of his pocket. “They’d never seen one before.”

A pocket slide rule and a knack for solving problems — and challenging others to solve them — on the spot was typical Stinson, family and friends say, a habit not surprising in someone trained in the rigors of civil engineering before shifting into a career in municipal government.

Stinson, who was hired as Hanover’s second town manager in the 1970s and later with his wife Barbara Stinson owned and operated Stinson’s Village Store on Allen Street in Hanover, died Sept. 23 at 92.

The store, which today is run by their son John “Jack” Stinson Jr., remains one of the oldest continually operated downtown businesses, known for food catering to generations of Dartmouth sporting events, alumni reunions and fraternity parties (Stinson’s also once sold more beer kegs than any other store in New Hampshire before the drinking age was raised to 21 and the college cracked down on alcohol consumption at student-run events).

Stinson’s journey to a small, rural New England town had a few stops along the way.

An only child whose father managed a laundry outside of Cambridge, Mass., Stinson’s parents struggled financially, family members say, but they scraped to send him to Rindge Technical School — later merged to form Cambridge Rindge and Latin School — where he excelled and won a scholarship to Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

College was interrupted by the Korean War, during which Stinson served as an Army combat platoon leader in the 5th Infantry. Their father rarely talked about those 19 months in Korea, according to his family, although he emerged with numerous citations and awards, including a Bronze Star Medal for valor.

Back in Massachusetts, Stinson completed his studies at WPI, where he majored in civil engineering. One day at the beach with some buddies he met Boston College nursing student Barbara Mayr. Lisa Stinson said her mom knew by the end of the day that the handsome war veteran with thick black hair and wide smile was the one.

After John and Barbara were married in 1957, children quickly followed, one upon the other, every year for six consecutive years. John got a job with Boston engineering firm Metcalf and Eddy, where he worked on such as projects as the building of the Prudential Center.

Anticipating that the suburban boom of the 1960s was going to make municipal government a growing field, especially for someone who had a background in infrastructure, Stinson went to work as town manager in Saugus, Mass.

Saugus had a problematic history of grinding out town managers — the Boston Globe in 1978 tallied the town had 24 managers in 30 years — and although Stinson lasted five years and longer than most, he, too, eventually found himself in a budget row with the selectboard, which sidelined him.

A week after resigning from Saugus, Stinson landed as town manager for Ipswich, Mass., 20 miles to the north. In 1970, he made another career move, and accepted a job as an administrator at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Mass., moving what by then was a brood of three boys followed by three girls across the state.

But after a few years in western Massachusetts, Hanover recruited Stinson as the town’s town manager in 1975. The Selectboard reviewed more than 100 candidates for the job, according to the 1975 annual town report.

An avid hiker and skier, Stinson was always taking his kids on outdoor expeditions, whether climbing mountain peaks in New Hampshire or, once, leading them deep into the backwoods of Maine with the only way by canoe.

He would combine those adventures, family members say, in what today would be called a teaching moment.

“When we were growing up he was always coming up with problems for us to solve,” said Lisa Stinson, a professor of art in North Carolina and one of six Stinson siblings who all relocated from Massachusetts to Hanover with their parents when their father was hired as town manager in 1975. “There were bonuses, like extra ice cream on Sundays, whenever we came up with the right answer.”

For example, Stinson would hand out laminated flashcards to his kids on their frequent family hikes in the woods that would have the photographs of plants on one side and their names and information on the other side. It was a way of educating them about which plants were edible or not.

“It wasn’t just a hike. It was an environmental project,” Lisa Stinson said.

Cioffi, an Etna resident and the former owner of the Dartmouth Bookstore, knew Stinson on two levels: first as a downtown merchant who would have issues before Town Hall and, later, as an across-the-alley neighbor of Stinson’s Village Store and “their biggest customer” because the bookstore staff would always run over there to grab their lunch break sandwiches.

“Zoning was always so tight in Hanover,” Cioffi, who later served on the Selectboard, said. “We had books selling on the sidewalk out front but we wanted sidewalks on Allen Street so we could sell books there too but Allen Street was always sort of an orphan to Main Street,” Cioffi said, even though there were several small shops tucked in the alley. Cioffi said his entreaties to town officials to change the zoning always fell on deaf ears.

Until Cioffi said he approached Stinson, when he was town manager, about it.

Stinson “was a proponent of that. He supported us. He felt those of us on Allen Street should have more room,” Cioffi said.

Jack Jr. said his father had a clear view of the town manager’s role and, perhaps to his detriment, didn’t sugar coat it with his bosses, the Selectboard, especially when he felt like they were interfering in what he was paid to do.

“He’d say, ‘you hired me. Let me do it. Don’t micromanage me,’ ” Jack Jr. described as his father’s attitude about the role of town manager. After about three years in the Hanover job, “he was pretty much let go. It was a little rough,” said Jack Jr,. who himself served for many years on the Hanover Recreation Board.

“He wasn’t much of a politician,” agreed his son, Ray Stinson, who, like his father, went to WPI and now works with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “He was an engineer and there was a right way to do things.”

But when the town manager job ended in 1978, family members said they wanted to remain in the Upper Valley.

“We had moved four to five times. Dad was tired of hearing us whine,” said Ray Stinson.

Initially, Stinson looked at buying a restaurant in downtown Springfield, Vt., with an eye to catching the shift workers at the town’s tool factories, which in the late ’70s were still employing thousands of people. But when Moe Halligan decided to sell his Hanover general store and sandwich shop, called Moe’s Village Store, they settled on it.

“The first couple years were pretty tough,” recalled Jack Jr, “Mom worked in the store a lot. Dad did administration, the books.”

The Stinsons saw an opportunity in doing a sideline in making cakes for weddings and parties and John Stinson approached baking like an engineer.

“He’d measure the temperature of the water, the flour, the eggs, like it was a science,” said Ray Stevens. “You’d walk in the house and it would smell delicious.”

Always athletic, John Stinson picked up a new pursuit at age 83: weight lifting.

He joined former Dartmouth track and field coach Carl Wallin’s Thor Stone Athletic Club, a group that originally met at the CCBA in Lebanon before switching to Anytime Fitness. There, four mornings a week, Stinson would meet up with a group of other retirees under Wallin’s coaching for power lifting, bench presses and leg squats.

Stinson, said Wallin, was naturally cut out to be a weight lifter.

“Jack was built like a fireplug,” said Wallen, using the nickname by which many of John Stinson’s friends address him and describing the octogenarian’s physique as “big shoulders, big chest, big butt.”

Stinson, through his 80s, could bench press 200 pounds and deadlift between 250 and 275 pounds.

“He was very, very strong,” Wallen marveled.

The group would attend weight lifting meets in Vermont and New Hampshire.

One night fellow weightlifter Jane Higgins remembers clearly. It was snowing and pitch dark outside when everyone left the venue in Fair Haven, Vt.

Higgins said she remembers Jack and Barbara getting into the car with another couple for the drive home on “winding Route 4 through Vermont.”

Everyone was in their 80s and Higgins said, with the snow, winding road and darkness, she thought “Jeepers, I’m not getting in that car.”

“But they got home fine, no problem, Higgins said.

“That was Jack for you. He had balls,” Higgins said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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