The Maine Archive on the Queer Resources Directory

Sunday April 7, 1996

Embracing gay couple, town defies stereotypes

By Beth Kaiman
Staff Writer
©Copyright 1996 Guy Gannett Communications

At left:Robert Olson was honored by many hundreds of community members during a memorial service at the First Congregational Church in Eliot.
Staff photo by Doug Jones

ELIOT - David Fulton came from the historical society. Del Spinney from the American Legion. Dana Hale represented the Lions.

Packed into 32 pews and some bridge chairs lined up against the back wall of the First Congregational Church, the town of Eliot bid farewell to a favorite citizen. Robert Olson, the man known as the first to greet a stranger, the one to sell raffle tickets for any good cause, the cancer patient who passed out hard candy in the halls of Maine Medical Center, was gone.

The men and women of Eliot found it hard to take.

In the front row, Olson's companion sobbed silently and exchanged comforting words with the mourners who, one by one, walked up and hugged him tightly. The volunteer firefighters told him how sorry they were. The people from the Grange hoped he would find the strength to go on.

Robert Ecke had just lost the love of his life, his mate of 47 years. And the whole town was reaching out as it always had.

"These were two very intelligent, wonderful people and I don't think anyone even thought twice about paying their respects to Dr. Ecke like that,'' said Ruth Vetter, an usher at the memorial service.

To an outsider, it may be surprising that in small, traditional Eliot, Maine, a couple such as "the Bobs'' could flourish as popular, respected neighbors. National arguments over gay rights, morality debates on same-sex marriages, and continuing battles over the meaning of family values may suggest there is no room left for privacy and acceptance.

But the case of Bob Olson and Robert Ecke - a gay couple who became central to a town's life - shows otherwise.

In Eliot, a growing town of 6,000, tolerance was just a starting point. People who never would think to endorse a gay lifestyle for a stranger adored these men, loving and supporting them as community leaders.

"I just accepted them. ... They were friends,'' said Del Blickensderfer, owner of Del's Service, the car repair shop in the center of town. "They're the kind of people who would do anything for you. It was more than how they lived.''

Said Vetter, "I know people who don't approve of any of this sort of thing, even talking about it. Yet I never heard those people say anything, not the whole time Bob and Robert lived in town.''

Just about from the moment Ecke and Olson moved to Eliot from New York state 16 years ago, they took their place in the community. Olson, a deacon in his church in New York, became one at First Congregational. He looked around at the service organizations and joined nearly all of them. He was a president of the Lions. A trustee of the food pantry. Twice, he was grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade.

Ecke, a physician with a more reserved nature than his partner, was less of a joiner. Still, he became active in the Visiting Nurses Association, attended all the local banquets and bean suppers, and laughed when Olson dressed in a maitre d' outfit to amuse the church dinner crowds.

Early on, Ecke remembers the couple found "fag'' scrawled on their screen door. They believed it was the work of a teenager, and no such incidents occurred again.

After that, if people objected to the relationship, they never said, according to Ecke.

He and Olson didn't really talk about the town's reaction either, Ecke recalled. Once in a while, he said, they would come back from a dinner or other town function and Ecke would start to ask, "Don't you. ...'' Olson would interrupt, "I don't think they think about it.''

Prejudices put aside

Most believe it was the couple's unusually engaging personalities that allowed residents of Eliot to put aside prejudices and preconceived notions about two men sharing a life.

Ecke, 86, is an irascibly witty, sophisticated intellectual who basically delights in that characterization. A man of taste, experience and opinions, Ecke can converse on any topic.

But it was Olson, a 35-year flight attendant for Eastern Airlines, who drew people in. Before he died from lymphoma on Feb. 25 at the age of 70, Olson lived exuberantly, gathering friends with an easy, light-hearted flair, and attending to others the moment he saw a need.

"You couldn't find a more Christian person,'' said Vetter. "That might sound odd to people who think this (homosexuality) is bad.''

At 63, Dana Hale is a retired Coast Guard chief warrant officer. He's no liberal, no right-winger. Just judges on personality, he says. And in Olson and Ecke, he saw two men he has been proud to call friends.

Though he is tolerant, Hale and others in town seem uneasy reflecting aloud on Olson and Ecke as a gay couple.

"As far as the other activities ... I just never thought anything about it. It's never been my big thing,'' said Hale. "I know Dr. Ecke has lost a friend and ... whatever.''

The relationship between Ecke and Olson and the people of Eliot has long intrigued David Fulton.

A lawyer and former president of the historical society, Fulton has wondered what it is about Eliot that defies both conventional wisdom and unfair stereotypes about small towns - chiefly, that in a place where it's easy to know everyone's business, being different can be a risk.

"I looked at the community and I looked at them and I thought, 'Isn't this remarkable that these people are accepted in this community,'{TH}'' said Fulton.

Much, he said, must be attributed to Olson's and Ecke's irresistible personalities. But beyond that, Fulton looks to the pockets of progressiveness evident in Eliot's history. For ages, this quiet town on the edge of the Kittery-Portsmouth clamor has been a destination point for artists and forward thinkers.

