Watch a video interview with Ellen Harde here. The town moderator recalls her most memorable experiences presiding over Town Meeting.
The Millennials who grew up in Westford have never known a town moderator other than Ellen Harde. But when the May town-wide election rolls around, Harde will hand her Town Meeting gavel to someone else.
The moderator announced this month that she is not seeking re-election. Harde was first elected in 1993 and has presided over every town meeting ever since, running unopposed since 1996.
Her first experience moderating the annual meeting came in 1992, when Bill Kavanagh, then town moderator, asked her to fill in for him. The March 25 annual Town Meeting will mark the 25th time she will have presided over the meeting.
It’s no wonder Kavanagh turned to Harde. She’d been filling in and helping out ever since arriving in Westford. Harde’s contributions to the town include hours of service helping to beautify the town Common as a member of the Town Common Restoration Project, launched in 1975. Years later, in 2010 when she was named Westford Kiwanis “person of the year,” the local newspaper scheduled a photo shoot of her in the Common. Harde showed up in an oversized tailored shirt, work pants and boots, carrying a hoe and pail. She had come to work.
Harde and her husband Mike moved to Westford in 1967, purchasing their first house on Lincoln Street across from the Common where they raised their two sons, Christopher and Joshua.
“We kept going west until we found a house we could afford,” she said. “We just followed the train tracks.”
Harde said the realtor took them to Westford and showed them a vacant house.
“We just knew this house facing Westford Common felt right,” she said. “We were going to stay here a few years until we could afford to live closer to Boston, and we never saw any reason to leave.”
It was mutually beneficial.
As soon as she and Mike settled, Harde’s leadership skills kicked in.
She helped start the Westford League of Women Voters. A few years later in 1972 she was elected to the Board of Selectmen, but left the seat before her term was up. She was the first woman to be elected to the board and the other four were not supportive, she said.
“…They just didn’t know what to do with a woman,” she said. “I wanted to make changes and they didn’t want to make changes. I took the hint.”
At the age of 27 in 1974, she resigned.
“I realized you don’t have to be a selectman to make changes,” she said, pointing to the community center she helped found.
“That was much more satisfying,” she said.
Harde was part of a small group of volunteers who founded the Roudenbush Community Center in 1973 and some 42 years later would be recognized as its “person of the year.”
In 1975 she edited the first Westford Directory, a spiral-bound book of phone numbers and addresses that gave order and context to the town. She’s written three history books on Westford and helped to found the town’s Recycling Commission in 1985.
In 1997, she and Mike purchased 39 Main St., the 1876 Allan Cameron house. They occupied it in 1998 and have kept the home’s historic integrity intact.
In 2005, through her work on the Westford Land Preservation Foundation, Harde helped preserve a 287-acre parcel known as “East Boston Camps” which was purchased by the town with Community Preservation Act funds and borrowed money.
She presided over the special Town Meeting when voters approved the purchase.
“The moment I said…this motion passes unanimously…nobody said anything for several seconds. It was just dead silence…I will never forget that moment,” she said.
In 2008, she spearheaded a fundraising effort that covered the cost of building an historic replica of a bandstand in the Common.
Harde’s latest venture has led her to become a landlord. In April she and Mike purchased the six-unit historic building across from their current home. The mixed use building includes a storefront. Historically, the Wright & Fletcher Store was one of only three retail outlets permitted in the town center. Harde helped her next door neighbor, baker Pam Sulka, to launch “Muffins on Main,” a breakfast nook offering muffins and coffee inside the store. The eatery opened its doors in December.
“I find I like helping more than I expected,” said Harde.
It’s no surprise that someone whose life has been all about helping, has found a new cause.
Follow Joyce Pellino Crane on Twitter @joypellinocrane.