2016-01-26 / Obituaries

Robert C. Cummings

PHIPPSBURG — Robert C. (Bob) Cummings, who reported on environmental and energy matters for the Portland newspapers for more than two decades, died at home on Jan. 21, 2016.

Cummings, 86, first called attention to Maine’s public lots — 400,000 acres of forest land the state had preserved when 6 million acres of public lands were sold in the first decades after achieving statehood in 1820. By the 1970s, these remaining public lands had been forgotten, or were assumed to be owned by paper companies who held cutting rights to the timber.

Ten years after the first of several dozen stories appeared in March of 1972, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that Maine indeed still owned the lands, despite a century of neglect. Over the years the scattered lots were swapped for other lands of greater recreational value. The 40,000-acre Mahoosuc Preserve was created from the public lots, as was most of the 35,000-acre Bigelow Preserve. Other public reserve lands are scattered through the wildlands of Maine.

“Most found the idea that the state could misplace 400,000 acres of land absurd,” he said. “My editors and most readers treated the story as almost a joke. None of the major environmental groups paid any attention. My role was to keep the story alive until the legal and political processes could take notice and respond.”

Other major issues that he covered during his newspaper career that ended in 1991 were proposals for oil refineries on the Maine coast, the practice of clearcutting timber, and dams on the Penobscot and St. John rivers.

Though they nominated him twice for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of public lots, his work often drew the ire of editors. One complained about his pioneering stories about the clearcuts and overcutting of Maine forests, “We’ve got woodchips coming out our ears.”

His work, however, was cited during graduation ceremonies at the University of Maine campuses at Farmington and Augusta, and at Unity College, and in 1978 he was named journalist of the year by the Maine Press Association.

In 1981 he was the second recipient of the environmental award issued annually by Downeast magazine. Over the years his work was also cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Appalachian Mountain Club.

He won several awards from Maine and New England press organizations. In 1982 he was awarded first place for science and technology writing by the New England Associated Press in competition with all the newspapers in New England that subscribed to the Associated Press news service. Cummings described himself as a father, husband, journalist and a political liberal, with a passion for preserving land for future generations.

In addition to his reports on the major environmental issues, he wrote extensively on the Maine outdoors. He recounted canoe trips on the Allagash and St. John rivers, winter trips to the summit of Katahdin, and focused attention on many of the major mountains of the state. His numerous reports on the beauty of Bigelow and the conflicts between hikers and developers were credited by some as being the primary reason for the narrow victory in the referendum creating the Bigelow Preserve.

He specialized in offbeat stories. One article, for instance, reported that tidal dams at the northern tip of the Bay of Fundy would result in storms flooding Logan Airport. The story had reported on research by Canadian scientists and a University of Maine mathematician.

Eventually Nova Scotia quietly shelved the idea, mostly for the reasons cited in the story.

Though he received many awards during his career, he particularly liked a comment from a working father who told him, “No one appreciates what the (Phippsburg) land trust is doing, but they will in 50 years.” Among other efforts, the Phippsburg Land Trust created a 253-acre preserve protecting the shoreline of a pond in the center of town, and partnered with the town to buy an undeveloped oceanfront beach and 85 acres of adjacent forest land.

Though he was instrumental in founding the Phippsburg Land Trust in 1974, he at first was considered too controversial to serve on the trust’s board of directors. However, it was after he joined the board as an ex-officio member representing the Board of Selectmen that the land trust had its greatest successes. He served as president of the land trust for many years, and wrote most of the fundraising letters and designed the materials that eventually resulted in 800 acres of land trust-protected land in Phippsburg.

During his 12 years as a Phippsburg selectman, he wrote the computer programs that were instrumental in the town becoming one of the first small towns in Maine to convert its tax records for computer use. He produced the town’s tax bills that formerly had cost the town $1,500 a year on a small computer he had bought his children for Christmas in 1983, and later developed one of the first sophisticated tax assessing programs. “I just wanted to see if it was possible,” he said. He also promoted and later designed the energy systems that converted an 1882 abandoned town hall into a modern, super insulated town office building.

