Jim Spellman, longtime first selectman for Stonington, dies at 92

Jim Spellman, left, who served Stonington for 24 years as first selectman, talks with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney. Spellman died Friday at age 92.
Jim Spellman, left, who served Stonington for 24 years as first selectman, talks with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney. Spellman died Friday at age 92.

Stonington - Jim Spellman was the man many first selectmen went to when they needed advice.

That's not surprising considering he held the office for 24 years beginning in 1961 and earned a reputation as someone who always made decisions based on what was best for residents.

"He was just a class act," said Bruce MacDonald of Pawcatuck, who met Spellman while working as a reporter for the former Groton News in the mid-1970s.

"He was a very humble person. He did a lot of good for the town without tooting his own horn," MacDonald said.

Over the weekend, residents fondly remembered Spellman, who died Friday at the age of 92. In addition to being the town's longest serving first selectman from 1961-85, he was a World War II Navy veteran, a school board member and served as a judge in the town court. One of his legacies was the acquisition of the Town Dock, home to the state's last surviving commercial fishing fleet.

Current First Selectman Ed Haberek posted on his Facebook page Sunday that he would miss Spellman very much.

"He was a tremendous town leader and his service to our community was remarkable. As John Quincy Adams stated, 'If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.' He was an inspiring leader and a trusted friend and we honor him. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."

Longtime town Clerk Cindy Ladwig said Spellman took her under his wing when she started working in Town Hall in 1977.

"I just idolized him. He was such a wonderful person. He was smart and even-keeled," she said.

"This was just Jim Spellman's town. Every first selectman after Jim Spellman would go to him for advice," she said. "If they had an question and were not sure how to resolve it they would go and ask him what to do."

Ladwig's husband Ted worked as town attorney during the last six years of Spellman's tenure.

"He was just wonderful to work for. In all that time I worked for the town he never once told me what to do or what decision to come to," he said.

Ladwig said Spellman always looked at an issue to see if it was good for the town.

"If if was, he'd say 'Let's see if we can make it happen,' " he said. "He was the best town administrator I've ever seen."

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ray Trebisacci called Spellman "the master."

"He was a person I always looked up to. If you had any kind of problem or question you could go talk to Jim. You could always rely on him for help," he said.

"Everyone looked up to him, both Democrats and Republicans," added Trebisacci.

The town's recently retired director of administrative services, George Sylvestre, stopped in to Town Hall in 1970 to see Spellman after he had returned from Army duty.

"I walked out working for him," Sylvestre recalled. "He was my mentor."

"Jim was one of the few people I would refer to as a real leader. I always felt privileged to work for him," he said.

Sylvestre said that last week when he went to see Spellman in the hospital, Spellman told him he was looking forward to getting out and playing golf.

Sylvestre said he was bemoaning the status of the world and lack of leadership and the impact it would have on his grandchildren when Spellman told him not worry.

He said, 'People all want the same things. They just do it in different ways.' He always saw the innate sense of good in people," Sylvestre said.

Sylvestre said that Spellman always gave Town Hall staff all the credit when things went well and took all the blame when things went wrong.

"He had his adversaries and detractors but he always had the respect of people because he always respected them," Sylvestre said.



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Spellman molded Stonington