Home is where his heart is

Souter eschews power for a small N.H. town

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / May 2, 2009
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WEARE, N.H. - General John Stark Highway takes you past Sully's Superette, Mister G's Tires, and the Mobile Home Cooperative to the center of a town that, in the words of a roadside sign, is "a part of yesterday in touch with tomorrow."

A few miles more over the Piscataquog River, past stone walls, a syrup stand, and chicken wire fences, stands a rickety farmhouse. A crooked mailbox and horse-and-buggy nameplate on a time-worn barn bear the name Souter.

Here is where Supreme Court Justice David Souter was raised and returns each summer to sequester himself in the farm house that his grandparents built in this rural town of silos and grassy pastures, and where he is beloved as "one of our own." This is what he has given up one of the most powerful jobs in the land to return to.

"This is his favorite place in the whole world," said Maureen Billodeau, the town's collections clerk, who says she sees the justice when he comes to Town Hall to register his car or just say hello. "It will be so good to have him back."

Souter, who was born in Melrose but spent much of his childhood in New Hampshire, is revered here less for being an exalted figure in American jurisprudence than he is for his persistent rejection of the trappings of power, and big city life. Souter made no secret, during his 19 years on the high court, of his disdain for Washington, where he kept a Spartan apartment in an unfashionable neighborhood and rejected the glittering social life that is lifeblood of Washington power circles. He frequently proclaimed his love for New Hampshire, and fled here often, writing once that "I need some period of the year when I can make a close approach to solitude."

Such expressions of love for their way of life have won Souter a kind of hero status, as the rare figure picked for stardom but who wasn't seduced by it.

"He wants to be here for the same reasons I do," said Chip Meany, a 66-year-old who is the town's code enforcement officer. "Peace, quiet, and friendly people."

During his summers at the farm, Souter leads an uncomplicated existence, even by New Hampshire standards. Many said they believe he reads, mostly, confining himself largely to the farm and seeming to have few needs. Some say they see him on summer evenings taking nightly runs along back roads, and that he appears from time to time in town.

Famously averse to contemporary gadgets (he is said to have been given his first television set by former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman but that he never plugged it in), Souter is reputed to have few technological conveniences save a telephone.

"He lives a pretty primitive life," Meany said, saying he had heard that Souter's refrigerator was a model so old that the cooling unit is on top. "He's out there in the puckerbrush, in that house that's old as the hills. You look at the house and it's like going back 100 years. But it's home."

Outside Meany's office hangs a picture of Souter with George H. W. Bush, who nominated him to the high court in 1990. Beside that hangs a commendation from the town for being named to the court, and a handwritten letter from Souter thanking the town for the honor, which he said moved him deeply.

Souter's devotion to his hometown, residents said, showed that fame and success hadn't changed him. Indeed, friends close to Souter said decided to retire, at least in part, because he was ready to throw off the shackles of Washington, D.C., for a simpler, quieter life.

"It's a hillbilly town," said Victor Castonguay, 52, before explaining he meant that as a term of endearment. "It's slow, relaxed. Everyone knows each other. It's a good life."

Souter's 8-acre lot, by far the most modest home in a neighborhood of modest homes, is appraised at $226,000, according to town records.

In the windows hung ragged curtains and curled, crumbled blinds. Plastic held down by rocks guarded the base of the house, where paint had all but peeled off the frame.

Yet the wooded road was deeply peaceful, with the chirping of birds and the wind whistling through the trees the only sound for minutes at a time.

Around the corner, Alice Grenier said she woke up to the news that Souter, her old friend, was coming back to Cilley Hill Road. Souter had told her as much last summer, she said, but he had told her to keep it quiet since he might change his mind.

"I have an idea he'll fit right back in," she said.

At a general store in the center of town, where customers can buy antiques, sandwiches, and fishing bait, locals looked over a newspaper with the news on the front page.

"If I had a job like that, I'd want to be done, too," said Audrey Janssen, one of the owners.