Groton Town councilor looks back on 27 years of public service

Harry Watson, a political fixture in the town of Groton, stands by Town Hall on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Watson was recently ousted from the Town Council after more than two decades of public service in the town. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Harry Watson, a political fixture in the town of Groton, stands by Town Hall on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Watson was recently ousted from the Town Council after more than two decades of public service in the town. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Groton — On Tuesday, Groton Town Councilor Harry Watson accepted a citation for his decades of service to Groton, and he offered a few thoughts.

“I realize how long it’s been,” he said before taking a seat at his last council meeting. “My wife and I have a 26-year-old daughter that was born my first year on the council.”

Watson, 68, began serving on the council before Foxwoods Resort Casino opened, before Poquonnock Plains Park was built, before downtown Mystic had public bathrooms. Ledge Light Health District had not yet been formed. The Mystic Marriott had not been built.

He was 41 years old when he was appointed councilor to take the seat vacated by now Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher, after he was elected to the state House of Representatives seat in 1990. Watson, now a Republican, was a Democrat in those days. He changed political parties from Democrat to Republican in 1994.

”I remember the lights going on and how scared I was being on T.V. for the first time in my life,” Watson said.

Most people who know Watson personally know he was once a single father and that he worked at Pfizer, even if they do not know other details of his life. Watson is known more for his work on the town’s Shellfish Commission, Ledge Light Health District, his work on land use and recreational projects and his service as councilor and mayor.

Watson’s father was a career Coast Guardsman who relocated with his family multiple times before moving to Connecticut in 1965. Watson attended 11 schools growing up, and had lived in New York, Maine, Rhode Island, Washington, Alaska and Texas. He started his adult life in southeastern Connecticut after he graduated high school in 1966, and he never left.

He went to Willimantic State Teachers College, now Eastern Connecticut State University, as a young man, attending one year.

Then his life changed.

He became a husband and father at age 18, and ultimately a single dad when few men had sole custody of their children. He raised his daughter alone for much of her life, marrying his wife, Kim Shepardson Watson, the current chairwoman of the Groton Board of Education, in 1986. Watson’s daughter was maid of honor at their wedding. Harry and Kim Watson then had three children.

Watson worked his way up at Pfizer with a high school education. He started at the company in 1967, and was hired as a chemical operator working swing shifts. In less than one year, he was transferred to research as a discovery lab technician, and was promoted 13 times. He searched the literature to improve his skills and ultimately co-authored 12 papers in scientific journals.

He retired in 2003 as a principal research investigator, still without a college degree. Watson wanted to substitute teach, so he went back to school as an older adult, and received a bachelor degree in general studies from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2007, at age 58. He majored in anthropology and is a field-trained archaeologist.

As a councilor in Groton, Watson served on the Feasibility Committee to create Ledge Light Health District, became a member of its board after it was formed, and ultimately became its chairman. He co-chaired the Committee for Poquonnock Plains before the park was built. He was a town councilor when tax incentives were extended to build the Mystic Marriott, and he helped negotiate a lease when the town obtained ownership of surplus property that now houses a cooperative for shellfish farming.

"Harry was just always 'all in' for the town of Groton," said Jane Dauphinais, who served as mayor and a councilor during the 1990s. "He gave his time when he was fully employed at Pfizer and raising four kids. He found the time."

Watson served as mayor for six years, from 2003 to 2009. During his tenure on the council, he saw seven schools close, two schools built, the high school renovated and expanded, and the Groton Senior Center and Town Hall Annex built. He went through, with the town, reviews that threatened to close the Naval Submarine Base. Watson also served with four town managers.

Still, he wanted to continue running.

“Every two years for the last few elections I thought to myself, ‘I’ll do it for two more years,’” he said. “I just, I guess it’s part of my life. I love my community. And if I can play a role in making it better, that’s where I’m coming from.”

On Nov. 7, he lost his seat on the council by 53 votes.

It hurt, he said. But Watson added that he knows there’s a reason for it, and he plans to stay involved. He’s vice chair of the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority and President of the Lighthouse Voc-Ed board of directors. He’s served as a substitute teacher for several years and may do it more often. “There’s nothing better than getting on the rug and reading a book to a bunch of little kids in a circle,” he said.

He believes there's still more to do. It's a similar outlook to the one he expressed writing to Eastern Connecticut State University years ago.

“With very little post-high school teaching, I rose to a position that typically required a Ph.D. to fill. I have been politically successful. I have participated in a large variety of sports leisure activities. I have traveled. Indeed, I am a rich man already," he said. Then added, "I am 56 and want to do more."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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