Part 3 in a series

By M.E. Jones


SHIRLEY -- Richard Hatch is an engaging storyteller. He drew from his memories like bits of multi-colored cloth to stitch into the fabric of his long, interesting journey so far, including his role in the area's civic history.

Pieces about MART Director Mohammed Khan, for instance: Hatch said he'd made many positive changes in the area transportation picture, first as director of the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission and later with MART. "I was one of those who interviewed him for the Planning Commission," Hatch said, recalling his own tenure as chairman of the MRPC, which was formed in 1968.

Khan got the job. "As a result," he started MART after F&L Bus Co. folded, Hatch said, noting the area's public transit mainstay at the time. "He's been the director ever since."

Hatch is a proponent of public transportation and has seen ups and downs over the years.

During World War II, for example, even small towns had regular bus service. "Back when I was a youngster, we had a bus through Shirley every hour," he said. "It came from Leominster." On Saturdays, a small bus company ran a shuttle between Shirley and Ayer, he said. "We took it to go to the movies." The fare was 10 cents, about the same as a movie ticket. The bus was discontinued after the war. Today, the rail line from Fitchburg to Boston provides the area with direct access to the public transportation system, with stops in Shirley and Ayer.


The WWII Era and Beyond

Hatch, who later served in the Navy, was too young to join the service in WWII, but he was old enough to handle some of the jobs that needed doing in town when so many of the young men were gone. "I had a lot of opportunity" during the war years, he said.

For example, he recalled how he got started as a firefighter. Arthur Dunn was the local forest fire warden during the war, when there were "lots of brush fires" from military training activity in the area. "We were paid by the hour" to put the fires out, he said. "After that, I got involved as a volunteer firefighter," he said, adding that the town had an all-volunteer fire department at the time.

Even before that, when he was a student at the Lura A. White School, Hatch remembered how a former fire chief, Theophile Lambert, who worked as a janitor at the school, would borrow his bicycle to get to the old fire station, where Hatch would later pick it up.

Once, when another Shirley fire chief, Rueben Landry, didn't have his car available and a fire broke out in Hermann Fields' barn, young Richard Hatch gave Landry a ride from his house to the station on the handlebars of his bike, then helped load extra hose onto the fire truck.

Later on, for a short stretch, Hatch was the fire chief. "That was around the time the town built a new fire station," he said.

It was a controversial issue, said Hatch, who chaired the building committee. Folks figured the town didn't need it then, but the fire station project was "for the future," he said. More than a garage for fire trucks, the new building had overnight accommodations for firefighters, housing for the ambulance and a chiefs office, all for a total construction cost of $220,000.

But the selectmen didn't support it. "There were clashes," Hatch recalled. And he was in the thick of it. "I've been kicked around like a football," he said. But he bounced back.

He also served as a charter member on the Planning Board then and subsequently kept his elected seat for 27 years, running unopposed. "Nobody else seemed to want it," he said. Many years later, when the towns of Ayer, Shirley and Harvard were dealing with the imminent closure of Fort Devens, he served on the Devens Citizens Advisory Committee.

But Hatch was no career politician. "I was just a young guy on the block" starting out, he said, tracing his civic activity back to the 1950's. And he has fond memories of those early days with the fire department. "I miss it," he said. The volunteer firefighting crew was "really into it," from every angle, he said. "We built our own trucks."

Dirt Guy from Shirley

Hatch still sees that kind of can-do attitude among the other "dirt guys" in Shirley, like DPW foreman Paul Farrar, who went ahead and graded the train station parking lot when the MBTA didn't do it. Hatch got the label from a former selectwoman who called him that and it stuck, he said. It came from his work as an excavator, but the takeaway message could also be that dirt guys can be counted on to tackle jobs that need doing, even dirty ones.

Hatch worked in excavation for the P.J. Keating Co. for seven years before starting his own business, which started off with a couple of pieces of heavy equipment and a driver. Among other things, his company installed private septic systems and for years hauled trash for the town.

Hatch credits his work ethic, in part, to his father, Roy, who was superintendent at Sampson Cordage, a rope factory in Shirley, which was one of two major employers in town, the other being the George Frost Company. The two factories are long gone now. The Frost building, now the Presidents Building on Leominster Road, is home to several small businesses, while the larger, multi-structure enclave that was once Sampson Cordage has been converted into a thriving business complex called Phoenix Park.

His dad's position opened a lot of doors for him, Hatch said. But he didn't inherit his penchant for formal business attire. Although he wears a suit for special occasions, as he did in a 1980's picture taken when he was chairman of the MRPC, he's more comfortable in casual work clothes and seldom dons a suit these days, he said. Roy Hatch, however, always dressed up for his job. "I never knew him to leave home without his starched white collar," Hatch said, adding that in those days, shirts didn't come with collars. Men bought them separately and the local laundry kept them looking spiffy.

End of Part 3.