SHIRLEY -- The newly named Richard L. Hatch Water Tower took years to complete, with construction started in 1997. On line since 2003, it contains 750,000 gallons of water weighing several million pounds. The water is housed in a tank that looks like a mushroom-capped roundhouse set atop a huge metal silo.
A visitor's first impression of the structure, nestled in the woods at the crest of a steep hill, is like that of a space traveler coming upon ET's mother ship, hovering silently above the trees.
The interior of the tower's tall, cylindrical base is surprisingly stark: one big, high-ceilinged room with whitewashed walls, cement floors and a couple of bulky plumbing pods with pipes, valves and gauges. It could be a set from the original Star Trek TV series, but there's nothing sci-fi about this simple structure's vital function.
Located just over the town line on land purchased from the town of Lancaster, and one of two water towers owned and operated by the Shirley Water Department, this facility's primary purpose is to supply a lot of water -- on demand and in a hurry -- if the Fire Department needs it, Water Commissioner Ann Towne said. The water is delivered to the storage tank via underground pipes from town wells, she said.
A traditional entry door and a ground-level loading dock with an overhead bay door provide access to the water tower's interior, which only Water Dept. officials and personnel and DPW crews typically see.
As unheralded as it is tucked away, the usually quiet site was bustling with activity one morning last week as family, friends, town notables, department heads and co-workers past and present gathered for a surprise dedication ceremony in which the water tower was named for longtime Water Commissioner Richard Hatch.
Hatch has been a water commissioner for 36 years, and according to fellow Commissioner Milton "Mickey" Westover, who gave the opening remarks at the short, informal ceremony, he brings considerable expertise to the job, from engineering to the area's geography.
Hatch knows how things should be done, such as where to dig without hitting ledge, Westover said, and while he might not always be right, he always comes close.
Charles Church, commander of Shirley American Legion Post #183, a title Hatch once held, filmed and audio-recorded the event.
Holly Deery sang the national anthem.
Other speakers included retired former Town Clerk Sylvia Shipton, who has known Hatch for many years, professionally and personally. Those who live in a small town like Shirley share a "terrifying intimacy," she said. "You certainly get to know people."
But you need to dig deeper to know the "doers" in town, she said, such as the Hatches and the Westovers, citing a couple of long-standing families whose names consistently appear on the rosters of local boards, committees and departments. These folks get things done, she said, calling them the town's "wealth and future."
Ward Baxter spoke next. Volunteering as a Water Department assistant, he maps and traces the history of sites the Water Department might be eyeing for expansion as part of its long-term planning mission.
Baxter was a newcomer in town when he met Hatch after Town Meeting 10 years ago.
"I heard him speak. ... It was clear he was looking out for the town's best interests," Baxter said, and he told him so. The encounter led to a valued friendship, he said.
Baxter recounted an anecdote Hatch shared with him about taking a ride with Melvin Longley, the now-deceased patriarch of one of Shirley's founding families. Whatever the destination, Melvin preferred to take different routes, out and back. His philosophy was: "You still get where you're going, but you see more."
Hatch chuckled appreciatively, recalling the trip. "I was looking at fire hydrants," he said.
Towne said her 17-year tenure as a commissioner is "minuscule" compared to Hatch's 36 years of service, and she praised his dedication and know-how.
Hatch knows every one of the town's 39 miles of water mains, having repaired them all at one time or another, she said, and he's usually at Water Department headquarters every day, with a load of rolled-up plans and maps under his arm and a notebook full of contact information in his pocket.
Towne said the department is busier than ever these days, pursuing grants, planning for future growth and is currently developing a new well site "not far from here."
Some energy-efficiency goals, in the works for years, have finally been achieved, she said, such as a discounted electric rate via a net metering contract and a recently inked deal to lease Water Department land for a solar farm that promises to generate revenue for the department and the town.
Wrapping up her speech, Towne listed other department and staff members and their years on the job, including Richard Soar, water technician, 10 years; treasurer Rhonda (Hatch) Caissie, treasurer/clerk, 21 years; clerk Renee Burns, collector/office assistant, 16 years and Superintendent and Project Manager Brian Goodman, 26 years.
Their mission is to deliver adequate, safe water to district customers, old and new, Towne said.
Other noted guests included Selectman Robert Prescott, who presented Hatch with a certificate dedicating the water tower in his honor; USDA representatives; Fire Chief Dennis Levesque and retired Chief Alphee Levesque; Town Moderator George Knittel; and Water Department officials from Ayer and West Groton, among others.
Another distinguished guest was state Rep. Jennifer Benson's new aide, who presented Hatch with a citation from the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
The brief, informal ceremony, held outside, was followed by a light lunch in the building.