By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
White River Junction — As downtown bustled on Saturday, with Glory Days in one corner, the Main Street Museum’s Bizarre Bazaar in another, and the block humming with pedestrians, the bench in front of the yarn shop often sat empty.
It was a favorite seat of Lewis Lahaye — better known as Louie — a reliable sight in White River Junction who could often be found wearing his signature beanie and sunglasses and who was known for his ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. An Upper Valley native and resident of the Vermonter Hotel downtown, his friendliness earned him the nickname the “Mayor of Hartford.”
“He was the town’s grandfather, pretty much,” said village resident Graham Robinson, 32. “Everybody loved him.”
Another resident, Jason Merchant, 33, said he could count on finding Lahaye around town. “He always says hi to me,” Merchant said. “I just know he’s a nice guy.”
Lahaye died last week, at least in his late 70s, following a hospitalization, said longtime friend and White River Junction resident Jeffrey Libbey, the assistant fire chief in Lebanon. Libbey, 48, knew Lahaye since childhood, when Lahaye would cheer him on in Little League.
“I think for Louie it was the ability to strike up a conversation with anybody that was walking on the sidewalk,” Libbey said. “It’s just that realization of how much he actually touched people within the Upper Valley — it doesn’t have to be White River Junction, it could have been at Wal-Mart or Price Chopper or (Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center), or wherever it was that he went to have a cup of coffee. He just had that ability to stop and talk to people and gave them time, and I think that was one of the greatest things that he was able to do.”
As news of Lahaye’s passing spread downtown Saturday morning, residents and workers fondly remembered Lahaye, either by face or by name, as part of the fabric of White River Junction, and the latest in a string of regular faces lost to old age.
“He would always tell me to drive slow, that’s one I liked from him,” recalled Chris McKinley, 59, an Amtrak volunteer who lives downtown. McKinley said he would pick Lahaye’s brain for historical knowledge about the railroad, “which he was pretty good about,” and that Lahaye, a frequent Advance Transit rider, would make new friendships on his travels, as well.
“He could strike up a conversation on almost any subject you want,” McKinley said.
Kim Souza, who founded the Revolution clothing store in 2002, said her friendship with Lahaye was a happy “good morning” and some chit-chat here and there before moving on to the tasks of the day; emblematic of the small-town relationships repeated throughout White River.
“Louie was a perfect example of how genuine this community is in White River,” she said. “He was just part of the community.”
Libbey said Lahaye lived nearly his whole life, save for time in the Army, in the Upper Valley, working at such bygone institutions as the White River Paper company and Polka Dot Restaurant, among others. The two reconnected about four years ago when Libbey was downtown and Lahaye, as he so often did, struck up a conversation.
“From that moment on, every day, even Sundays, we would meet and have coffee every morning,” Libbey said.
They were part of an early crew that the Tuckerbox could count on, barista Scott Brown said.
“(Lahaye) came in so much that I would have a regular coffee to-go cup ready before we even opened, because he was the first one in in the morning at 7 a.m.,” Brown said.
Reid Kotlas, who also works at Tuckerbox, said Lahaye was the first person Kotlas saw every day for years, and even though their relationship was not “substantial … in certain respects,” Lahaye had an ability to “make me feel welcome, like this was his town.
“He just kind of exuded this ‘glad that you’re here’ type of feeling,” Kotlas said.
They could also count on Lahaye for some conversation, sometimes in the form of gentle teasing: One of the last times that Brown saw Lahaye, Brown said, Lahaye asked when Brown was going to shave his face. Developer and filmmaker Matt Bucy, a former Hartford selectman, said Lahaye’s normal “salutations” in the morning were a good-hearted “get to work” or “get a job.”
“He’s just one of those people; he was part of the town,” Bucy said. “He’s also just very friendly and just had funny things to say.”
Lahaye, Bucy said, was like a “classic Vermonter” — despite being born and raised in Lebanon — in that he was an independent thinker, generally holding conservative viewpoints on the topics of the day but sometimes surprising Bucy with “very liberal” ideas.
“He thinks for himself,” Bucy said.
Raised among 10 siblings in Lebanon, Lahaye loved to talk about his large family and to listen to other people about theirs, Libbey said. Family was often the launching point for a broader conversation, as Lahaye would tell people he was born on a farm “up over that mountain,” referring to Lebanon land now occupied by the hospital.
“He was always so proud of his family and he always talked about his family, which would lead to other discussions that would go on,” Libbey said.
Mary Shatney, owner of the now closed Polka Dot, said she and Lahaye were longtime friends. She met Lahaye when he was working at the former Junior Barbers in West Lebanon, and he turned out to be one of the more gregarious people she’d ever met.
“He knows everybody, their brothers and mothers and cousins and whatever. He was just that type of person, an outgoing person,” Shatney said. “He used to walk up to strangers and talk to them, you know what I mean. He was that outgoing.”
Kotlas, of Tuckerbox, said he was often awestruck by Lahaye’s ability to forge fast connections with strangers.
“To just look at him, you wouldn’t necessarily think this is somebody that you want to talk to … this grizzled old man in a fatigue coat and sunglasses,” Kotlas said. “But just watching him talk to people that he’s never met, and watching them respond and watching them smile, (they would) suddenly start talking to him like they’re talking to someone they’ve been talking to their whole life.”
Souza said community glue like Lahaye have kept White River Junction special through its revitalization, which she said succeeds because of the mix of people in the village — old school and new school, and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I think one of the reasons that they blend well together is one of the things we all have in common is this appreciation for quality of life that we’re all trying to cultivate,” Souza said. “We all really appreciate that general sense of community.”
Bucy said he expects the village will always have a mix of backgrounds because of the railroad coming through, and said Lahaye was excited about the future for White River.
“He was pretty positive about all the changes happening, he didn’t see it as a problem,” Bucy said. “I don’t fear for White River and I don’t think Louie did either.”
Online, Bucy shared a photograph of a “last coffee” that Libbey bought for Lahaye at the Tuckerbox Saturday morning, with an anecdote about an alarm going off at the restaurant a few months earlier.
Everyone left the restaurant except for Lahaye, Bucy said, who sat “calmly with his coffee … and looked at us all standing outside in amusement.
“He shrugged his shoulders when we came back in,” Bucy recalled. “ ‘What’s the big deal?’ he offered, and smiled.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.