A Life: Gordon Gillens could ‘talk to a child and he could stand up to the bully’

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 04-16-2023 6:05 PM

PLAINFIELD — When Plainfield voters at Town Meeting approved a proposal to establish a police department in 1975, resident Steve Taylor, who supported the idea, remembers the words of the first chief, Terry Kelley.

“He said, ‘Being police chief in Plainfield is about 80% social work and 20% police work,’ ” Taylor recalled.

The approach suited the community of roughly 2,400 residents well. But when Kelley left after just three years, the chief’s position became a bit of a revolving door. In 1985, the Selectboard hired Gordon Gillens, an officer in Windsor, Vt., who saw his role similar to that expressed by Kelley.

“He carried on that tradition: a lot of social work and a little law enforcement,” Taylor said.

Gillens, who died unexpectedly on Jan. 17 at age 77, served as Plainfield’s chief for 25 years. During that time, he earned the respect and admiration from the community and his colleagues in law enforcement.

Upon his retirement in 2010, Plainfield’s police station was named in his honor.

Gillens’ approach to policing of getting to know people and their stories endeared him to residents, said Taylor, a former Selectboard member. “He was the cop on the beat of yore, where they know the people and the people trust and respect him,” Taylor said. “He was interested in people’s stories. He knew his people, and he knew his town.”

 Gillens was always ready to help, regardless of the situation, resident Bonnie Swift. “That was an old-fashioned approach to policing,” she said.

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Though modest and low-key, Gillens, a Vietnam combat veteran, didn’t back down when the situation called for it.

“He could stoop down and talk to a child, and he could stand up to the bully,” longtime Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway said. “Gordon was reserved. He had a nice way about him, but he also had steel.”

Current Selectboard member and former New Hampshire State Police trooper Eric Brann said his colleague and close friend brought a unique combination of personality skills to law enforcement.

“Gordon was quiet and, I can say from personal experience, a very courageous man who was not easily intimidated when it came to high-level calls,” Brann said. “He was a no-nonsense, courageous individual.”

The restrained approach to police work was precisely what Plainfield needed in 2007, when anti-government tax protesters Ed and Elaine Brown holed up in their Center of Town Road home, taunting authorities at times to try to take them by force.

“That could have been very nasty in the end, like Randy Weaver,” Swift said, referring to the 1992 incident in Idaho when Weaver’s son and wife were shot to death by federal authorities.

After a nine-month standoff, the Browns were arrested without incident in October 2007.

“Those were the kind of things Gordon was uniquely qualified to deal with,” Hathaway said. “He had the strength of character and the will to do the right thing, and he had the demeanor and good judgment not to create problems that didn’t need to be created.”

Larry Dore, a Plainfield police officer at the time, said Gillens provided a steady hand throughout the ordeal.

“He kept everything calm and on an even keel,” Dore said. “He was trying to keep the neighborhood calm and the town calm, and I think he did a very good job of it.”

For his professionalism in handling the Browns, Gillens was awarded the federal Law Enforcement Officer of the Year for his “outstanding assistance to the missions of the United States Marshals Service” in 2007. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice presented him with The Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award.

Town Administrator Steve Halleran called the Brown standoff the best example of outstanding police work, keeping the town safe and treating the Browns with respect the entire time.

“Gordon never wavered from his highly visible community policing approach, and in the end the Browns were brought to justice and no one was hurt,” Halleran said during a memorial service held for Gillens on Saturday. “Rather than being an incident that would follow Plainfield for decades, the entire mess was cleaned up and is nothing more than a footnote in our history.”

Years later, Gillens reflected on how the community responded and helped him do his job during that difficult time.

“The people in town were fantastic and the support they gave me and the department,” Gillens said, calling the Brown saga the only “bad spot” in his 25 years in Plainfield.

Gillens was raised on a dairy farm owned by his grandfather in West Canaan. His father worked in a woolen mill and helped out on the farm.

“He went to work at an early age,” Gillens’ wife, Sarah, said. “He remembers driving big loads of hay when his feet could barely touch the pedals, and he did not have a license.”

The family also harvested Christmas trees. “He and his brother got a nickel each for every tree they dragged out of the woods,” Sarah said.

After high school – Gillens was in the first graduating class of Mascoma Valley Regional High School – he joined the Marines.

“He was in one terrible battle where they sent guys out to an open field and they were just mowed down,” Taylor said, relating Gillens’ recollection of his war experience. “Their unit had some 70% casualties.”

Upon his return in 1968, Gillens bounced around a few construction jobs, but they did not pay well. He turned to law enforcement and took a job with the Windsor Police Department. He stayed there for 14 years before Plainfield came calling.

Years later, Gillens admitted he was thinking that Plainfield would be a brief stop on his way to a larger department, but the community became his close friend.

“The people got to me,” Gillens said in a Valley News interview shortly before his retirement. “This is a community where people stay together forever.”

Halleran called Gillens “a parent to us all” who would be the first on the scene when there was an injury or maybe when someone was going through a rough time after the loss of a loved one.

“If Gordon didn’t invent the term community policing, he sure made it the backbone of his department long before it was the buzzword of the day,” Halleran said.

In an oral history interview in 2018, Gillens said Plainfield police responded to calls that most departments couldn’t do or didn’t have the time.

When someone’s pets or livestock got loose, Gillens would go out and search. He heard from frantic travelers worried they left an appliance on at home, and in fact one lady did leave her iron on.

“I would have them tell me where the spare key was and check the house,” Gillens said in the oral history. “I got to know all the people, their pets and livestock.”

Swift, who moved to Plainfield with her husband, Clint, two years after Gillens was hired, said he never presented himself as someone in a position of authority with powers to arrest and more.

“You always thought you were talking to a friend when you spoke with Gordon,” she said. “He looked at his role as a peacekeeper rather than an enforcer. He was always willing to help, no matter the situation.”

Gillens had an effective, but not necessarily typical, way of handling juveniles by “helping teach our adolescents where the social and legal lines were that could, and could not, be crossed without penalty,” Halleran said.

In the oral history interview, Gillens said when youngsters were caught making bad choices, he would try to reach an agreement, sometimes with the parents, to do some community work and right a wrong.

“We had very few serious juvenile cases,” Gillens said. “I got along well with them. The ones I unofficially counseled would ask, ‘You won’t tell Mom and Dad?’ And I would say, ‘No, but the next time we will,’ and that was the end of it.”

Sarah said her husband was good at assessing situations with young men and women, and it pleased him when years later they would show him their new vehicle or new baby and talk about their job.

For years, Gillens and Dore were the only two officers in town, and yet they provided 24/7 coverage, Brann said. “They never complained about it either,” Brann said. “It was amazing.”

Gillens also was respected for his frugal approach to running the department, rarely asking for the latest in expensive police equipment that he didn’t think Plainfield needed.

Swift remembered one Town Meeting with a lengthy debate over the police budget.

“Gordon stood up and volunteered to forego his pay increase to be sure his staff got theirs,” Swift said, adding that townspeople eventually agreed to the proposed budget. “He was just a great example to put out there for other people to emulate.”

Plainfield police have carried on Gillens’ philosophy of helping people as the department’s primary role, Swift said.

“To me, that is the highest praise you can give someone,” she said.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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