July 1, 2013

Small towns have a special way of honoring their own.  You can always tell if it’s the real thing – not a  thinly disguised fundraiser or obligatory testimonial.

The invitation is usually informal, mostly by word of mouth.  A lot of people pitch in with food, drink and setting up, without having their arms twisted.  Trying to keep it a secret from the guest of honor is absolutely fruitless, but, so as not to cause panic, the event is downplayed as “just a few friends getting together.”  Finally, scads of people show up and have a helluva good time, including the guest of honor.

So it was in Washington Depot the other evening as some 250 townspeople gathered at the pavilion near the ball field to congratulate Barbara Johnson on her retirement from Town Hall.

What really stood out on this occasion was the genuine affection people had for someone who, for the past 34 years, held the job of – are you ready? – town assessor.

Few municipal employees are as maligned as assessors.  They are the ones who have the effrontery to tell homeowners what their property is worth, thus determining how much they must pay in local taxes.  Even the tax collector is less subject to public rebuke.

Barbara got her share, of course, especially in a community with more than enough lawyered-up weekenders who know a thing or two about the price of property.  But it’s very difficult to stay angry for long at a white-haired lady of impeccable grace and an angelic smile – especially when she was usually right.

One reason she was so often right about such things as unreported outbuildings is that she is an inveterate walker, personally acquainted with most roads in town and the properties that abut them.  This pastime had a residual benefit of keeping the assessor remarkably fit into her 80s.  Barbara also knows about a lot of local skeletons, and although she may not have revealed them, a mere encounter with that glint in her eye could be enough to stop frivolous complaints.

Anyone familiar with the culture inside Bryan Memorial Town Hall also knows that when  Barbara was under siege, there were only two options: (1) Hide or (2) Come to her defense.

As a measure of Barbara’s stature within her own profession, six other assessors from around Litchfield County came to the party to say how much she would be missed. So did former State Sen. Andrew Roraback, who, as a newly appointed superior court judge, wasn’t going to get any votes out of it.

The attendee who probably deserved the Medal for Bravery that day was Delisse Locher of Morris, Barbara’s successor.  Nevertheless, people were cordial.

– GAK