BERLIN — A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Friday for Leo Gaston Ouellet, a former mayor of the City that Trees Built, who died Saturday at the age of 89.
Ouellet, who was born Aug. 6, 1924 in Lebanon and who served as mayor from 1978 to 1982 and again from 1990 to 1994, will be remembered for many things, said Mitchell Berkowitz, who is the Berlin’s former city manager, but foremost for his being able to see that the city was headed into an uncertain future and for trying to position it to best deal with a declining population and labor force as well as the resulting decrease in municipal revenues.
A retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, Ouellet, according to the obituary prepared by the Bryant Funeral Home, which is handling his memorial service, served during World War II in the Army Air Corps with the 12th Air Force in Europe as a bombardier/navigator.
After graduating from Berlin High School in 1942, Ouellet immediately joined the Army. He retired from the National Guard in 1979 after 37 continuous years as commander of the Berlin-based 2nd Howitzer Battalion, 197th Field Artillery.
Also a graduate of the Army’s Artillery School, Adjutant General School and the Command and General Staff College, Ouellet was the recipient of numerous Army and National Guard commendations, among them the Air Medal for Combat, the Presidential Unit Citation and two Army Commendation Medals.
A member of the Academic Board of the now defunct New Hampshire Military Academy, Ouellet served on the military staff of Gov. Meldrim Thomson.
As mayor of Berlin, Ouellet established the Business Enterprise Development Corporation, whose duties are now handled by the Northern Community Investment Corporation and the North Country Council; and helped get the Cleveland Bridge built.
Also a former chairman of the Berlin Zoning Board, Ouellet was the owner and operator of the Simon Davis Smart Shop/Labnon’s Department Store until his retirement in 1979. He was a life member, quartermaster and first club manager of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2520.
Predeceased by his wife Jane and his son John, Ouellet is survived by his long-time partner Germaine Landry of Gorham, his daughter Paula Dzioba and her husband Gary of Fremont; five grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; a sister, Irene Markovich of Berlin, and many cousins.Following Friday’s 10 a.m. funeral Mass at St. Anne Church of Good Shepherd Parish, Ouellet will be interred at St. Kieran Cemetery. Calling hours will be held at the Bryant Funeral Home, 180 Hillside Ave., Berlin, on Thursday from 2 to 4 and also from 7 to 9 p.m.
The Berlin City Council is expected to honor Ouellet, but details were not immediately available.
Berkowitz, who was Berlin’s city manager from 1983 to 1998, said on Tuesday that he was saddened by the death of his former boss.
Although he noted that he and Ouellet didn’t always get along, Berkowitz, who is retiring later this year as the town manager in Bridgton, Maine, said Ouellet always had Berlin’s best interests at heart. Ouellet, said Berkowitz, was able early on to see that Berlin’s glory days of the 1920s and ’30s were behind it.
Looking at how paper was being manufactured elsewhere, Ouellet foresaw what Berkowitz said was the decline of that industry in Berlin.
“He was a visionary in that respect,” said Berkowitz, adding that Ouellet was a champion of containing costs given Berlin’s diminishing population and tax base.
“Here we are some 20 years later, and he was spot on in many aspects of the economy,” Berkowitz said, as well as being prescient about the challenges Berlin would and still faces.
Maybe because of his military background and high rank, Ouellet’s style of governance sometimes clashed with others’ perceptions about how a city should be run, “but he wasn’t doing it out of maliciousness,” stressed Berkowitz, but out of the desire to prepare “for what was almost inevitable.”
That ability to see trends and to understand how they would affect Berlin will be Ouellet’s “major legacy,” said Berkowitz, adding that “not everyone cared for his visionary approach and quite frankly, he and I were at odds sometimes but you have to sit back and say ’My God.’ That kind of ability is why he did well in the military as well and some of his principles, values are right on point today.”
Berkowitz extended his thoughts and prayers to the late mayor’s family and friends and called Ouellet a “good leader” who’ll be missed.
“It’s a shock and as I reflect back, I am saddened at his passing, I thought he would go on forever.”