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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Former mayor, founder of Nashua Airport to get his due

Dean Shalhoup

What if you were strolling along the shoreline one idyllic summer day in southern Maine, dipping your toes in the breaking waves, inhaling the fresh, salty air and wondering if life could get any better, when you suddenly hear a hum, then a buzzing sound, and look up to see a propeller-powered airplane rapidly descending toward the very spot on which you were standing?

You wouldn’t today, but once upon a time, that scenario played out regularly for the smattering of sunbathers frolicking in the sand and surf of Wells Beach, which is still a favorite vacation destination of more than a few Nashua area folks. ...

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What if you were strolling along the shoreline one idyllic summer day in southern Maine, dipping your toes in the breaking waves, inhaling the fresh, salty air and wondering if life could get any better, when you suddenly hear a hum, then a buzzing sound, and look up to see a propeller-powered airplane rapidly descending toward the very spot on which you were standing?

You wouldn’t today, but once upon a time, that scenario played out regularly for the smattering of sunbathers frolicking in the sand and surf of Wells Beach, which is still a favorite vacation destination of more than a few Nashua area folks.

While first-time spectators may have been a tad rattled at the sight of a tiny plane touching down on the sand, veteran observers simply waved to the pilot, the always well-dressed man they came to know as Alvin A. Lucier, a former mayor of Nashua and aviation enthusiast who thought nothing of loading his family into his instrument-less aircraft, buzzing them to the beach for the day, then returning home to carry out a full day of work before retrieving the family once evening fell.

Alvin Augusta Lucier was by all accounts a Renaissance man, a multitalented Nashua native who almost became a professional musician but decided on a law career. He went on to become Nashua’s 38th mayor, then a member of the Executive Council for Gov. Francis P. Murphy’s first term before heading the Nashua and New Hampshire Democratic parties and serving as a delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention.

Now, generations after Lucier made his mark on Nashua and state politics and six decades after his death, George Hickey has decided it’s high time to shine some light on his grandfather’s long list of accomplishments, many of which have gone largely unnoticed in the annals of city history.

What’s generally remembered is Lucier’s law career, his service as mayor, his penchant and talent for music, and a handful of initiatives he launched to better his hometown and his fellow residents.

What isn’t so well known, Hickey said this week, is the fact that the “handful” of initiatives actually numbers more than two dozen, most involving his knack for procuring federal and state funds for local projects that had the win-win component of adding industrial and commercial buildings to the city landscape and putting out-of-work Depression-era men back to work.

Among the most significant of Lucier’s accomplishments was his key role in obtaining state funding to add to a bit of leftover federal money to build an airfield that Nashua could call its own.

It’s with that in mind that Hickey spent months putting together a program to honor his grandfather with a plaque-placing ceremony next week on the grounds of the airport that has since expanded several times on the initial footprint Lucier outlined so many years ago.

“I wanted to get some recognition for the guy,” said Hickey, who was born four years after his grandfather’s death, and had to rely on history books and family lore to assemble a profile of the man.

Lucier, a two-term mayor elected in 1934 and inaugurated in a cold snap that reached minus 32 degrees, was chairman of the city Democratic Committee and served as county treasurer at the time. His lifelong love of flying, which earned him the nickname “Avid Aviator,” ramped up in earnest when he joined the World War I version of today’s Air Force.

Postwar, Lucier, who partnered with his father, Alvin J., as Lucier & Lucier law firm, soon formed the Nashua Aeronautics Committee and got involved with the New Hampshire Aeronautics Commission, Hickey said.

In the early 1920s, the future mayor threw himself into another kind of project, a community endeavor inspired by the famous Helen Keller’s appeal to a young international service club to become her “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”

Lucier and his friend Bill Hillman were among locals who stepped up in 1923, launching the club that would become the Nashua Lions Club. To this day, preventing blindness and aiding those affected by it remains a major component of Lions International.

At the same time, Lucier fed his passion for aeronautics by keeping a close eye on possible sites for an airport, an idea that was catching on as more and more people, mainly business types and well-to-do hobbyists, felt Nashua needed its own.

Plus, Hickey said, his grandfather was getting tired of having to drive to Dunstable, Mass., to depart and return from those Wells Beach trips.

Lucier even managed to find time for yet another of his passions: music. A violinist, he studied under Boston Symphony Orchestra members, then started the Nashua Community Concert Association, which he headed for 20 years.

The 1930s weren’t kind to much of America, but historians agree that Nashua did OK compared with other regions its size. In March 1935, first-term Mayor Lucier announced he had 23 projects either wrapping up or in the works, all of which were covered at least in part by federal or state funding.

The airport topped that list, but plenty of folks across town were benefiting from new sewage and drainage projects, the construction of beloved Holman Stadium, citywide road improvements and assorted other work.

Off Pine Hill Road, meanwhile, the few residents who walked or drove that far out of town noticed the area coming to life with workmen, and soon a $15,000 hangar rose on the landscape to accompany what reports called “a modern brick administration building.”

Creatively, thousands of bricks salvaged from the rubble of the 1930 Crown Hill Fire were trucked to the site and, as we’d say today, “repurposed” in the new building.

Later in 1935, months of behind-the-scenes work by Lucier and other city and airport officials paid off when the American Legion agreed to hold its annual convention in Nashua. It was the perfect time to showcase Nashua’s newest gem, and that’s what Lucier did.

He brought in his old pal Harry N. Atwood, the colorful barnstorming pilot and inventor of something called “duply,” a light, veneered plywood material with which he built inexpensive planes.

Atwood, a Greenville resident at the time, with the help of Lucier, his friend and attorney, tried to find a manufacturer who could build his plane en masse and would be willing to open a plant in Nashua. He caught the eye of the French and Heald furniture firm in Milford, but it didn’t work out.

Alas, as The Telegraph wrote at the time, Harry N. Atwood might have been the Henry Ford of flight had his plan become reality.

As for Lucier, what did become reality – albeit a decade after his death at age 56 in January 1953 – was his efforts lobbying the federal government to locate its planned Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center in Nashua.

It’s now officially the Patricia Clark Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, named in honor of a longtime official. But to longtime Nashuans, it’s still the FAA center.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).