Larry Mercier: Public Servant Admired by All

By MANDY LOCKE

For the first time in more than two decades, Larry Mercier is sleeping past 4:45 a.m. And as snow blanketed the Island Tuesday morning, Mr. Mercier watched through the window of his North street home instead of through the windshield of one of Edgartown's snowplow fleet.

Retirement is a big change for the veteran Edgartown highway superintendent, who stepped down from his post in early December.

"It's funny to have my wife beat me out of bed in the morning," Mr. Mercier said. Doris, his wife of 36 years, continues to work three days a week at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.

"But I kind of like it," he adds with his signature chuckle, confessing that his idea of sleeping in means resting until a quarter to six.

Mr. Mercier, affectionately known as "Merc" by his comrades in Edgartown, took advantage of early retirement incentives in December, a program which pushed the long-term employees' pension earnings to peak levels.

No one begrudges the 62-year-old Edgartown native his well-earned rest and relaxation, but nearly everyone feels his absence. Town employees and officials now stop short in the oft-repeated refrain, "I don't know. Let's call Merc." Sometimes, they call him anyway, knowing he'll have a ready answer or, at the very least, a resolute opinion.

"I think I'll miss the camaraderie. I'll miss the action - knowing what's going on," Mr. Mercier said, noting that he has no intentions of dropping out of the Friday morning breakfast club - a 15-year tradition of a handful of town fathers talking politics over a cup of joe and a plate of eggs.

"The only rule is we don't agree on anything. When you get up and walk away from the table, you forget it. That's politics. You win some, and you lose some," he said.

Mr. Mercier knows the game well. In a lifetime spent entirely within the town of his birth, he's served on nearly every town board, from selectmen to planning, from assessors to the refuse district. He's dealt with everything from beach nudity to the town's acquisition of Katama Farm.

"I've been around long enough to see a lot," he said with wide eyes that suggest a mind busily editing a stock of memories, picking only those appropriate to share.

Mr. Mercier is the town's signature "go to" guy. Nearly everyone has a story about the public servant. Most of the tales begin with, "We had this mess." Most end with, "It's now on track."

"When you stick around too long, everyone has a story about you. I just hope they are good ones," Mr. Mercier said.

Mr. Mercier's tenure as highway superintendent is not about a single project or moment. His reputation as one of Edgartown's finest is built on a consistency and diligence that rarely made headlines.

Mr. Mercier and his highway department crew preserved the town's picture postcard fa├žade and reputation as a well-run government. Cigarette butts rarely lingered into summer mornings following nightly partying through the downtown streets of Edgartown. Trash cans offered enough space for the tourists' coffee cup. Pebbles of salt dribbled across downtown sidewalks, melting the ice of winter storm. Potholes seldom lasted beyond a rough winter season.

"I can't say enough about the good help I had. We didn't have any trouble," Mr. Mercier said, noting that the most dreaded task of his job was calling his crew at 2 a.m. to start plowing the streets.

Mr. Mercier's votes of confidence came each April when he stood before Edgartown residents to request funding for a new piece of equipment or paving project. Voters seldom rejected Mr. Mercier's requests.

"There were only a few instances in which I didn't get what I needed. The town stuck with us through it all," said Mr. Mercier, who trimmed the department from nine employees in 1982 to a crew of seven. Three of those employees, whose tenures nearly spanned two decades, retired with Mr. Mercier in December.

Mr. Mercier stepped into the town post in 1982 at the urging of friend and fellow town leader Fred B. Morgan Jr., who asked Mr. Mercier to help straighten out the highway department. He imagined the favor to take a year at most.

"I had been working as a general contractor at Galley's. The salary at the highway department was just $15,000, half of what I was making. It was only supposed to take a year. Somehow, one year turned into 21. They kept upping the pay, and I kept staying," he said.

He brought to the job the management skills and organization honed during his ownership of the Chappaquiddick ferry and two Island grocery stories. He also drew on a six-month heavy equipment course he and a buddy traveled to North Carolina to take after his graduation from high school.

"I tucked all of that stuff away. I'm sort of a jack of all trades. Not good at any of it, but I know enough to get by," he said with a laugh, pointing to his home's window casing, which he completed himself two years ago when he couldn't find a carpenter.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Mercier volunteered to pick up another title for the town. As tree warden, Mr. Mercier saved Edgartown nearly $100,000 over the years, funds that would have been funneled into insurance benefits and workers' compensation for another employee.

"I've loved what I've done. I've been lucky to do things I enjoyed. I never woke up not wanting to go to work," he said.

Mr. Mercier insists he's content at home, though he knows that soon enough he'll find a summer job to fill his days during the warmer months.

But for now, the self-declared "creature of habit" busies himself tinkering with projects in his basement workshop, which incidentally is tidier than most folks' living rooms, a habit he learned during his days in the grocery business. Antique Island milk bottles and old Coca-Cola bottles line the shelves of his shop. Turn of the century copies of the Martha's Vineyard Herald and the Cottage City Star fill cabinet drawers the retired superintendent rescued from the town dump. A box of town reports dating back to 1900 sits near a 1950s grocery store cash register.

And just the moment one might think this Edgartown resident is frozen in an era long past, his palm pilot and laptop slip into view. Mr. Mercier, who still sits on the board of assessors and the refuse district committee, has a habit of showing up at meetings with a pile of research he's pulled from the world wide web.

While he's retired from his day job, he's not entirely stepping out of public service. Mr. Mercier has a few paperwork matters he wants to teach his protege, Stuart Fuller. And certainly, he admits, he'll be on hand to offer his two cents.

"I look forward to sitting on the sidelines and telling everyone else what they ought to be doing," Mr. Mercier said with a laugh.