Getting to know the China town manager

China Town Manager Dennis Heath, left, and wife Mary, at their new home on the Cross Road, in China. (Photos by Eric Austin)

An exclusive interview

by Eric W. Austin

“God and country” is a phrase that neatly sums up Dennis Heath, China’s new town manager. In an extensive three-hour interview on Friday, August 3, he told me of his life before Maine, including his family, a storied military career spanning nearly three decades, a 14-year stint as the full-time pastor of a small Baptist church, and his previous position as part-time city administrator for the town of Stonewall, Oklahoma.

“I come from a military family,” Heath explained. “My father was a career Air Force guy. My uncle was a career Air Force guy. My entire family has a military background going all the way back to the Civil War.”

Heath’s own military service began at age 17. It was 1978. The Vietnam War had ended only a few years before. At the time, he’d just finished high school where he was part of the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and was working as the manager for two Dino’s Pizza joints in Sky Lake and Oak Ridge, an area of Florida just south of Orlando.

Shortly after enlisting, young Dennis was sent to Keesler Air Force Base, in Biloxi, Mississippi, for technical training.

It was here that he met his future wife, Mary, who had just finished basic training herself, and was working as an administrative specialist for the Air National Guard.

Heath described their first encounter, in the airbase day-room: “I walk in the door. I notice the head of a girl, watching the television. All I can see is the top of her head. There’s this glow around her, and I hear an inaudible voice that says, ‘That’s your wife.’”

By the end of that night’s shift, Mary had asked him out for a date. She took him bowling. And she paid. Young Dennis knew the voice was right: he had found his partner for life.

After six weeks of dating, Heath popped the question. They were eating dinner. “She spit out her salad,” Heath told me with a chuckle. A month later they were married. Heath was 18. Mary had just turned 21.

“Our first assignment was out of the country, to Germany. And to this day, she’ll tell you it was the greatest thing to have occurred, because it got us both away from our families. We couldn’t run, and we had to get along. We had to grow up. And we did.”

Children were not far behind. Their oldest son, Joshua, was born in Germany in 1980. Four years later, James was born in Italy. “Matter of fact,” Heath recalled, “he was born in the same hospital as [famous Italian actress] Sophia Loren.”

The couple’s only daughter, Linda — short for Lindita – was born nine months before James, but her inclusion in the Heath family was a bit more complicated.

Born to Albanian parents in Kosovo, Linda’s birth-family fled the country for Germany in the early 1990s, during the Bosnian genocide, committed by Serbian forces against the ethnic Muslims of the region.

The Heaths got to know the then six-year-old Linda and her family during their second assignment to Germany. Fearing for her safety if they ever returned to Kosovo, Linda’s parents asked the Heaths to adopt her. Initially, the Heaths declined, as they were nearing the end of their time in Germany.

However, the Heaths stayed in touch with the girl and her family, and when they returned to Germany in 1999, Linda’s parents approached them again about adopting the girl, who was now 15. This time the Heaths accepted.

Even then, the adoption almost didn’t happen. According to U.S. law, a child adopted overseas by American parents must be under 16 to be eligible for immigration to the United States. By the time the adoption process was completed, it was two months after Linda’s sixteenth birthday, and she was no longer eligible for immigration. It would take a four-star general, pulling strings, and a U.S. Senator, who got a law passed allowing a special exception in her case, before they could bring her back to the States.

With Linda’s adoption, the Heath family was now complete.

After 25 years of military service, with assignments in Germany, Italy, Central America, as well as stints in states like Virginia and Florida, Dennis Heath retired from the service in 2003 and settled his growing family in Oklahoma. But even in retirement, Heath stayed busy, serving as a full-time pastor for a small Baptist church and, at the request of the city’s mayor, also taking a part-time position as city administrator for Stonewall, Oklahoma, while also doing consulting work at the local municipal airport.

So, what pulled Dennis and Mary Heath out of the southern Midwest and up to a small town in central Maine? Like many people at their stage in life, it involved grandchildren.

Two years ago, both of the Heath’s sons, together with their wives and five children, decided to move to Maine. They jointly purchased a large house just south of Farmington.

After that, Heath explained, “Mary said to me, ‘We’ve got to move to Maine!’”

Dennis Heath was sworn-in as China’s town manager on May 11, and spent the month of June co-managing with his predecessor, Dan L’Heureux.

What has kept the new town manager busy in the two months since? “I’ve spent a lot of time on money,” he told me. “Becoming familiar with the finances, getting my arms around the budget; making sure we’re ready for the tax commitment that’s coming up.”

He’s also been getting to know the residents of China. “I’ve been doing a lot of meeting people. Listening to people.” And he wants you to know he can take criticism. “I’ve developed thick skin because of [my time in the military],” he said. “People can chew me out on the phone and that’s okay.”

He also seems pleased with the town office staff. “I adore the staff,” he said. “The staff here is great!”

This next year will be a testing period for the new town manager. The first phase of the causeway project at the north end of China Lake is to be completed next month, and phase 2 of the project, which involves replacing the boat ramp, adding additional parking, lighting and new sidewalks along Causeway Road, still has a number of hurdles to navigate before it can move forward.

The other major projects he’s looking at include the building of a new community center for the residents of China, and possibly constructing a new consolidated emergency services building that would house the Volunteer Fire Department, and serve as a station house for local police and ambulance services.

Dennis and Mary Heath in front of their new home in China.

All in all, the Heaths seem to be settling in comfortably. They closed on a new house, just north of the town office, a few weeks ago, and are currently searching for a new church to call home. So far, they’ve visited the Church of the Nazarene on Route 3, the Manchester Community Church, and China Baptist.

Although Heath is not interested in taking up the mantle of pastor right now, he’s not planning to “church-hop” forever either.

“I’m not one of those people who enjoys church-hopping,” he said. “I’ve consistently said, you need to find a place where you fit in, and stay. We’re going to find a group of people that I think we fit well with and that’s where we’re going to go. And we’re going to stay there for the time we’re here, for however long we’re here.”

In response to a critical article that appeared recently in the Central Maine newspapers, Heath emphasized that he has no interest in being part of a group like the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, which is known nationally for its use of incendiary speech against the LGBT community, the religion of Islam, and other minority groups. “That is one of the things I am particularly sensitive to,” he said. “I do not want to be part of a group that is out embarrassing the Church by its activities.”

He added, “Emily [Higginbotham, of Central Maine newspapers], was pretty clear in what she wrote that she wanted to paint the picture that I was anti-Muslim, that I was anti-gay, that I was anti-this, that, and the other. I think the point I was trying to make with her is that I have these biblical views about conduct, but I don’t take those views about conduct into the way that I deal with people.”

Whether they will fit in with the rest of us crazy Mainers, only time will tell, but the Heaths are determined to make a new home here in China, Maine.

Eric W. Austin writes about technology and community issues. He can be reached by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

 
 

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