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A trail of achievements, an unfillable void

PETERBOROUGH — Francie Von Mertens went out about a week ago to Fremont Field off Old Town Farm Road, carrying chain saws with her friends Duffy and Rick Monahon and other members of the Peterborough Conservation Commission.

“It was so typical of Duffy,” Von Mertens said on Monday. “She calls me up, says ‘National Service Day tomorrow. Let’s go clear some trails.’”

The crew spent a busy morning cutting up and clearing several large trees that had fallen and sharing “intensely chocolate” treats that Duffy had brought along. Then Duffy and Rick had to take their leave.

“They had their good clothes on underneath, because they were heading off to Peterborough Players,” Von Mertens said. “Off they go, walking together down the snowy trail. Guess who was carrying the chain saw? … Duffy. We had a lot of chuckles, but right now it’s very sad.”

The deaths of Rick and Duffy Monahon will leave a huge void in Peterborough and the surrounding towns, where they were well loved for their efforts to conserve and protect both the land and the historic buildings of the Monadnock region. The couple died in an automobile accident on Routes 9 and 202 on Sunday afternoon, as they were returning from an afternoon of skiing.

“I’m hearing from so many people,” said Von Mertens, who said Duffy Monahon was a catalyst in conserving more than 150 acres of conservation land and a leader in historic preservation efforts. “We can’t imagine Peterborough without them. They were characters — different people, but what a team.”

Rick Monahon started his architectural practice in Peterborough in the mid 1970s, according to his colleague David Drasba, and had his office upstairs in the Granite Block for the entire time, putting out a sign for the first time just a few weeks ago. Drasba said Rick got his start in historic restoration when he worked on saving the mills in the village of Harrisville.

“Over the years, he did just about every type of building. Banks, schools. A lot of residential work,” Drasba said. “Rehabilitation of historic buildings was closest to his heart.”

Duffy was also an architect, and much of her work focused on historic renovation projects.

“She was devoted to any lost cause, it seems,” Drasba said. “Duffy was always ready to jump in and make a difference.”

“Duffy was lovably aggravating,” said Peterborough Town Administrator Pam Brenner, describing a woman who Brenner said performed a vital service to the town over the years.

“She was instrumental in saving the buildings of Depot Square,” Brenner said. “She understood how to preserve our town before ‘sprawl’ was even a word.”

One area where Duffy focused her attention was working with the Heritage Commission, where she became involved with projects ranging from efforts to save houses in Peterborough that were due to be demolished to weighing in on long-range projects like the proposed renovation of the Main Street bridge at the intersection by the town library. Her friend and fellow Heritage Commission member Debby Kaiser said Duffy was a wealth of knowledge.

“It was in huge chaotic piles, but she always found the information,” Kaiser said on Monday. “She didn’t let you say ‘Oh, too much bother.’ She made things so much fun.”

Kaiser said the Monahons’ architectural skills and preservation expertise have been crucial to the town.

“They stood for what they believed in. It wasn’t always sweetness and light.” she said. “I don’t know what will happen without their leadership.”

Craig Hicks of Peterborough is a builder and developer who was project manager when the Peterborough Town House was restored. He said Duffy didn’t hesitate to give him feedback.

“For the past 30 years, there have been a lot of ups and downs working together,” Hicks said. “Duffy was quite a back-seat driver. I always appreciated her two cents and she never held back. I respect the fact that she cared so much about the town of Peterborough.”

Hicks said Rick was a creative architect with an incredible ability to fit a building to a site and a diligent member of the Planning Board, where he recently became chair.

“This is an incredible loss to the town of Peterborough,” Hicks said. “Those will be tough shoes to fill.”

Rodney Bartlett, head of Peterborough’s Department of Public Works, said both the Monahons will be sorely missed. He said Duffy was a unique personality.

“In her heart, she worked to protect the historic structures of Peterborough.,” Bartlett said. “She did that as well as anyone could. She was a character, but we always had positive interaction, even when we were on opposite sides.”

Bartlett worked with Rick Monahon on a number of projects, including the installation of a wood pellet boiler in the Town House and the renovations of the former Armory on Elm Street.

“His level of interest and concern was extraordinary,” Bartlett said. “His commitment to the town really stuck out. It was refreshing to deal with a firm that had the interest of the community at heart.”

Peterborough’s director of community development, Carol Ogilvie, worked closely with Rick when he took on the role as chair of the Planning Board recently.

“He had wonderful people skills,” Ogilvie said. “He was taking very seriously his role to guide the board, which has many new members.”

Peterborough Select Board member Joe Byk said the Monahons were a creative force in shaping what Peterborough is today.

“I learned so much from them because they could see so far ahead of everyone else,” Byk told the Ledger-Transcript. “In the early ’90s, there were some in town who were pushing to rezone as commercial our beautiful gateways into town. … But Duffy  evangelized the  revitalization of  our downtown. At times she was like a lone wolf howling in the dark. The Depot Square area was abandoned at that time. Now it is architecturally beautiful and economically vibrant,  an integral part of our downtown. This was [the Monahon’s] vision of preservation and smart growth, co-existing. What we are is a direct result of who they were.”

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