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Congressman Neal Tours Berkshires’ Hilltowns


By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
02:35PM / Friday, April 05, 2013

WINDSOR, Mass. — Peter Menard had quite the smile on his face when he introduced a “real live congressman” to more than dozen residents.

The 875 residents of Windsor are just a small fraction of the 1st Massachusetts Congressional district that spans 87 cities and towns, including large urban areas like Springfield, Chicopee and Pittsfield. They are just 875 of the 723,000 people U.S. Rep. Richard Neal represents but it is those 875 he traveled over the hilly, bumpy roads of Berkshire County to meet on Thursday.

“For me it is a chance to build a long-term relationship and these are the small steps you take,” Neal said after a day touring several small hilltowns. “Public life isn’t just the camera lens, it is also the pausing and saying hello, genuinely.”

The small unheated room of the Windsor Historical Museum provided that opportunity. Main Street had been lined with cars as more than a dozen residents crammed the small Main Street house. Historical Commissioner Menard ushered Neal through the multiple rooms explaining the town’s history, pointing out artifacts and introducing him to everyone.

Then the residents armed themselves with coffee and doughnuts to pepper him with questions about major issues facing the country.

“I thought that this was a very warm reception,” Neal said. ” [I’ve made] face-to-face contact but not just to talk, but to listen. I’ve had that opportunity to see some very good examples of can-doism coupled with regional pride … For me it is very, very helpful.”

Windsor seldom sees its congressional representatives, if at all, and neither does Peru. Peru has just finished constructing a new fire station — a project years overdue. The volunteer department had a tiny, dirt-floor station with no bathrooms that barely fit two vehicles. It took years for the town to secure grant money and a USDA loan to construct it.

While Neal hadn’t been in a position to assist because Peru was only recently added to his district, he wanted to see it because “they wanted to show it off.” Before heading to Windsor, he met with Peru Selectman Ed Richards and Town Clerk Christine Richards. For more than a half hour, the three chatted while Neal got a close look at the new firehouse.

The Peru couple also shared their concerns and a little bit about the town. But before Neal had left, they had another request, a request Neal’s staff promised they would do — to get a Neal campaign sign to put on their front lawn.

Neal received another warm reception earlier when he met with the Hinsdale Fire Department to talk about a $61,000 federal grant the department has reeled in for a new air compressor, cascade bottles and fill station.

Fire Chief Larry Turner said the grant replaces the old refill station at the firehouse. The large tanks are then loaded into a “rehab truck” to refill air tanks at the scene. The rehab trailer, which the firefighters built, also includes medical, coffee and rations and other on-scene needs

The truck is the only one like it in the county and is taken to emergencies around the region as well as being the main rehab truck for the Berkshire County Dive Team. Most recently, it was dispatched to the dive team during the recovery of the body of a man who had drowned in a canoeing accident in Stockbridge.

This trip into the hilltowns came after Neal had already taken part in an broadband event with Gov. Deval Patrick and other elected officials in Otis. He left there and went to Wahconah High School, where he taught and fielded questions from Jared Shannon’s American government class.

After Windsor, his busy day was not ended — he spoke with the Berkshire County Selectmen’s Association back in Dalton. For a representative who spends a lot of time in Washington, D.C., he made sure to do what he could on Thursday.

“I promised during the course of the campaign in the process of reapportionment that I would pay a lot of attention to the smallest towns and the biggest cities. We’ve done that and we intend to fully do it,” the Springfield resident said.

Neal was accompanied by state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who knows exactly what it is like to live in a town that feels as though politicians have forgotten about it. He moved from Hancock to Peru recently and had made it a mission to “make sure they know who we are.”

“He has now hit every single town in this part of his district,” Mark said of Neal.

But for the small, out-of-the way towns, it could be the last time they see a congressman for a while.