Longtime town moderator Spiess remembered for fairness, wit

Gary Spiess, the town moderator who led Marblehead Town Meeting with dexterity, fairness and a quick wit for 16 years, died on Friday, Nov. 25. He was 82.

The cause of Spiess’ death was not readily available, but it comes just months after he decided not to run for a 17th term as town moderator, opening an elected office that for nearly 60 years had been held by only two men, Spiess and Steve Howe.

Gary Spiess, who served as town moderator for 16 years, died on Nov. 25. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

“It is sad to think that he will not be at Town Meeting as a citizen, instead of running the show,” said Marblehead Select Board member Jackie Belf-Becker. “Gary Spiess was a wonderful man.”

Voters elected Spiess in 2005 as Howe’s successor after Howe had served as town moderator for 42 years, from 1963 to 2005.

Spiess was what some might consider Howe’s Town Meeting “wing man.”

“Steve had me as his ‘assistant town moderator’ for a number of years,” Spiess told the Marblehead Current in June. “And I didn’t have much choice when I ran: Steve came up to me and said, ‘I want to retire, but I won’t retire unless you run for moderator.'”

But Spiess still needed to get his wife’s approval to run.

“She was like, ‘Why not?'” Spiess said with a chuckle. “So, I got the green light right there.”

Spiess took his stewardship of Marblehead Town Meeting, “the purest form of democracy,” very seriously.

As the town’s legislative body, Town Meeting is charged with three major duties: setting the salaries of elected officials, voting to appropriate money to run the town and approving the town’s local statutes, which are called bylaws.

“To be town moderator, understanding town meeting law is essential: To know when someone can seek an amendment, to know how to keep order–these are attributes that are critical,” former Marblehead Select Board member Harry Christensen said. “Gary knew town meeting law well, and very rarely did he seek an opinion from town counsel.”

Throughout his tenure, Spiess said he had tried to ensure citizens’ petitions got a full and fair airing at Town Meeting, working with sponsors to make sure their language passes legal muster.

“I don’t want [a petitioner] to get shut out of Town Meeting because of some mistake they made in their application,” he said. “The challenge I have with citizens is simply making sure they’re acceptable as formed, so I’ve spent a lot of time sort of being the intermediary between town counsel and the petition sponsor.”

To Spiess, the key ingredients to a successful Town Meeting were “respect for our fellow citizens, sticking to the topic under discussion, no personal attacks, and knowing when you’ve said enough.”

Higher education brought Spiess, who grew up in Wauseon, Ohio and St. Louis, to New England. He attended Dartmouth College on a football scholarship, graduating in 1962. He then graduated from Harvard Law School in 1966.

Spiess was a corporate attorney, served on the Marblehead Zoning Board of Appeals and coached youth soccer for many years.

Select Board Chair Moses Grader said Spiess had an ability to read the direction of Town Meeting debate. He understood Marbleheaders valued brevity, and when debate became redundant, Spiess would say, “I think we’re getting to that point where everything has been said, but not everyone has said it yet.”

“He kind of was that classic Marbleheader in the sense that he didn’t beat around the bush,” Grader said. “He told you what he thought, but he was also very generous and caring.”

Belf-Becker agreed, “His Town Meetings were tight and to the point.”

Grader said Spiess worked to create a welcoming Town Meeting where citizens could feel free to weigh in.

“Running a good Town Meeting was very important,” said Grader. “But I will tell you he really respected the whole process, including the importance and courage that it takes for people to stand up and speak, and he certainly encouraged that.”

Spiess said he would have stepped down as town moderator sooner, but then COVID-19 arrived. Spiess decided he would see Town Meeting through a once-in-a-century pandemic, making arrangements with public safety and elected officials to stage an outside town meeting in the Veterans Middle School parking lot.

John McGinn, the former town administrator and finance director, worked with Spiess for several years. He noted Spiess’ diligence and fairness.

“He always wanted not only to understand each of the articles on the Town Meeting warrant but also wanted to understand both sides of every issue covered by the various articles,” he said. “The town has lost a great deal of institutional knowledge with Gary’s passing, but more importantly, the town has lost a leader who always worked to make Marblehead a better place.”

Like others, his successor, Marblehead Town Moderator Jack Attridge, pinned the descriptor “gentleman” to Spiess’ character. He admired Spiess’ “utmost respect for the purest form of democracy and his stewardship of it as moderator.”

“I would usually run into Gary down at Barnegat and the last few times, we would share ‘Mr. Moderator’ back and forth,” said Attridge. “Gary would almost always be on foot and always with Betsy, their dog, and any other family member who happened to be in town.”

He added, “Gary will always be remembered as fair and balanced with a bit of humor.”

For memorial service information, see Gary Spiess’ obituary.

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