SURRY – Friends and neighbors said Tuesday they were shocked that former Hancock County Commissioner Vern Crockett – a licensed Maine Guide, educator and conservation activist – was the man who died Christmas Day when his snowmobile broke through ice on Lower Patten Pond.
Divers from the Maine Warden Service recovered Crockett’s body about 11 a.m. Tuesday from about 6 feet of water. Warden Lt. Pat Dorian said the ice was as thin as half an inch in places on the pond.
Divers worked from an airboat for less than an hour in freezing temperatures and blinding snow. Dorian said the Surry man likely died from hypothermia.
Crockett, 60, worked as an educator from the time he graduated from the University of Maine at Machias in 1963. After 14 years as a teacher and supervising teacher in the Woodland school system, Crockett was hired as assistant superintendent of Bucksport schools in 1977.
He was school superintendent in Bucksport from 1986 until his 1993 retirement. Soon after retirement, Crockett was elected a Hancock County commissioner.
Ralph Pinkham, Hancock County’s emergency management director, said he and Crockett had been friends for years and described Crockett as a man dedicated to his community. “He gave back a lot to the community,” Pinkham said. “He felt that he really was obligated to give something back to the community.”
Pinkham also said Crockett was known for his caution, a point that made his death seem particularly shocking. “This just comes as a great surprise to me,” Pinkham said. “He crossed every t and dotted every i.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Hancock County Sheriff William Clark, who said he forged a friendship with Crockett after Crockett was elected commissioner in 1994.
“The way he died was so out of character for him,” Clark said. Had he been with Crockett on Monday, the sheriff said, he would have trusted Crockett’s judgment and joined him on the ice. “Vern Crockett was a very savvy outdoorsman. He spent his life on that pond.”
Crockett grew up in Surry and graduated from Ellsworth High School in 1958. He lived in Orland during his years in the Bucksport school system, and moved to his Lower Patten Pond cottage in November 1998.
Dorian said Tuesday that Crockett left his cottage at 9 a.m. Monday – Christmas morning – for a short snowmobile ride. Crockett’s wife, Florence, began to worry when he didn’t immediately return and called a neighbor.
The neighbor followed Crockett’s snowmobile track onto the pond, but also broke through the ice. The man managed to return to shore and alert authorities, Dorian said.
Meanwhile, Crockett’s friends and former co-workers expressed disbelief at his death. All repeatedly highlighted his work with the community as a volunteer and as an elected official.
Ted Webersinn, Crockett’s friend and neighbor, said Crockett was a respected man who was admired by many. Webersinn said Crockett served as president of the Patten Ponds Environmental Group, an organization of about 40 residents working to conserve land surrounding both Upper and Lower Patten ponds.
Webersinn spoke shortly after standing on his dock to watch for the rescue workers who brought Crockett’s body back from the lake.
“I wanted to pay my last respects to him,” Webersinn said. “Everybody’s been hit real hard by this. He was well-known, well-liked and well-respected. I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about him.”
Marc Curtis, superintendent of the Bucksport school system, described Crockett as a caring professional who was devoted to education. “He was extremely meticulous in the way he went about things,” Curtis said.
Curtis said that while Crockett was involved in community affairs, he was known for working for the benefit of children. “He had a good relationship with his administrators and staff,” Curtis said, “and he put children first in his decision making.”
Curtis credited Crockett with “being instrumental” in design and construction of Bucksport’s Miles Lane Elementary School, as well as developing the school system’s special education program. Curtis also said Crockett was active in a local rod and gun club and was affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America.
Ralph Jewett, who was principal of Bucksport High School while Crockett was superintendent, described Crockett as a “great outdoor sportsman” whose first love was education. “I think his first interest was in the school business,” Jewett said.
“He was a very serious individual, with a little sense of humor,” Jewett said. Jewett added that Crockett enjoyed hunting, fishing, and boating and was a licensed Maine Guide.
Dennis Damon and Walter Bunker, both of whom served as commissioners with Crockett, said Tuesday they would miss their former colleague.
“As careful as he was about everything … it just doesn’t seem possible,” Bunker said.
Damon said simply that Crockett was “a class act … a true professional. He and I quickly became good friends. I missed him terribly when he left the commission, and now I will miss him even more.”
Michael Povich, Hancock County district attorney, spoke highly of Crockett’s life of public service. “He retired from the superintendent of schools a few years ago,” Povich said, “but he never retired from the community. He was committed.”
Povich also recognized Crockett’s role as a county commissioner, adding that he was a man of principle who “always worked for the good of something.”
“He spoke his mind, and he wasn’t afraid to take an adverse position,” Povich said. “There were times when we’d stare at each other, but it was never personal.”