In 1888, for example, Sarah Farmer, the peace activist, opened Rosemary's Cottage, which for the next half-century served as an unusual summer sanctuary for Boston's inner-city residents, among them orphans and unwed mothers.

The Green Acre Baha'i School, the nation's oldest school of the Baha'i faith, attracts thousands each year to study the need for global unity.

A steady influx of newcomers (fewer than one in four Eliot residents is a native Mainer) has melded various viewpoints into the town mindset.

"There was a basic bowl of acceptance ready to receive people like'' Olson and Ecke, Fulton said.

For the Rev. David Avery, the minister at First Congregational, the town's embrace of the couple has also been something interesting to think about, and for the most part, feel good about.

But, he cautioned, the social workings that allowed Ecke and Olson to integrate fully into town life should not prompt quick self-congratulations. The questions come: If people were tolerant, does that mean they tried to understand the love this couple felt? If people accepted, did they do so only after deciding to look the other way and did that leave their general hostilities toward homosexuals untouched?

Avery seeks to explain it this way.

"It's a story about a town, and how different people tried to accept people while trying to keep their own view of the world,'' he said. "If you can fit in my world view without having to interrupt it, then you can fit in.''

Avery thinks back to a conversation he had with an elderly woman in the congregation, known for her traditional views of family and morality. She approached him after Olson's memorial service and asked if he knew that Olson, a man she much admired, was gay.

Avery said yes, and the woman explained that after years of knowing Olson, she had only a month earlier learned of his homosexuality.

"I know she's rethinking things,'' said Avery. "It's challenging her.''

Doctor, Bowdoin senior

Robert Ecke met Robert Olson after Ecke already had been out in the world, become a doctor, traveled the hemispheres and worked for the CIA. Olson, at 23, was heading into his senior year at Bowdoin College after serving in the Navy during World War II. Despite a 16-year age difference, it was love, and it was clear in the first week.

It was 1949 and Ecke, a Bowdoin alumnus, had returned to visit friends in Brunswick - friends, as it turned out, who had hired Olson to do landscape work at their house. They were introduced under a tree on the Bowdoin campus. Ecke remembers exactly which one.

At a party later in the week, Ecke said, Olson would reveal years later that he was "knocked flat'' when he saw Ecke walk into the room.

"At that time, he insists that I was the handsomest person in the world,'' Ecke said. "He was very attractive ... and all this bubbling friendship. Just so genuine.''

In their spacious house in Eliot, with a luxurious view of the Piscataqua River, Ecke is now left to think back on all those years. Thirty-five trips to Europe, that first vacation on the Riviera. Trips on the QE2, dinner parties, scores of them.

The two loved to entertain, inviting guests to sit for hours at the dining room table or retire to the drawing room. In a house filled with paintings and sculptures and collectibles from so many travels, and the crossword puzzle books they both seemed to devour, Ecke would make the steaks, but leave the more complicated legs of lamb and roast turkeys to Olson.

Once or twice a month, they dined at Harbor's Edge at the Portsmouth Sheraton and listened as the piano player played their song, "Send in the Clowns.'' Just the mention of it and Ecke has to cover his reddened eyes.

For 47 years, there was barely a harsh word between them. "Never bored,'' Ecke said. "Robert grew more articulate in this department than I, but he said it wasn't a question of 'I love you.' He said, 'I'm in love.' Now this is to be in a state of love.''

Ten years ago, Ecke said, a "soft sponginess'' was discovered around Olson's neck. It was lymphoma and the battle against it raged for a decade. Despite the diagnosis, it never occurred to either man that Olson would go first.

Time to be freshly honest

In his eulogy, Rev. Avery didn't skirt the issue. He knew many in the town were aware that their late friend was gay. But he also knew many had "overlooked'' it as a kind of comfortable way out. At this final service to honor Bob Olson, it was time to be freshly honest.

First, of course, Avery highlighted what everyone paid attention to - Olson's quick smile, ready humor and passion for service. But then he spoke of David and Jonathan, one of the Bible's great models of friendship. When David learned that his friend Jonathan had been killed in battle, he said, "You were the most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me, more than the love of women.''

So, in Olson's life, Avery said, the companionship of Ecke was "a great love between two people.''

Avery had said it and people could once again decide for themselves.

At right:
Dr. Robert Ecke of Eliot accepts the sympathies of one of many Eliot residents during a memorial service for his longtime companion Robert Olson. The couple known as "the Bobs" flourished as popular and respected friends to many in the community - a community that has learned a lot from them about tolerance.

Staff photo by Doug Jones
After the service, after Ecke had received the individual condolences from more than 150 mourners, the townspeople of Eliot filed out. The elderly struggled with their canes, men hurried to the door for a smoke, and middle-aged couples cried and held hands.

Ecke noted it all. He cocked his head back and said, "Interesting sociologically, don't you think?''

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