Published October 03. 2012 4:00AM
It is probably safe to say that no Stonington leader will ever oversee the change that James M. Spellman did when he served as first selectman for 24 years from 1961 to 1985. Interstate 95 had yet to be dedicated when Jim Spellman first took office. The highway would transform Stonington into a tourist destination and grow its population.
During Mr. Spellman's tenure the town enacted zoning regulations to manage the development. It installed sewer systems to make economic growth possible while protecting the environment. And the town built a police force to secure the safety of its residents and reassure its growing businesses.
Through it all Mr. Spellman provided a steady hand of leadership. He died Friday at age 92. Stonington was fortunate to have had this native son working for it for so long.
He was a Democrat who saw a role for government in helping people and steering growth and development, but had a Yankee frugality that demanded money be spent wisely and carefully. Anti-budget advocates, who refused to recognize that sometimes the investment of tax dollars was worthwhile, tested his patience. But he also questioned whether the Democratic Party had lost its way when in 1980 Republican President Ronald Reagan swept into office on a promise to cut government spending and regulation.
"The party must return to its roots of support - the average citizen" and move away from tax and spending policies that "fall inequitably on those who can afford it least, the average workingman and the elderly," wrote Mr. Spellman in a 1981 commentary for The Day. As always, Mr. Spellman was ahead of the curve. Democrats got the message with the election and presidency of moderate Bill Clinton eight years later.
Mr. Spellman led the town so competently that The Day, in a March 1985 editorial, speculated that to replace him it might take a change in form of government to a town manager system with a professionally trained administrator in charge, "something it has had right along in everything but name."
Associates recall Mr. Spellman as balanced in his approach to policy, not easily rattled when problems arose, and fundamentally fair. Mr. Spellman was genuine, comfortably the same whether talking politics with a visiting governor, finances with a business executive, road maintenance with a public works employee or fishing with a commercial fisherman.
"I enjoy people. I try to make as few enemies as possible and maintain as many friends," he once told a reporter.
At that he certainly succeeded.