A Life: Jim McGoff; ‘If he felt he was right, he wasn’t going to change’

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-24-2023 4:56 PM

ORFORD — The annual Orford Town Meeting would be only a couple of articles into voting on town budget items when a familiar voice would shout from his seat in the bleachers at the back of the school auditorium.

“Paper ballot! Paper ballot!” came the cry sailing over the heads of other audience members.

A ripple of groans in the audience inevitably followed. Others would sit in stony silence, fanning their faces with the Town Report, wondering how much longer Town Meeting would take when it had to stop and start continually for calls for time-consuming paper ballot voting.

Jim McGoff wasn’t bothered. He knew people could be annoyed by his protestations, didn’t accept his plain-speaking ways, mocked his bluntness in a town known for having more than its share of tough farmers, building contractors and heavy equipment operators.

A frugal Yankee who believed in making do with what you have, fixing the old before buying anew, had a propensity to scrutinize town spending and the necessity, however unpopular, of opposing reflexive deliberation, defined McGoff’s life and shaped his service to Orford.

Such conviction did not always endear McGoff to his fellow townspeople. At one Planning Board meeting, he nearly came to blows with another member, prompting the members to have a sheriff’s deputy present on hand at future meetings — just in case.

“Jim once told me, ‘(If you) get along with everybody, you weren’t doing your job,’ ” said Tom Thomson, a lifetime Orford resident and tree farmer who has served on numerous town boards. “If he felt he was right, he wasn’t going to change.”

Despite the contentious feelings between McGoff and some people in Orford, more than 300 people showed up at his memorial service on Jan. 14 at the Orford Congregational Church to celebrate his life and hear tributes from family members — all four children spoke — and friends, a crowd exceeding any in recent memory.

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In a fitting procession, the box of McGoff’s ashes was brought to the service in what his wife calls “his pride and joy” — a 2006 Freightliner flatbed truck named “Big Yellow” that McGoff had purchased pre-owned a few years earlier to pick up vehicles from around the Twin States and haul them back to Orford.

Owner of a salvage yard along a back road often derided as an eyesore, a gadfly at town and school meetings, an unapologetic conservative who enjoyed donning a “Make America Great Again” cap for the fun of seeing the aghast horror on the faces of bien pensant liberals, McGoff died at age 66 with his wife Debbie at his side at their home on Grimes Hill Road on the evening of Jan. 1.

Only five days earlier McGoff got to see his granddaughter, born five minutes earlier, resting on the chest of her mother, Katie McGoff Parent, via a FaceTime call.

Katie, knowing that her father had days — possibly hours — left to live, opted to have her labor induced so that her father could see his sixth grandchild before he died.

“It was his last wish that he wanted to see his granddaughter,” Katie McGoff Parent said. “I think Dad was holding on to see her.”

McGoff had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia about 18 months earlier, a neurological disease that destroys brain and body functioning. The disease can cause hallucinations, paranoia and memory loss.

“Some people didn’t like Jim because of the way he spoke,” said Debbie McGoff, his wife of 44 years. “But that’s why we liked him so much. He said it as it was and didn’t hide it or pussyfoot around.”

An abiding presence at Orford town and Selectboard meetings, McGoff, who grew up poor and steadfastly believed in not spending money a person didn’t have, would routinely — and to detractors, annoyingly — challenge spending items on the town warrant, questioning why it couldn’t be cut to a lesser amount or eliminated altogether.

Particularly when it came to road equipment which, as an operator of a salvage yard who had a mechanic’s skill in repairing, McGoff knew a thing or two. He would challenge the necessity of spending $100,000-plus to a buy a new truck when an old, properly maintained truck would suffice just fine.

Paul Carriero, a former selectman, said McGoff’s rebuke to the town for driving its trucks to Claremont and Littleton to get their oil and tires changed at service centers was a typical example of how McGoff railed against, in his view, wanton spending.

“Jim was like, ‘C’mon man, you got a guy driving up and down there and back, you’re spending for gas on mileage, you’re blowing a day on labor and a day with a vehicle out of service, this is isn’t right. You’re paying these guys’ salaries, and changing oil and tires is part of their job. They should know how to do this.’ ”

The town went back to servicing the trucks themselves.

Although a rock-rib conservative, McGoff was nonetheless wary about giving police too much power and would object to calls for increased funding and more equipment.

During a marathon 2019 Town Meeting, McGoff was adamant against spending $2,000 on a stun gun, in part because he said the weapon is inhumane and cops mishandle them, leading to costly mistakes.

Citing a 2012 incident in which a Thetford man died after being hit by a stun gun fired by a State Police trooper, McGoff remarked: “It fries you inside. It’s like cooking a hot dog. … The town could be liable for this.”

Hard-fought, McGoff’s victories were often small, but he relished them: During Town Meeting in 2017, he called from the floor for a paper ballot to cut the proposed $216,000 capital reserve fund by $20,000.

“We’ve got to cut these budgets, instead of adding on over time,” he said at the time. “We don’t need brand-new, shiny trucks all the time. We don’t need all these toys. We’re not Hanover. We’re Orford, New Hampshire.”

