STRATHAM — Just three years into his tenure as the first-ever town administrator, Paul Deschaine found himself confronted with a crisis when a microburst tore through Stratham Hill Park in August 1991. It devastated the hillside and knocked down a pavilion onto a crowd of people seeking shelter, killing three and injuring 11.
“I was on the other side of town that day and we just had a thunderstorm go through, no big deal. So I didn’t know what happened until someone walked by and said, ‘too bad about the park’ and I drove right over to the emergency operation center to begin that process,” Deschaine said. “To this day there are first responders who were there who say they can’t smell pine without thinking about the destruction in the park that day.”
Deschaine said he came to view his role as a “facilitator” so when the town was down and out following the microburst at Stratham Hill, he rolled up his sleeves and became the point person helping the community coordinate the effort to rebuild the park by obtaining grants, accepting donations from citizens’ and working with the National Guard, which came in to bulldoze downed trees and rebuild structures.
“That really showed the community spirit we had and that was rebuilt with very little local tax money, but it took a lot of effort from a lot of people to get it done,” he said.
Deschaine said being resourceful allowed him to thrive for the next 27 years as Stratham’s town administrator.
Now, after announcing his retirement in June after three full decades in the position, Friday marked his last day in the only job he’s known since he came to Stratham with his wife Mikki in December 1988.
“It’s (retirement) hard to describe because on one hand I’m too busy to think about it, but then there are little things like when our accounting supervisor emails me to tell me she just put in my termination date,” Deschaine said. “I’ve half packed my office and there’s the litany of people coming in to congratulate me and thank me, which reinforces that it’s happening.”
Deschaine came to Stratham after working in several jobs for the state of Maine and said he was looking for a career change to municipal government when Stratham hired him to be the town’s first administrator. Prior to his arrival, the Board of Selectman was responsible for running the town's day-to-day business, he said.
“It (being the first administrator) had its advantages because there wasn’t any prescribed expectation other than to help. It almost took 10 years before residents realized they had a town administrator and stopped mistaking me as a selectman,” Deschaine said with a laugh. “The selectman wanted a town administrator because there were problems, and when you come into a job those problems haven’t gone away so it was left to me to solve them. Sometimes I was successful and sometimes I wasn’t, but I always worked to find a path forward.”
During his tenure, Deschaine said he is proud of the town building new fire and police stations and a highway department garage, though he’s even more proud of raising his two children in town and being happily married for 36 years.
While the town has changed over the years he doesn’t feel like Stratham has lost its character.
Beyond working in his everyday capacity overseeing all aspects of town government, Deschaine was a regular volunteer at the Stratham Fair each year and is heavily involved with the county, serving on the board of directors of the Regional Economic Development Center. He is also known for being a guest reader during children’s story time at Wiggin Memorial Library.
“Paul knows Stratham so well and he was never afraid to step out of his comfort zone to be there for the kids at the library. He’s a fixture and stable force in Stratham; he knows everything and everyone knows him,” library director Lesley Kimball said. “He’s always been a big supporter of the library.”
Selectman Joe Lovejoy said Deschaine deserves a lot of credit for working with a number of selectmen over the years toward reaching a consensus among the various members in order to keep moving Stratham forward.
“Paul’s ability to work with the multiplicity of the board and all the personalities is a testament to his flexibility and his ability to get along with just about everyone. He was a tremendous help to me when I was first elected three years ago in getting my feet under me when I became a selectman,” Lovejoy said. “He was a great teacher and a great mentor to me personally, so as excited as I am to work with the new town administrator, I’m also really going to miss Paul.”
Deschaine said he won’t be disappearing from the scene in town. He agreed to stay on in a part-time capacity to help incoming town administrator David Moore, who is moving on from his assistant city manager job with Portsmouth, prepare for Town Meeting. He said upon completion of that role, he is going to take some time to enjoy himself and his family before choosing his next endeavor.
“I’ve got a couple options I’m thinking about, but the first one is decompress and clear the head, which won’t happen until Town Meeting. I need a break from those responsibilities for a bit, he said. "I have been away from my wife so much over the years and I want to spend time with her and concentrate on my health. The staff we have now is great, they’re the reason why I felt comfortable stepping away because I was leaving the town in their hands. I’m really going to miss working with them.”