transcribed by Will Gottlieb
Coastal Journal staff
You talk to a lot of people in this business, and you have to listen very carefully to all of them. Some people speak a little too softly, some people talk fast about complex subjects, some people don’t have much to say, and you have to help them make sense. And then there are people like Dick McElman, who is a very funny human being with a lot of great stories and a wry sense of humor. Dick has a great take on the car business, but he also knows a lot about people and about life in general, and you could learn a lot, whoever you are, by listening to him.
I’m from Woolwich, the Montsweag area. The house is still there; my grandson’s living in it this summer. I live in West Bath now, but I’m still a resident of Woolwich. Went to a one-room school for eight years, nine years counting kindergarten. The first year, it was kindergarten through eighth grade – one school, one teacher. And then, as time went on, they spread it around, so the last two years, seventh and eighth grade, I was bussed over to a two-room school with no plumbing. Never had any plumbing until I went to high school. It’s on the old Arrowsic Road, right down here. It’s a residence now. The original one over on Montsweag is still there, and they use it for a social club or something for the neighborhood. And it still doesn’t have any plumbing. They’re just meeting there. Obviously, they have short meetings, because they have old people and no plumbing.
Were you a scholar or an athlete back then?
Probably neither. Actually, I did both. I never studied, so I didn’t get great grades, but I played two or three sports, and I had two jobs at the same time. First, I was janitor of the one-room school when I was, like, 10. So I got up at five o’clock in the morning and walked to school, which is half a mile, and built a couple of wood fires, and split wood with an ax, which would be unheard of today, a 10 year old, right? They did that because I probably had too much energy for ‘em. I even cut switches for the teachers, which were used back then.
Were any of the switches you cut used on you at the time?
Uh-uh, you couldn’t. I was privileged at that point.
What sports did you play?
A little bit of everything. Back then, sports were played only in season. It wasn’t like today when they’re played year-round, seven days a week. We played football for a couple of months and that was it, basketball for a couple of months, and in the spring, track or baseball. In the summer, we just played recreational sports, just the neighborhood kids playing.
Where did you go to high school?
Morse High School.
Did you enjoy that?
Yeah. I graduated in 1956, and we still get together quite often.
Did you play sports at Morse?
I was between sports. I always had a job somewhere. I worked on a farm, and I worked at gas stations. I liked working on equipment and stuff. My father worked in the Iron Works, my mother was a homemaker and a writer. She wrote a column that wound up being in the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Waterville Sentinel on a daily basis. “Diary of a Country Wife,” and she wrote that for years and years – I’m going to say, late ‘40s through the early ‘60s. Her pen name was Mary Dunn. Her real name was Iona McElman. There were some relatives on Westport Island named Dunn, and her maiden name was Dunton, so that’s maybe where it came from.
Did you go to college after high school?
Yeah, I went twice. I went to Maine Maritime Academy and the University of Maine. Most people would have taken eight years to do that. I did it in about eight weeks. Maine Maritime, if I’d ever gone and looked at it, I never would have gone there. And I would have played football, but I broke my foot the first day there, playing softball. So I didn’t play. And one day I was riding back to school, and I went left to Bangor instead of right to Castine, and never went back. Then a few years later, I went to the University of Maine, but I took agricultural engineering, to build farm equipment, but I didn’t have the background for it. So I didn’t want to waste any more money there, so I came back here to work on the farm, and at the gas station here.
So how did Bath Subaru come to be?
I got married in 1960, when I was 21. And there was a Sunoco station down here where the Cumberland Farms is. And the guy who was there was going to retire, so I took that over. I went to school in Rhode Island for four weeks – Providence, Rhode Island, in the middle of summer. Lived at the YMCA, which was interesting. You can imagine the type of people who lived at the YMCA. There was one bathroom down the hall. That was all we could afford.
The school was Sunoco, Sun Oil Company. They taught you basic accounting and how to run a gas station. “When you have a lot of money, don’t spend it, because you have another load of gas coming,” that kind of thing.
Then I came back here and started running that [Sunoco station], worked there 90 hours a week. Ran it alone for quite a while, seven in the morning till nine at night, seven days a week. I stayed there for 11 years. There was another little gas station right where we’re sitting now. I bought that and the land, which is part of what you see. And I decided to build my own gas station, because I was paying Sunoco rent, and I paid for the place quite a few times, so. There was a guy named Walker Noyes, who had a bunch of tire stores, the Noyes Tire Company. I had known him for a while, and he said, “Why don’t we go into partnership, and you can put in what money you’ve got,” which amounted to something like 20 percent of what the place was going to cost. He said, “I’ll build a building on your land, and then we’ll lease the whole thing to a third party, so we have working capital.”
And so we did, on a handshake. That’s how we did things. And that worked pretty good. I stayed with him for 12 years. During that 12 years, we had gasoline, we had a tire store, we sold truck tires, and I sold used cars, which I started at the gas station. I’ve been selling used cars for a long time, fixing ‘em up and selling ‘em.
So in the meantime, in 1973, we took on Subaru. A guy named Peter Snow came around with a Subaru, and it was an interesting looking car. And we said, “Well, we may not sell many, but it’ll give credibility to the used car business.” And we took those on, and I’ve been selling them for 39 years now.
It was pretty good, because Saab had just stopped making the 96, which was about the same size, with front-wheel drive, which was popular in Maine. And they came out with a new model in ‘99 that wasn’t too exciting, so we kind of filled that gap with the front-wheel drive Subaru. And then came the energy crisis of the early ‘70s, and at that point we had a waiting list. We had ‘em all sold by the time they got here, those Subarus. We were lucky with that.
Do you have a big family?
They all work here. My wife [Maria] works here, my son [Bruce] is the manager, my daughter [Jane] works in the service area. I still come in four hours a day – I’m sort of a volunteer here. They’re glad to see me come, they’re glad to see me go. Some days they bring my car and have it running by the door, and suggest that maybe I should head home.
Yeah. They have everything but a little red carpet leading to it.
What’s been the best thing about doing all of this?
Not knowing what’s going to happen every day.