Reflections on the sudden death of a public servant

Editor’s note: Georgia Selectboard chairman Chris Letourneau died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Friday, Oct. 13 at age 51.

The day after Chris Letourneau died, I took a drive.

I started at the town offices, our humble monument to the civilization we’ve carved out in this corner of Vermont. In the absence of even a breeze, the flags stood solemnly, motionless at half-staff, suspended in grief like the rest of the town that day.

I continued south down 7, the peak autumn foliage a blur out my window against a moody gray sky. I passed into Milton, the back side of Georgia’s white, wooden “welcome” sign requesting I come again. Further down the street, trees and turbines cast a perfect reflection on Lake Arrowhead, a mirror image reproduced in the fixed stillness of the water. Not a breeze; not a ripple.

Chris Letourneau

I thought of Chris the whole way. The town offices, where our little town’s democracy thrums along – Chris, selectboard chairman for all the years I’ve reported on the goings-on in my own hometown, comfortably at the helm of it all.

The welcome sign was a town project, erected by vote of the board – a common, seemingly inconsequential example of how it all works. Now, it’s a part of his legacy.

Past Georgia Market and Maplefield’s, where I’d occasionally see him pull up in his truck to get a coffee or a bottle of SmartWater before the ubiquitous Monday night meetings a little farther down the road. We might chat in the town office parking lot; we might not. Inside, Chris and his cohorts might good-naturedly rib me for my Hunter rain boots (overpriced) or my pre-ripped jeans (illogical).

How many hours of tape can you catch me in the corner of the room, laughing at something Chris said? Every other Monday, give or take, for nearly four years, I sat across from Chris, watching him lead our town through the banal (a sign is down) and the profound (a firefighter died in the line of duty) with a steady hand.

I hear his gruff, gravelly voice clearly:

Monday, Sept. 25, 7 o’clock p.m., Georgia Selectboard …
Any selectboard concerns this evening?
Hearing none, we turn it over to our town administrator, Mr. McCarthy …

Even his intonation is ingrained in my memory.

It was clear enough Chris was a good leader, a good man, his life cut short when no one expected it. Work to be done, budgets to pass, meetings to open and adjourn, children and grandchildren to watch grow.

As a reporter, I seek answers: It’s my job. I wish I could call Chris – he always answered – and ask him myself. Why you? Why now? Why any of us, whenever we go?

I don’t have anything profound to offer – believe me, I wish I did. All I know is that, for no good reason, a small but nonetheless present fixture in one part of my life has vanished. In his place, an empty seat. That’s a heavy, dark, gray feeling.

Life is a collection of people who exist on planes around you – some close, some far – in constant circulation as relationships bloom and die and grow and diminish, forming the lens through which you see your world. The hard work comes when we must rearrange them to fill an empty space – especially one we had no clue, no inkling, would so soon be void.

Chris’ untimely death forces us to reconcile things we’d rather not. It asks us to again confront the sad, tired old cliché that today it was him, but tomorrow it could be me.

We’ve heard it countless times, maybe even espoused it ourselves, but it’s seldom we really, truly feel it: Life is random. We may pave roads and drive cars down them; we may build houses and sleep inside; we may write laws and charter towns and raise flags in the wind. We’re good at deceiving ourselves that we’re in control. The truth is, we’re not, and that should rock you.

So we’ll pledge to do better, to cherish the people, to relish the moments, to really take it all in this time. We’ll pause – cast our eyes downward in a moment of silence at the town meeting Chris should preside over – but we’ll move on, because we have to.

We’ve already begun that work. On Saturday, Chris’ funeral: If a man’s life can be measured by the swell of the room he occupies upon his death, Chris’ was full. On Monday, the first board meeting without him: If a man’s impact can be understood by the tears shed at the sight of a single Maplefield’s coffee cup or Red Sox jersey on an empty chair, Chris’ was strong.

Monuments and memorials will no doubt be raised in his name; town reports will bear his image and his epithet, but life will march on, and how much of that promise we made to ourselves, to each other, will endure?

I’m asking because I don’t know, and I’m good at asking questions. If there’s a lesson to be learned in Chris’ death, I hope we learn it. Chris’ loss will be felt acutely by the many, many people who knew and loved him, but it will also be felt by those who never met him. Chris was a public servant. We throw the term around a lot in newspapers, but Chris actually defined it. He gave of himself, year after year. I watched him.

Our town is better for having had Chris in it as long as we did. I will miss him.