FAIR HAVEN — The loveliest Lincoln of them all is settling into her new role as a worldwide pet celebrity.
“It’s been invigorating, it really has,” said Fair Haven Grade School Principal Skip Cooke on Friday of the student-elected pet mayor. “We need this kind of thing. In my opinion, I think sometimes all of us just get too much of the doom and gloom kind of news. I think we need exciting things that are just fun, light-hearted, engaging, to share with your neighbor over the fence.”
“People enjoyed seeing Fair Haven on the national newspapers,” said Town Manager Joe Gunter. “Morale was boosted. It’s such a unique thing to be showcased around the world.”
The quiet town of Fair Haven was alight with reporters, cameras and crowds from more than a dozen radio stations Wednesday evening when Pet Mayor Lincoln was sworn in by the Select Board. Even international media outlets picked up the tale of Vermont’s first four-legged public official.
“Being put on the map, that was one of the most exciting things, because kids haven’t seen that before,” Cooke said. “What it also did is, it saw the power of the press, too. Something as small and unique as doing a fundraiser here.”
The Boston Globe, WCAX, the Burlington Free Press, the Japan Times, Fox News, Business Insider, the Montreal Gazette, Huffington Post, the New York Times and others published articles on Lincoln.
“It made this town very happy,” said Mark Gutel, owner of the Kinder Way Café. “It brought a positive energy to this town.
“It could have been bigger. We could’ve done more with it. It should have been celebrated locally. It shows people that we are a great community, and we stick together, no matter what.”
It all started at Kinder Way Café in January, when Gunter invited Cooke out to lunch to share an idea inspired by a small town in Michigan.
“It was created here,” Gutel said.
His initial reaction to the idea was uncertain, but Cooke agreed to explore the idea and several weeks later, he pitched it to his students, just before the regular election. Students would enter pets as candidates for mayor.
“Along with that was a contribution of $5, like a filing fee like you would when you run for office, and the donation would go to the playground ... a good cause and a great activity,” Cooke said.
Portraits and descriptions of the pet candidates were glued to a giant poster board and brought down to the ballots, where families and students voted for their favorite animal to represent the town as more of a mascot than a decision-maker.
“They got to go with their parents and vote, not just watch,” said math teacher Chris Stanton, Lincoln’s owner.
“The kids really liked the notoriety they received for it, that it was something special, something unique here at Fair Haven Grade School, and whether they felt connected or not, it still put them on the map,” Cooke said. “It was real ownership, and I’d predict that next year, we’ll have two or three times the number of entries. This has been motivating for kids.”
The election spurred conversation between Cooke and Stanton about bringing back civics classes and public speaking to public schools, even on an elementary level.
“Really getting into the election process and the civic responsibility...and really teaching them that our school is a community and how a community works. Those things are already in the works for a year from now,” Cooke said.
The grade school held a mock election in 2016. Cooke said the district is inspired to bring back public and community service exercises.
“The curricula have expanded in terms of what needs to be taught today. There are so many other things going on in the world today that seem to distract us,” Cooke said as he held up his iPhone and gestured to his laptop.
Behind Fair Haven Grade School is more than an acre of fields and recreational area, which Cooke said are packed with families in the summer, whether it’s for T-Ball or to climb on the small jungle gym area.
For around $80,000, Fair Haven can put a new jungle gym there, but the school’s last bid fell through, Cooke said.
So the school held a town election, dominated by Ms. Lincoln, which raised $80 in its inaugural year.
A GoFundMe Page — with Lincoln’s picture on it — has been started to help raise the roughly $70,000 needed to buy the town a new play place selected by the Parent Teacher Organization, Cooke said.
Other fundraisers, such as the spring fling, the Memorial Day Parade and Apple Fest, will all feature Mayor Lincoln hoofing it for the cause.
“As much as we can get kids involved with a structure that they’re going to put up, it would mean that much more to them if they know they put in a little sweat equity,” Stanton said.
As much as Lincoln is celebrating her electoral victory, Stanton said Lincoln is to be a one-term mayor, and will not seek re-election.
“She’s going to get as much as she can done in one term,” Stanton said. “Then she’ll leave it up to somebody else.”
Townsfolk hope the magic will last, though, and there’s no telling who will take office and their own personal sash next year.
“I had a young lady pop her head in the door to say how cool it was to see her hometown on television,” Gunter said. “A couple came in last week, banged on the door and said, ‘We want to see the mayor!’”