By ANDY KIRKALDY
CORNWALL — In 28 years leading the Middlebury College football program, retired Panther head coach Mickey Heinecken’s teams won 126 games.
But none of those victories may have meant as much to the 69-year-old Cornwall resident as did Democratic President-elect Barack Obama’s surge to victory on Election Day.
Heinecken spent a month living in his camper in Berlin, N.H., as a volunteer for the Obama campaign, knocking on doors and seeking votes on Nov. 4.
Heinecken had never volunteered for a campaign before, but had been impressed with Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and decided to support him during the primary season.
“There’s such a sense of optimism that’s been missing in the country,” Heinecken said, back in Addison County late last week. “All of those things aren’t going to happen, but the tone that he set is so different than that we’ve lived with the last eight years that I became a believer.
“I’m retired, and my life revolves around stuff that isn’t important at all, and there was really no reason not to,” Heinecken continued. “And I had a neighbor (Bill Mandigo, the Middlebury College women’s hockey coach and his former football assistant) that said to me a while back that if you feel it’s so important, get off your fanny and do something … And he was right.”
Heinecken said he had also seen “ill will” toward America when traveling abroad with his wife, Carol.
“People were always nice to us, and I think they liked Americans, but ... after 9-11 people would have given us the shirt off their backs they had such empathy for us, and now to be seen in such an ill light was so frustrating,” he said.
Heinecken did some phone work during the primaries, but was ready for more this fall. With Vermont a lock for Obama, he decided to focus on New Hampshire, a swing state that twice voted for Republican George W. Bush. He headed to his daughter’s hometown of Concord, but Obama’s campaign there had plenty of manpower.
Heinecken was asked if he would help in Berlin, at about 9,000 people the largest town in New Hampshire’s northernmost county, Coos (pronounced CO-oss). He jumped in his camper and joined the one paid staffer, recent University of New Hampshire graduate Kate Gannon, as the only full-time volunteer.
He described Berlin as a hardscrabble town in a rural area, one faced with the recent closure of two major mills, a swing town in a swing state. Eventually, Coos County voted for Obama over Republican John McCain, 9,681-6,645, or 59-41 percent. That was greater than the statewide margin for Obama of 54-45 percent.
“It’s the kind of town both candidates talked about, that had been devastated by the loss of jobs,” Heinecken said. “You go around the community and you see boarded-up storefronts and houses that are unoccupied.”
Even in that remote outpost, Heinecken said he saw the evidence of Obama’s advantages in manpower and organization over the McCain campaign. McCain did not have an office there, and Obama had twice as many offices in New Hampshire.
And when Heinecken hit the streets, he was ready.
“The organization of the campaign, and I’m sure everyone can see this now, was one of the keys in the race,” he said. “As a volunteer, if you were going to canvas ... you’d come in and they’d have a packet all laid out for you, with a little map on how to get to the area, with little dots on where the houses were ... the names of the people, their party affiliation, the number of kids.”
His job was to persuade Democratic voters to show up on Nov. 4 and vote for Obama and to convince swing voters to vote Democratic. The campaign did not waste his time by having him knock on GOP doors.
Because New Hampshire residents are used to outsiders talking politics, Heinecken did not find his Vermont residency a drawback, although he said he was occasionally greeted with curses, threats involving guns, and remarks that “I’m not voting for an N-word,” or that Obama was the anti-Christ.
Knocking on up to 90 doors a day and hoping that 20 to 40 percent would be answered, Heinecken even used his Vermont residency to help make his case.
“I had no embarrassment in saying that I came all the way from Vermont, and I’m living in a truck camper over here for a month, and I’m doing that because this is the most important election in our lifetime,” he said.
Early on, Heinecken saw some resistance to Obama among Democrats based on the color of his skin and the resentment of former Hillary Clinton supporters.
“They would rail for five minutes how bad it was. ‘I hate Bush. I’d never vote for McCain.’ ‘Well, then are you ready to vote for Obama?’ ‘Nah. Not yet. I’m not sure.’ So there were all these underlying issues,” he said.
Heinecken believes Obama’s debate performances proved to be turning points.
“I think that in some cases that’s where the debates did help, the poise in which he handled himself,” he said.
Heinecken himself rediscovered an age-old lesson, that appearances can deceive.
“You tend to judge people by how they appear, which I learned, ‘Don’t do,’” he said. “I met this one fella that met the stereotypical image of the white, working-class male that was being talked about on TV. He was a little rough-around-the-edges ... and he was a little tattoo-covered. And I said, ‘What are you thinking of?’ And he said, ‘I’m Obama all the way.’ And he went on with a long, very intelligent discourse on why.”
But it turned out the man’s brother still held racist views, which the man had abandoned while serving under an African-American sergeant in the military. Heinecken asked him if he would persuade his brother to change his mind.
Heinecken said the man had tried to persuade his brother, and quoted his effort: “I says to him, ‘Listen, Charlie, it’s a new age. Get with it, man. Get over it.’”
Heinecken watched the election results at home with Carol. He said he knew when Ohio fell Obama’s way that the Democrat would win. He appreciated that he and 5 million other regular volunteers, a number swelled in the final days, all did their small part to create that result.
He noted that almost 50 people came from Vermont to Berlin on the Sunday before the election, some in response to a letter to the editor he wrote to the Independent asking for help.
“I appreciate being a little speck in this thing was important in the grander scheme. Because Obama’s not president unless all these little specks like myself and Kate and all these other people who came over there to volunteer ... don’t come together,” he said.
Heinecken said ultimately he volunteered, “because if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have felt good about it.”
But what he feels best about was the result, and watching history being made.
“To see the emotions, to see what this means for black persons. To see Jesse Jackson with just tears streaming out of his eyes, and all the countless other shots of black people. You can’t put yourself in their shoes, but the impact of that, it made me feel really proud of the United States. Racism is still alive and well here, but it is a great historic moment,” Heinecken said.
“For all of us just to live and be a part of it, and be able to express these feelings is a great feeling.”