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Keith Brown: A guy who gets things done

One in a series of profiles of people who played a key role in the first 35 years of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

Even at 81, Keith Brown is the kind of guy who likes to get things done.

Case in point: As a visitor is about to leave his Hildreth Road home after an hour’s worth of pleasant conversation, Keith says, “Let me show you one more thing.” He leads the way out to the garage, where he opens the door and reveals his big, green John Deere 460 tractor with a front-end loader bucket. “It’s my pride and joy,” he says with a smile spreading across his face. “You can do some heavy lifting with this beauty.”

Keith has never shied from heavy lifting, whether serving as a staff sergeant at Fort Dix, as an accountant as Pejepscot Paper Co., as chief financial officer at Bath Iron Works or as co-owner of General Ship Corp. in Massachusetts. He also brought that appetite for hard work, along with financial expertise, to Harpswell Heritage Land Trust at some key moments in the organization’s 35-year history.

“As the new president of HHLT’s Board of Trustees, Keith led the land trust through its first big capital campaign in 2002 and 2003, which resulted in the acquisition of the Skolfield Shores and Johnson Field preserves,” said Reed Coles, HHLT’s executive director. “He successfully obtained bridge financing before we had raised sufficient funding, including personally guaranteeing a portion of the bridge loans.”

Keith was also instrumental in the effort to find and finance a permanent home for the land trust.

“He understood the long-term importance of having a visible presence in the community,” said Coles. “In 2005-2007, Keith led the fundraising, design and construction of our office building. Without this building, we couldn’t have accomplished everything we’ve done in educational programs, land conservation and trail construction in the last 11 years.”

Born in Caribou during the Great Depression, Keith moved to Harpswell in 1942, after his father got a job at BIW. The family lived in a house across the road from the Grange Hall on Harpswell Neck, less than two miles from his current waterfront home on Hildreth Road. “Haven’t gotten very far,” Keith observed with a chuckle. He attended the North Harpswell School – in the building which until recently housed the Schoolhouse Café – and graduated from Brunswick High School in 1955. After graduating from Portland University (now part of the University of Southern Maine) in 1959, he joined the National Guard. He trained troops in tank tactics before leaving the service in 1964.

A summer job at Pejepscot Paper helped launch his accounting career, which led him to some key financial roles at shipbuilding operations in Maine and Massachusetts. He built his Harpswell home in 1966, while commuting to work at General Ship Corp. in Massachusetts. He retired to Hildreth Road in 1994.

“In 1998, Louise Huntington called and said they were looking for someone to be on the land trust board,” Keith recalled. “They were looking for a vice president, and I said I’d do it, but I didn’t want to be president the next year.”

A couple years later, the proposed development of Skolfield Farm drew the town into a contentious legal battle over the future of that landmark property. At the same time, another landmark property, Johnson Field at Mackerel Cove, came up for sale. It was a defining moment for the land trust.

“We had a board meeting and I remember some people saying let’s buy one or the other and I said, “Why not buy both?” The board agreed, the president at the time didn’t and he stepped aside. Then, guess what, I’m now the president!”

With Keith at the helm, HHLT hired Thomas “Spike” Haible as its first executive director and the Special Places Campaign was launched. With a $250,000 grant from Land for Maine’s Future and $100,000 from the town, Walter and Helen Norton, Dr. John Anderson and Keith guaranteed a $750,000 bridge loan to purchase the properties. “Our attorney, Todd Smith, played a key role and with a lot of effort from a lot of dedicated volunteers, a little over two years later, we had the whole thing paid off,” Keith said, with obvious pride.

He is also clearly proud of the HHLT headquarters, which today houses the land trust’s three-person staff and a community room that is popular for a variety of functions. “We’d been meeting in a one-room office in Harpswell Center. In 2005 we started looking for a piece of land for a permanent home,” Keith said. “Bill and Jomay Barron donated 1.5 acres off Route 123, we raised $225,000 and Chip Black, who was on the board then, built the headquarters for cost.”

Keith served as president of the trustees until 2007, when he was term-limited out. He rejoined the board in 2009 and served nine more years before stepping down this year. However, his contributions to the land trust continue: Keith and the Potholm family sold 30 acres of land to HHLT as part of its latest preserve – Otter Brook. He has fond memories of playing on the property as a child and proudly states that he used his tractor to help restore the berm that forms the pond at Otter Brook.

As for the future, Keith said he’s pleased that HHLT is “an integral part of the community now.” He added: “You need to maintain a balance in protecting land; how much is too much is the question. But getting our children out in nature is the key. They need to discover the world beyond their electronic devices.”