Portsmouth's Vern Gorton, 59, passed away this week and our town will, literally, never be the same.
He wasn't just a brilliant attorney — although he was that — or a devoted husband and dad, or the heart and soul of the Portsmouth Democratic party. He was a truly wonderful human being and I will miss him terribly.
I met Vern when I got involved with Portsmouth politics about ten years ago. I don't remember what the topic was, but I recall the first time I saw him take the podium at a Town Council meeting and thinking, wow, am I ever glad to be on the same side of that issue.
As I drifted into the local Democratic party, I would run into him at meetings. He was always level-headed, it seemed always smiling, and always able to put into words what everyone was thinking — and doing it in with a turn of phrase and a sense of humor. In all those years, I don't think I ever saw him lose his composure.
Over several campaigns, I had the great good fortune to work with Vern, and it was a masterclass in local politics, taught with wry wit and a clear, uncompromising eye. He had no patience for fools and called things as he saw them, but he unfailingly counseled taking the high road. Not that he was above slugging it out with the opposition — he was a person of deep convictions and he would not yield an inch — but he was always a gentleman.
He believed in the people and the Town of Portsmouth, and he encouraged the candidates he coached to serve the best interests of the community with intelligence and common sense. He was a wonderful mentor, and having his guidance during the election I ran for school committee was a truly special time. I learned a hell of a lot, and, I think, even more important, wanted to emulate what I came to see as his deep commitment to public service.
Vern was an inspirational leader, but one who led by doing. When I was looking around for a photo, I realized that there weren't many. Vern was always too busy working. When the local Democrats would be running our yearly clambake and all the candidates would be out shaking hands with Jack Reed, or David Cicilline, or Gina Raimondo, Vern would be back in the kitchen calmly making chowder. In our monthly town committee meetings, he'd usually be sitting in the back, listening, and only speaking up to say something that either made us all laugh or kept us from doing something stupid.
Portsmouth is a better place because of all that Vern did, and we will all miss his wisdom, judgment, and deep humanity. My heart goes out to family and friends, whose loss is even more immense. There are no words of consolation for a loss this great; only the comforting memory of someone who truly left everything he touched in better shape than he found it.