SWANZEY — “I’ve got lots of stories to tell,” says the 82-year-old John Byrnes, his body language suggesting he’s eager to get started.
First, the setting for storytelling couldn’t be better — the den of an old farmhouse in Swanzey, a cozy nook, the walls lined with history books and photographs and framed letters from famous politicians, great props for stories illustrating various parts of Byrnes’ life and career. Outside, there’s a thick fog, the result of unusually warm temperatures overlaying a covering of snow.
“I was born in Bellows Falls in June 1937, and raised across the river in North Walpole,” he begins. “We all lived in a small house there — my grandparents, my parents, my older sister, me and two younger brothers. No indoor bathroom, no hot water and no central heating. But a lot of love and a lot of religion.”
That’s a scene-setter.
He tells of his grandfather, John Byrnes — his namesake but not the grandfather who lived with them — an Irish immigrant to the United States. “He had 12 children from his first wife, who died. Then he married another woman and had another 12.”
Byrnes’ father, Lawrence, of the second dozen children of the senior John Byrnes, found work during the depths of the Great Depression at a work site in Vermont run by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program developed by FDR and the federal government to keep people employed. While there, he met his future wife, Helen, who came from a Polish family. They settled in North Walpole after Lawrence found a job at one of the mills.
It was a working-class town of Italian, Irish and Polish stock, most of whom labored in the factories of a then-bustling Bellows Falls just across the Connecticut River from North Walpole. Walpole, just to the south, was wealthier and fancier, and that’s where many of the company owners lived, Byrnes said.
It was a town made for a kid. They lived a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, and Byrnes could easily walk to the church they attended and where he served as an altar boy, St. Peter Catholic Church. The church is still there, but now part of All Saints Parish of Charlestown.
“We hunted, we hiked, we knew the woods like the back of our hands,” he says, describing the childhood of him and his friends.
Young John worked odd jobs in stores to help with the family finances. And down the road, a man ran a shop where Byrnes learned the craft of machining tools, at an age well below what was legal.
“He told me that if a guy in a suit ever showed up, to grab a broom,” Byrnes says, smiling.
After graduating from Bellows Falls high school, he got a job at Jones & Lamson in Springfield, Vt., which at the time was a prominent manufacturer of machine tools. It shuttered in 1983, having been a major employer in the area for more than a century.
Byrnes and his wife, Dorothy, married in 1957 and moved to Keene. She didn’t want him driving the long commute to work, so he got a job at Keene Electric and Plumbing, owned by Isadore Brownstein. In 1958, he also secured a part-time gig as an auxiliary member of the Keene Police Department, his sole duty directing traffic at the popular MacKenzie Ice Cream drive-in on Upper Court Street. “It was a lot of fun, and I was kind of the PR guy out front,” he says.
He loved his work at Keene Electric, “but not the hours,” so he went looking for another job. By this time, he and his wife had their first child, Michael.
He first inquired at Public Service Co. of New Hampshire (now Eversource), which offered to hire him at $1.60 an hour, but with no opportunity for overtime work. That wasn’t good enough. “Across the street from there was the police department, so I walked over there and talked to the chief and asked them how much they paid. He said $1.65 an hour and plenty of overtime.”
That was the clincher. He became a Keene policeman in 1959, a career that would last until 1984.
“On my first day, I got a uniform, badge and a gun, and I told the chief, ‘I can’t carry a gun.’ I didn’t think I could shoot anyone. He said, ‘Well, you got to have a gun,’ so I reluctantly took it, but I didn’t put any bullets in it,” Byrnes says.
Also on his first day, he was assigned to issue parking tickets, a job he did so zealously that the desk commander was shocked he’d given out 180 by day’s end. The parking ticket assignment, unfortunately, eventually led to some trouble with some of his fellow policemen, as it seemed some officers were “fixing” tickets by tearing them up in return for favors from locals, he says.
“One day, I didn’t issue any tickets at all, and the chief asked me why, and I said why should the guy in the Cadillac have his ticket torn up while the guy in the broken-down car has to pay his ticket?” he recalls.
To prevent the ticket-fixing, the chief then installed a lock-box where all the original citations were placed.
This got Byrnes crosswise with other officers, he says, not the only time he remembers struggling with department politics and infighting.
Ironically, though, because more parking ticket fines were being paid, city officials realized it was a revenue source worth pursuing. “The city started building parking lots,” he says.
Byrnes describes police work as a shocking awakening for a naïve, altar-boy-innocent young man. “It was my introduction to the other side of life. I never saw any fighting or heard any curse words in my world. That stuff didn’t happen. It was church, family, school and work.”
His first call to a domestic disturbance — a chaotic and frightful scene to him — was just a hint of what he was to witness through the years: accidents, suicides, heartbreaking tragedies.