He particularly championed housing that conserved energy. He rebuilt an 1860s farmhouse into an energy efficient structure and later designed and had built a new house to his energy-saving designs. After his retirement, he designed and helped build a second superinsulated house. His final addition to his home’s energy efficiency was the installation of solar panels in 2015.

His service to Phippsburg extended over four decades. He wrote the town meeting warrant article that created the Phippsburg Conservation Commission in 1968 and served as the commission chair for 12 years. He also researched ancient public land that accessed the shore, and successfully pressed the town into recovering 125 acres of land the town had acquired in the 1930s, which had been encroached on by neighbors. He worked for years on gaining support for the construction of a pier for commercial fishermen and to create public landings on the Phippsburg peninsula.

At the time of his death, he was a member of the Phippsburg Town Lands Management Committee and Shellfish Conservation Commission, and a director of the Phippsburg Land Trust.

After his retirement he was narrowly defeated in a bid for election to the Maine State Senate from Sagadahoc County. As part of his campaign Cummings purchased for a dime apiece the 8,000 copies of his book, Housewarming, which had not been sold and then gave them away as he campaigned door to door. The book was widely praised, but its publication in 1981 coincided with the start of a 20-year decline in oil prices, and sales were slow. In recent years, a few of the copies he had given away during his campaign have begun showing up at library sales in Bath, Topsham and Brunswick. He would buy them back for 50 cents or a dollar each so as to have copies for persons who requested them.

In 1993, bored with retirement, he announced he was going to Georgia and walking home. He arrived on the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia on April 15 that year and climbed Katahdin on Oct. 16. During the intervening six months he walked most of the 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

After his retirement he also served several years as Conservation Committee chair of the Maine Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and later as newsletter editor.

He also published newsletters for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and the Maine Association of Conservation Commissions, covering many of the same stories he had covered while working for the Portland newspapers. Cummings was also one of the founders in 2002 of the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust, which seeks additional buffers to the Maine section of the trail, which in places is only 1,000 feet wide. He served as maintainer, clearing blowdowns and keeping brush from obscuring the foot path, on about three miles of the Appalachian Trail system in the Whitecap Mountain area for 25 years, and was overseer of the maintenance of 60 miles of the section of the Appalachian Trail located north of Monson for nearly a decade.

Prior to joining the Portland papers he served as city editor, chief reporter, sports writer and political columnist for the Bath Daily Times, a newspaper that later merged with the Brunswick Record to become the Times Record.

He was a 1958 graduate of the University of Illinois School of Journalism, where he had worked as a student for the Champaign- Urbana Courier. After returning to Maine he also worked briefly in the Machias bureau of the Bangor Daily News.

Prior to attending the university he was employed as an electrician in Chicago. Born on May 4, 1929, the son of William A. and Emma Blaisdell Cummings, he grew up in Bath and attended Morse High School where he graduated in 1946.

In 1962 he married Mary Ellen Remeschatis. Surviving are his wife, a daughter, Brenda Ellen Cummings of Bath and her husband Tim Richter; two sons, Stephen Robert Cummings and his partner Darla Coy of Bath and Charles Arthur Cummings of Phippsburg, and seven grandchildren: Jonathan Cummings, Nichole Cummings, Catie Bennett, Alexander Cummings, Christian Cummings, Derek Cummings, and Matthew Cummings. Also surviving are two brothers, Albert J. Cummings of Waterford and William E. Cummings of Farmingdale; and three sisters, Carolyn Kennard of Rumford, Margery Towne of Andover and Eleanor McKirnan of Santa Ana, California.

Contributions in his memory to the Phippsburg Land Trust, P.O. Box 123, Phippsburg, ME 04562 and to the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust, P.O. Box 761, Portland, ME 04104 are urged.

A celebration of his life will be held; date and time will be announced.

To share your thoughts and condolences with the family, please visit www.desmondfuneralhomes.com.

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