Dog registrar, historian, justice of the peace, town meeting organizer: For nearly 48 years, Town Clerk Eva Morse has been "town mother" in this rural Vermont town.
Running things out of an office in her house, surrounded by boxes of files, 14 cats and her collection of orchids, she was the one to see, whether you needed to register a deed, check property records, pay your taxes or get an item on the agenda for the town meeting held on the first Tuesday of every March.
Now, the sprightly 72-year-old is down to her last official minutes. On Tuesday, she'll be in her usual place for Town Meeting Day: In a chair on stage at the 145-year-old church building that serves as town hall, scribbling down who said what, reminiscing with neighbors and noshing on Shirley Luce's homemade apple pie at lunchtime.
While protests, budget fights and the debate over union rights grip state capitols, tiny Calais (pop. 1,553) is focused on something less weighty but no less dear. Eva Morse is calling it quits. She's tired.
"It's going to be sad," she says. "It's the last one. When you've spent pert' near your whole life doing something, it's a little tricky to walk away from it."
In New England cities and towns, Town Meeting is a cherished late-winter tradition dating to Colonial days, direct democracy in its purest form. Townspeople assemble to vote on items big and small, from school budgets to new town trucks and money for box culverts.
In most, they gather in a church or school auditorium while a volunteer moderator plods through the "warning," or agenda. Anyone who wants to talk gets up to speak. People bring homemade casseroles and deep-dish desserts, and they lunch together. Then they debate and vote some more.
Behind it all are clerks like Morse, who send out the meeting notices, publish the annual town report, respond to questions _ and then dutifully record the minutes.
"They're making sure everything is in place, making sure there's podiums and chairs and wheelchair ramps that are open," said Deb Markowitz, a former Vermont Secretary of State. "The buck stops with them."
It's a year-'round job, though. For Morse, it's been a lifelong one, too.
By her count, it started in 1963, when her ex-husband was elected to the job _ but she ended up doing much of the work. She was appointed to replace him the following year, and has been re-elected without challenges ever since. She made $1,800 her first year; now, the salary is about $37,000.
The changes she's seen are too many to list, she says. Mainly, the job has gotten more complicated, thanks to state regulation.
"Some days I think I'm working for the state of Vermont, not the Town of Calais," says Morse.
She's the only full-time employee of the town, save for its four-man road crew. "Everything that gets done or doesn't get done, it's my fault or my credit, whichever," she said.
For 10 years in the 1970s, she did double-duty, representing Calais in the Vermont Legislature.
But it's in the town where she made her mark.
Until 2004, when the town built an office, the mother of three operated from her ranch-style home, surrounded by her feline friends, boxes-upon-bookshelves of files and a sun porch loaded with orchids. She was always in the know, her institutional memory about all things Calais (pronounced Cal-ISS) a resource for town fathers and residents alike.
"She's a rock," said Scott Bassage, 66, a Select Board member, shoveling out the wood pile outside the church Tuesday in preparation for its annual one-day occupancy.
"We are always relying on her to know what's going on and what needs doing. She has the history of Calais from who knows what year, and she uses it very well. She can apply something that happened 30 years ago to something happening today, and we all learn from it."
Alas, Morse doesn't know everything.
She prepared the bound red Town of Calais 2010 annual report for the printer, but somehow it came back with an extra page marked "Dedication," with a color picture of her at her home desk, surrounded by her cats. She doesn't know who slipped it in there.
"For 48 years, Eva has watched over us," read the text below it. "From her home office with feline assistants, she recorded our births; as justice of the peace, she married us; and she shed a tear for us as she recorded our passing. Most of all, she knew all about us and our neighbors."
"As you said recently, 'You can't take the clerk out of Calais.' For us, you can never take Eva out of Calais.'"