He prevailed. A paper ballot vote resulted in a 60-52 decision to cut the item.

By all accounts, the salvage yard, which often put him into conflict with the very town he served, was the center of McGoff’s life. His preoccupation with abandoned relics accompanied him during three-day snowmobiling and ATV excursions across Vermont, family members said.

“Every time we’d go snowmobiling or side-by-side riding, wherever we’d go, in the woods or some farmer’s field, he was always looking for salvage yards. He’d go, ‘Oh my God, look at all the cars out here!’ ” Debbie McGoff recounted.

Then they would have to dismount their vehicles so her husband could inspect the treasure trove of wrecks.

The salvage yard was started by McGoff’s stepfather, Gil LaMontagne, but when LaMontagne died in 1975, McGoff stepped in to take over his stepfather’s business at age 18. Apart from a couple of part-time jobs in high school, he never worked for anyone else than himself.

“He liked being outside. He liked being his own boss,” said his daughter, Katie, of her father. “I’d be, like, ‘Dad, what’s going on over there? It’s so messy.’ He’d say, ‘Katie, that’s our bread and butter.’ ”

And the bloom of romance.

In 1979, Debbie Kenyon, from Bradford Center, Vt., went with her brother one day while he drove over to McGoff’s salvage yard to look for some spare car parts. Once there, she met a talkative, long-haired, bandana-crowned, skinny guy running the place who was instantly curious about the 18-year-old brunette Oxbow High graduate.

Their first date, for which McGoff spiffed himself with a new red bandana (he sported long hair, which later turned silver, and a bandana, which later gave way to a baseball cap, all his life) was a movie at the Fairlee Drive-In theater.

Courtship was brief: Jim and Debbie married in 1979. He was 21. She was 19.

The young couple set up home in a trailer parked at the salvage yard — the water would freeze in the winter and they’d have to haul buckets from the stream to heat water for cooking, bathing and flushing the toilet — and, with the help of friends and family, dug out a cellar space upon which to build a house.

A son, Johnathan, was born in 1980, followed by Ashley in 1982.

They then moved into the cellar space — with two of their kids and Debbie pregnant with a third, Katie, born in 1985 — fitted a tarp for a roof and lived in it, like pioneers in a dugout on the Western plains, until they could save enough money to build a two-story house above their heads, salvaging old beams and planks for floors from nearby old homes for building materials.

Finally, a third daughter, Casey, was born in 1990.

“Jim believed if you don’t have the money, you do without it until you can afford it,” Debbie said, a philosophy that he applied equally to his family and town fiscal matters.

But, contrary to the dour image of a thrifty and crusty New Englander, McGoff always had a ”dad joke” ready to tell or a favorite homespun chestnut he would roll out at any moment with family members and friends.

When his son, John, noted that a lot of people were inquiring about buying a funeral hearse the salvage business had picked up, McGoff replied, “Well, John, that’s a popular car, and people are dying to get in there,” John McGoff recounted at his father’s memorial service.

Or the time McGoff asked his granddaughter, “Why do ducks have tail feathers? ... To cover their butt quacks,” her mother, Katie, related at the service.

His library of favorite sayings, according to family members, included “don’t take any wooden nickels,” “keep it under a 100,” “money and progress,” “that will build character,” “good things come to people who wait” and “behave because there was a little bird always watching.”

“By ‘little bird’ he meant all the townpeople he knew,” Katie said.

McGoff lived where he worked — the salvage yard, with heaps of scrapped vehicles, a mountain of tires, a couple school buses and trailers — only a few feet away from the front door, allowing him to pop back into the house at 10 a.m. to grab a snack, 12:30 p.m. for a lunch from leftovers and dinner promptly at 5:30 p.m., a fixed routine he never broke.

Then it was back on the road at night for work.

McGoff’s business took him all over New Hampshire and Vermont to retrieve vehicles, which he drained and stripped on the lot before crushing them under an excavator bucket. Every week a truck would pull into the yard and be loaded with the crushed carcasses for transportation to a shredding plant, which would then ship the remains overseas, where it would be smelted into recycled metal.

The business is now in the third generation and being solely run by McGoff’s son, John, 43, who lives next door and, like his father, has pretty much never worked anywhere else.

McGoff loved having kids and grandkids around and looked out for neighbors’ kids as well, friends said.

“When faced with a policy change from the school district over busing from our road, rather than have the kids stand on Route 10 in a 50-mile-per-hour zone, Jim always welcomed the school bus to turn around on his property out of concern for the safety of our children,” said Kelley Monahan, Grafton County’s Register of Deeds and McGoff’s neighbor.

After one contentious meeting over the salvage yard, Tom Thomson said he pulled McGoff aside to offer what he thought was some friendly advice that might relieve tension.

” ‘I think you went on a bit long. Sometimes less is more,’ ” Thomson remembers volunteering to McGoff.

“But Tom,” Thomson said McGoff replied, “that wouldn’t be as much fun.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

CORRECTION: Jim McGoff and Debbie (Kenyon) McGoff were married in 1979. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the year.

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