Mayor William Dickinson Jr. delivers the state of the town address at Ashlar Village in Wallingford, Jan. 20, 2012. (Russell Blair / Record-Journal)
April 24, 2014 12:02PM
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD — It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. As a 36-year-old insurance company employee, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. took a chance that impacted the history of the town, and the next 30 years of his life.
In 1983, an opportunity to run for mayor presented itself to Dickinson, a Republican. Dickinson said he had always been interested in government, but at the time he had never held elected office.
“You have to make a decision whether you want to take that chance or not,” Dickinson said of running for mayor. Republicans hadn’t held the office since 1969, but he decided to take a shot.
Dickinson said he leaned toward the challenge of running for office because “I was always going to wonder what would have happened if I failed to find out if I could do it.
“So I ran,” Dickinson said, and 15 terms and 30 years later, “here we are.”
The narrative could have easily gone another way. Dickinson was aided by long-standing rifts between Democratic Party factions that erupted in a bitter 1983 primary between four-term Mayor Rocco J. Vumbaco and former state Rep. Pasquale DeBaise. DeBaise defeated Vumbaco, but Dickinson trounced DeBaise.
Also aiding Dickinson was the fact that established Republican Town Councilor Bob Parisi decided against a run for mayor. Parisi, the council’s current chairman, said that at the time he was situated to run for mayor. He asked his advisers, “when do I run?”
“They said ‘let that other guy run, because even if he wins, he won’t keep office for more than a term,’ ” Parisi said.
That other guy was Dickinson, who has continued to win the support of town residents since that fateful 1983 election. There are no hard feelings, said Parisi, who jokes about the election with Dickinson.
“I can’t wait forever — when are you going to get out?” Parisi said he sometimes asks Dickinson.
The decision not to run in 1983 was for the benefit of the town, Parisi said.
“I have the deepest respect for him,” he said of Dickinson.
The mayor’s ability to learn and adapt are what make him special, the council chairman said.
“Even his voice is getting better,” Parisi said, referring to Dickinson’s habit of singing at public events. “I used to sit through his productions and wince.”
Dickinson has made it a tradition to sing at the town’s high school graduations. Town Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat opposing Dickinson, recently knocked the mayor for his antics, calling them “ridiculous.”
“That two minutes that I’m talking about the graduating class, it’s not about me,” Zandri said, “it’s about the graduating class.”
Dickinson said his songs are meant to be enjoyable and different — another way to make graduation special. He creates his own lyrics to go with popular songs so that “it hopefully connects with the students and their graduation in a way a speech may not.”
Born in Pennsylvania, Dickinson was raised in Yalesville from the time he was a 6 or 7 years old. He grew up on Church Street and Hill Avenue. His father, William, was a doctor, and his mother, Eileen, was a nurse. Both are deceased. Dickinson, 66, now lives on Grieb Road. He has an older sister, who lives in Durham, and two younger brothers, who live out of state.
Dickinson said he stays close to his siblings, who were also his playmates during his childhood. He credited his sister for her stamina and tolerance dealing with three brothers. His greatest influence growing up were his parents, Dickinson said.
“They loved and cared for all of the kids in the family,” he said. “You really get a good start in life when you feel like you have a home base that’s a good place to be.”
A basic interest in the law spurred Dickinson’s interest in politics. He majored in political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. He then earned a law degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve always been interested in government and the decision making involved,” he said.
After college, Dickinson said he worked for an insurance company. He then took a job at the law offices of Gerald Farrell, who now serves as Wallingford’s town attorney. After another stint at an insurance company, Dickinson made his run for mayor. But if he could turn back time, Dickinson said, “I would have listed forest ranger as one of the things I would have enjoyed doing.”
Dickinson said he has a passion for animals and the wilderness. If he had the chance, he would have liked to work at one of the country’s large national parks.
“One of those places you’re interacting more with nature than with humans, perhaps,” he said. “It’s a place you can really appreciate what has been created in the world.”
Railroads are also another aspect of the country that Dickinson is fascinated with. Railroads “opened up the country,” he said. They played a vital role in the development of the United States. The easiest way to understand the importance of railroads is through model trains, he said. In the past, Dickinson has spent time at Wallingford’s train station. Every Friday night, he said, the New Haven Society of Model Engineers meets in the station’s basement. Lately, Dickinson hasn’t had time to attend.
Model trains “give you the ability to create a whole world,” he said. “It’s all based on the ability to move people and goods.”
His interest in railroads began at the age of 9 or 10, he said, when his parents gave him his first model train.
“I still have it and it still operates,” Dickinson said. “I really took care of it. It really meant a lot.”
Dickinson says he doesn’t look back at his 15 terms in office as a whole. It’s two years at a time, he said. He doesn’t take for granted how much longer he will be in office. His mind stays in the present and immediate future.
With two-year terms, “For a year and a half you know what’s going to happen,” Dickinson said. “Then it’s back to deciding if you’re going to run again.”
It’s hard to pinpoint a specific highlight over 30 years, he said. There have been accolades in every aspect of public service, the mayor explained. Everything has its own role to play, so it’s hard to say one accomplishment is more important than another.
“Overall it’s a constant change,” Dickinson said. “You always have to be learning new things to respond to new conditions ... Each time period has its own challenges. It keeps you on your toes, there’s no doubt about that.”
The mayor is proud of his knowledge of the town’s public utilities, which he said has “increased exponentially.”
Public utilities are taken for granted, he said, especially in Wallingford, where water, sewer and electric utilities are town-run.
“You could not have 45,000 people in 40 square miles if you just had wells and septic tanks,” he said.
What’s most enjoyable about the job, Dickinson said, is meeting with school groups to talk about the role of government and why it exists. Public events are also fun, the mayor said. The most difficult part about being the town’s leader is forming the local budget every spring, Dickinson said.
“It’s really getting more and more difficult,” he said. “There’s less money and more need ... The complexity of everything is growing.”
He likened the situation to a “perfect storm” coming together “in a cauldron of difficult decisions.”
But if anyone can handle difficult situations, it’s the mayor, said Republican Town Chairman Bob Prentice.
“He’s a dedicated person to the people of Wallingford,” Prentice said. “... How we live now and in the future.”
Dickinson has been criticized over the years for not compromising on his stances. This year, detractors have pointed to his unwillingness to adopt technology at Town Hall or install a prescription drug drop box at the police station as examples of stubbornness.
Prentice said he doesn’t always agree with the mayor. It took repeated badgering to convince the mayor to purchase a cellphone, he said. But Dickinson is valuable to the town, Prentice said, because “his overall plan is so reasonable and consistent.”
Dickinson said that he stands by certain decisions because “It’s a question of what patterns you encourage in the future.”
If something isn’t in the interest of the town, but you give in, “you have to be prepared to explain and defend why you made that decision in the future,” he said.
There are certain things Dickinson said he doesn’t want to have to explain, because “once you sanction it, you can’t wash your hands of it.”
Dickinson said there have been occasions in which his opinions on certain issues have changed, but he couldn’t cite a specific example.
Divorced since 1988, Dickinson is the father of an adult son. Asked if he’s romantically involved with anyone, Dickinson said, “I’m not married.”
It’s important to keep politics and personal business separate, he said.
In his free time, Dickinson said he likes to watch television, read, or “hit some serves.” Dickinson has been an avid tennis player since he was in his 20s.