“I can drive down any street in Keene and remember something bad that happened there,” he says. That’s why he moved to Swanzey in 1997. “I just had to get out of town; so many bad memories.”
It was also during his very early years as a policeman, in his early 20s, that he suffered a major trauma in his personal life — the sudden and unexpected death of his mother.
“I was working the midnight-to-eight shift. My mother was going in for surgery, and I had just gotten off work and went to the hospital. The doctor wouldn’t let me see her. ‘Go home, don’t worry,’ he told me. He called later that morning to tell me that my mother had died.”
Byrnes never forgave the doctor.
Thus begins the part of his life he calls “the troubles,” when it fell upon him to take care of his grief-stricken father, who he says drowned his sorrows in alcohol, as well as the rest of his family. “My father loved my mother so much, and after she died, he basically stayed drunk for six years,” Byrnes says, although he eventually stopped drinking before his death at age 83.
“I never got to grieve for my mother,” Byrnes recalls.
He and his wife eventually raised four children in Keene while he continued to work as a policeman, and he attained the rank of inspector, a designation that no longer exists. “I loved that title — inspector,” he says.
Ultimately, his rank was swapped out for sergeant.
“It was a rough 25 years with the police department,” he admits. “I finally said to my dad that I’m really burned out, that I was sick and tired of all the struggles; I wasn’t the most popular guy in the department.” One of the battles involved his opposition to unionizing the force.
But quitting the police hardly left him with nothing to do. He still had his duties as a landlord for a 10-apartment building he owned in Keene for many years “as a supplement to my police pension.” He just recently sold that property.
Years before, he’d also begun a weekend job as a member of the National Ski Patrol at several area resorts. He relished the job and attained “senior” status, a title earned after passing a series of difficult tests in skiing proficiency, first aid and negotiating the slopes while towing a person on a stretcher-sled.
He also drove a tractor-trailer for a time and delivered cars for automobile dealerships.
A fortuitous conversation with his attorney, Jack Reynolds, led to the beginning of probably his all-time favorite pursuit — politics. “I was talking with Jack and told him I wanted to make a contribution to my country. He suggested I get involved with politics.”
Through the Cheshire County Republican Party, Byrnes became active in campaign work at the local, state and national levels. He’s worked in campaigns for former U.S. Rep. Charles Bass, Gov. John Sununu, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole. At the local level, he was a major backer of former state Senate president Tom Eaton of Keene and former Keene Mayor Michael Blastos, and he helped to lobby for the naming of the Michael Blastos Room at the municipal complex on Marlboro Street.
He has also served as what’s called the “Senate doorman” in Concord, a job controlling access to the state Senate while it is in session. And, he served part-time on the White House staff at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in charge of the transportation of guests and officials to and from Air Force One. He frequently jogged and played golf with George H.W. Bush.
In 2004, Byrnes collapsed and ended up in the emergency room in Keene. After a series of tests, it was discovered he was suffering from pancreatic cancer, with slim prospects for survival. He underwent a risky surgery in Keene called a “Whipple” procedure, also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy — a highly complicated operation to excise the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct.
“I asked the surgeon two questions. One, did he know what he was doing — and he said yes. My second question was will I again be able to play golf? He said, ‘Certainly.’ ”
It took him about two years to fully recover from the cancer. “I was lucky; I survived. God was with me. I always feel that God is with me. And when I talk with people who have cancer, I tell them to never give up.”
He continued his work in politics, helping with additional campaigns. He was elected to one term in the N.H. House, from 2011 to 2012.
In 2012, however, his wife became critically ill, and he decided to abandon politics to take care of her full-time. That was his job until 2018, when her medical condition improved.
One of his recent roles after returning to politics was assisting George Hansel in his successful campaign to become Keene’s next mayor.
Byrnes has also been responsible for several fundraising events that have benefited Keene: $48,000 for the Keene Fire Department for three thermal-imaging machines; $41,000 for new band uniforms for the Keene Middle School; and $23,000 for the purchase of new honor-guard uniforms for the Keene Police Department.
“Those efforts were payback for the city taking care of me for so many years with the police department,” he says.
Among his other pursuits now is researching the history of North Walpole, with the intention of writing a book.
“The trouble is that the North Walpole town hall burned down in the ’50s, so a lot of records were lost.”
He says town residents who witnessed the fire tell an amusing — in an odd way — account. Apparently, the fire department was housed in the basement garage of the town hall, and firefighters raced up and down the main drag in North Walpole looking for the fire, not realizing it was the town hall itself that was burning down.
“That’s true; people told me that,” he says.
Besides the research, Byrnes says he will continue to stay involved in politics and to appreciate life as it’s handed to him.
“My advice to anyone younger is this: Don’t waste time; it’s precious. Believe in yourself and follow your dream. Dream big, get big; dream small, get small.”