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8/13/2014 2:00:00 PM
Wiscasset Man Celebrates Life With His Friends

By Charlotte Boynton

Westport Island First Selectman George Richardson (left) chats with Bill Phinney and his daughter Jodi during a gathering of Phinney's friends at the Wiscasset Yacht Club Sunday, Aug. 10. (Charlotte Boynton photo)
Westport Island First Selectman George Richardson (left) chats with Bill Phinney and his daughter Jodi during a gathering of Phinney's friends at the Wiscasset Yacht Club Sunday, Aug. 10. (Charlotte Boynton photo)
Prominent Wiscasset resident and business owner Bill Phinney and his dog Hobson welcomed nearly 200 invited friends to a special celebration at the Wiscasset Yacht Club Sunday, Aug. 10. It was a celebration of his life as well as a celebration of his many close friends.

On May 10, 2013, Phinney was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a precursor to leukemia. He was given six months to live without treatment. After five months of chemotherapy, a donor stem cell transplant in November 2013, and a long winter in quarantine, it looked like he had beaten the disease.

However, his last bone marrow tests, from just over a month ago, showed the cancer blast cells in his bones have increased above a level that is treatable, and he now has acute leukemia.

Phinney, holding a microphone on the back deck of the yacht club to allow his many friends gathered along the waterfront to hear him, said, "I celebrate each of you today."

Many stories were told about Phinney, with him telling some of his own. Phinney told his friends he was born in Orange, N.J., and celebrated his 65th birthday Aug. 6.

His family moved to Arrowsic when he was very young and he attended a one-room schoolhouse there. "I was lucky," Phinney said. "My dad was on the school board, and he had the two-holer removed and a real toilet put in while I was there."

"At the age of 16, I was a very responsible young man, and had gained the respect and trust of my parents. I was working and decided to take a trip to Boston," Phinney said.

While in Boston, he came upon a large gathering. Not knowing what the event was, he became courageous and noticed empty seats in front reserved for the media. "Before I knew it, I was singing 'We shall Overcome' with Martin Luther King," he said. He had found himself in the middle of a civil rights rally.

A childhood friend, Jeff Peavey, said he first met Phinney in the fifth grade when the Phinney family moved to Bath. He said he had invited Phinney over for a sleepover on a Saturday night. On Sunday morning, Peavey had to get up around 4:30 a.m. to deliver the Sunday Telegram.

"When we got back from delivering papers, my mother began to fix us breakfast and Bill presented her a beautiful, hand-picked bouquet of flowers," Peavey said. "My mother was very pleased, but disturbed they were stolen from the Sunday Telegram customers on my paper route. Bill told her they were not stolen, they were selectively pruned."

Peavey also told about Phinney walking down the aisle at his wedding behind the bride and the father of the bride because he was late getting there. "He didn't make it to the rehearsal dinner, the night before, or the morning breakfast. We wondered where he was. He made his grand entrance just behind the bride," Peavey said.

The Phinney family takes a break during a special gathering of their friends this past weekend. From left: Jo Oliver, Bill Phinney, and daughters Jodi and Tasha. (Charlotte Boynton photo)
The Phinney family takes a break during a special gathering of their friends this past weekend. From left: Jo Oliver, Bill Phinney, and daughters Jodi and Tasha. (Charlotte Boynton photo)
Cindy Gagnon, co-owner of Red's Eats, spoke of Phinney as a friend of the family for many years and about his skill in saving the 150-plus-year-old Siberian elm that serves as a living umbrella over Red's Eats. "You preserved the roots of that tree so it can go on living for hundreds of more years," she said.

Phinney is well-known for his site planning and landscape design business. Many of his customers are also his friends, and several attested to his work at the gathering.

Dr. Philip George, of Isleboro and Coral Gables, Fla., said the work Phinney did on his property will live on forever. "We love what you did and we love you," George told Phinney.

Kurt Swanson referred to many of Phinney's friends as flyover victims. Phinney would hire a pilot and fly over different properties, and would either send them or appear on their property with plans to redesign their landscape. "Most of the time he was able to win you over," Swanson said.

"His work was not cheap, but worth every penny," one flyover victim said.

Donna Waterman said, "I have never had to write a check for Bill, but I remember he has always been there for me. I also remember him walking the sheep from White's Island, after the town told him they could not stay there."

Lincoln County Historical Association President Ed Kavanagh told how Phinney had collected pictures and history for Wiscasset's Museum in the Streets. He said when he and Phinney were going through old photos of the late Jane Tucker, "We were like two 12-year-old boys that had found their father's girly magazines, we were so excited."

Other friends that spoke included John Reinhardt, of Wiscasset, who said, "When Bill Phinney's name is mentioned in Augusta, they shake." John Blagdon congratulated Phinney for having the two best daughters any man could have, Jodi and Tasha.

Wiscasset resident Susan Rankin sang two songs to Phinney, a 1934 Cole Porter song, "You're the Top," and "They All Laughed," composed by George Gershwin for the 1937 film "Shall We Dance." Rankin said Phinney talked her into writing the history for 32 kiosks for the Museum in the Streets project.

Phinney's career in site planning and landscaping projects will be a lasting living memorial to him, as several of his friends expressed in their comments. Phinney spoke about his work on Bath's Waterfront Park in 1975. "That is already 39 years old, and it's going to live on in perpetuity. That is neat," he said.

Phinney's résumé also includes work at the North Haven estate of Thomas Watson Jr., chairman of the IBM board and U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union; creating a six-home farm village in Princeton, N.Y., a two-year project; and landscaping improvements to Wayside in Saint Andrews, Scotland.

He brought the swans of Lee Street Pond, Sir Christopher and Queen Isabella, to Wiscasset for the public to enjoy for 23 years.

Phinney has been known to support the town on many of its projects, as well as oppose the town on some of its decisions. Phinney is known to be a strong supporter of what he believes to be right for the town, or a strong opponent if he believes something is not good for the town.

Phinney has been the owner of White's Island since 2002 and was not a supporter of Dragon Cement taking over Mason Station, just across from his island.

In one week's time, he personally advertised and called a meeting at the Wiscasset High School gym to discuss the environmental liabilities of 200-foot barges in the harbor and hundreds of rail cars from Thomaston to Wiscasset.

Phinney said in two weeks, the parent company in Spain pulled its planning board application and walked away.

He said he hounded the town manager for a month for the development of a capital improvement plan in the town budget, and is thankful the town now has such a plan. He often attended the town selectmen's meetings and expressed his opinion on many different topics over the years.

Now in the fight of his life, he said, "I am comfortable with interim chemotherapy while it helps. I am grateful for all of what my life has been - my two incredible daughters, fascinating people that opened many doors with me, landscaping projects that will live forever. Out of this challenge comes new opportunities, no matter what happens."

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