By Norah Peterson
Upon entering General Manager Ken Ryder’s office, the first thing I noticed was the fine wooden case with a traditionally folded American flag surrounded by medals. This flag was raised at each of the seven bases on which Ken served during his U.S. Air Force career. It has a prominent place both in this office and in Ken’s life.
At 19, Ken became the youngest Gubernatorial Aide in the history of his home state of Maine. Knowing that he needed to further his education beyond the two-year degree he had earned in graphic design, but coming from a family of modest means, he made the decision to earn a four-year college degree through the U.S. Air Force. He completed Basic Training and Officer Training School, studying accounting and economics, and ultimately earning a degree in Logistics Management. Ken recalls this period in the armed services as “the best experience of my life.” He retired as a captain in 1991 and immediately signed on with the U.S. Air Force Ready Reserve. He is now in his 40th year of service to our country.
The Public-to-Private Transition
Following stints as Public Works Director in Waterville, ME, and Lebanon, NH, Ken found that he was missing the interaction with people that he enjoyed in his Air Force assignments. Decisions in public works management are largely made by Council members with little interpersonal connection and without citizens’ voting on proposals. When Ken was hired as the Eastman Community Association’s (ECA) general manager in 2001, he found that he was doing the same type of people-oriented job as he had in the service of his country.
During his first year on the ECA job, Ken wondered if he’d made the right decision. The Eastman demographic at the time was made up of 60% second-home owners and only 40% full-time owners. He wasn’t very busy at first, but that all changed fairly quickly with the influx of younger families and the arrival of school buses. Ken was also surprised the community did not have a capital reserve fund. This was eventually resolved by the adoption of a membership fee, also known as the “new owner buy-in.” He soon had an additional revelation when he discovered how long it takes to get things done when community volunteers, not a City Council, are advocates for projects.
He is proud of the improvements to the golf and tennis amenities, the quality of the unpaved roads, and the enhancements to community programs, especially the expansion of youth programs during his 15 years as ECA general manager. However, the achievement of which he is proudest, “hands down,” is the construction of the new South Cove Activity Center, which opened in 2009.de on the scope of the project and the funding.
As difficult as that project, and perhaps a few others, may have been, the most heart-wrenching event in Ken’s whole career occurred shortly after his arrival with the tragic 2003 platform tennis accident in which a Member perished and three others were severely injured. “It was like someone had punched me in the stomach,” he said. However, he noted that in the face of this event that rocked the community, the community spirit and display of solidarity was overwhelming, and it was during the aftermath that he forged “significant” friendships.
The Balancing Act
Working and living in the same community has its drawbacks. One is never being “off duty.” It requires balance, and there are many necessary skills required to fulfill the general manager position. Among them are a sense of humor, a thick skin, and an ability to not take things personally. In order to maintain his neutrality during the planning of the renovation of The Center, Ken chose to unsubscribe from the unofficial Eastman listserv, an online chat room available only to ECA Members but independent of the association.
During his time managing the association, Ken waged a valiant battle with cancer. He believes that he never could have made it through the illness without the loving support from the community, the Board of Directors, and, of course, his family and friends. He received hundreds of cards, messages, and books from community members, and countless offers of food and transportation. The loving support of the community filled his heart and soul with the drive to, in his words, “beat the beast.”
There have been some pretty light-hearted incidents as well. Ken recalls getting a phone call three hours into a snowstorm asking if he knew it was snowing in Eastman. Requests for a jump-start for a dead auto battery, for capturing a bat or squirrel inside a Member’s home, or for dealing with a bear on a deck are not uncommon. And then there was the environmentally-conscious owner who brought him a half-dozen cigarette butts collected from the roadside and asked him to run a DNA check to determine who had been littering.
Ken turned 63 in April, but he punctuates that admission with, “As long as I’m having fun, I’ll continue to work. I love this job.” He and Leona dream of perhaps spending six months on the road in their RV and six months at home, and plenty of time to visit with his two daughters and six grandchildren in Maine.
When he is ready to leave his corner office in Eastman, there is no doubt that the flag will go with him.
Norah Peterson has contributed several articles to Eastman Living in recent years. She has been an Eastman resident for 39 years.