Maine's only female sheriff looks ahead to life after term ends

By Stephen Betts | Dec 21, 2018
Courtesy of: Knox County Sheriff's Office Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison

Rockland — Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison, the first and only woman to serve as a sheriff in Maine, said she plans to take a break after her 12-year run ends on New Year's Eve.

"I want to take a break. I need a rest," said the 66-year-old Dennison.

The St. George woman said she hopes to travel out West with her two dogs to take a vacation.

But Dennison said she won't be resting permanently. She said she would like to work part-time jobs, "I would do anything and everything," she said. "There are people out there who say they can't find a job, but I've always been able to."

Dennison said she would even be interested in being a sternman for a local lobsterman, but added that she would want to start slow.

"I've been doing so much office work, I'm not as strong as I once was," the veteran law enforcement officer said. "But I will work back up."

Dennison said her top advice for incoming Sheriff Tim Carroll, the current chief deputy, is to pay attention to the jail. Carroll will be sworn into office Dec. 31. Dennison did not seek reelection.

Dennison said turning around the jail operations is the achievement she is most proud of in her 12 years as sheriff.

Knox County had dealt with multiple lawsuits over illegal strip-searches prior to her election in 2006. There was also extremely low morale at the jail.

"We've come a long way. There were a lot of disgruntled employees. People have to buy into what you're doing," she said. "It's a better place to work today."

The worst part of the job over the years has been the politics, Dennison said. She said she would not consider running for another elected office, but said she could imagine running for sheriff again if there were problems in the future.

In 2006, she won in one of the closest elections ever for sheriff, garnering 6,236 votes, for a little more than 34 percent of the votes in a three-way contest with independent Todd Butler and Republican Alfred Ockenfels.

She was the first Democrat elected sheriff in Knox County in 70 years, and remains the only woman to serve as a county sheriff in the state.

In 2010, she won reelection, with 55 percent of the vote. And in 2014, she won with 66 percent of the vote.

Dennison said she remains shocked that she won that first race 12 years ago.

"I never expected to do as much as I did. The message to young girls is that you can do anything you want," Dennison said earlier this year.

Dennison was born in Waterville and raised in the South Thomaston area. She quit school at 16 years old to get married.

In an earlier interview, she said dropping out of high school was a mistake and if she had any advice for young people it would be to stay in school to increase their opportunities. Dennison later earned her GED.

She grew up on a farm and had wanted to be a veterinarian. She admitted that she missed a lot by dropping out of school. Her family was poor; their home had no running water. Water had to be lugged from a well.

Dennison has worked in a variety of jobs over the years. She has worked as a chambermaid, in a restaurant, as a bartender at the former Chuck Wagon in Rockland, and in fish plants. She also worked the midnight shift at the former Crowe Rope in Warren.

Dennison worked at food additive manufacturing plant FMC Corp. in Rockland in the early 1980s, until the workers went on strike and the company replaced the striking laborers.

About the same time, then-Jail Administrator Albert Hutchinson asked Dennison if she wanted to work as a matron at the old Knox County Jail. She was then offered a job as a dispatcher, which she accepted, but she said she was scared, since she had never done anything like that.

She left to help run a small excavation business.

She also raised two daughters during her 13-year marriage.

In 1991, she returned to the county as a dispatcher. A year later, she asked about becoming a part-time deputy.

A few years later, a sergeant's position opened and she was promoted, and then in 1999 she took a detective's job.

Seven years after that she ran for sheriff.

Comments (5)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Dec 21, 2018 15:43

Dennison is a familiar name, as I recall many Dennison's working at NSP packing fish or working in the freezer department or the Ship Yard. All hard workers and honest as the day is long. Good luck to this Dennison who broke the ceiling by becoming the first woman Sheriff in Rockland. The old saying is: "If you want a job done, hire a woman!" For the record, I worked in the Personnel Office of NCP for many years.

Mary "Mickey" (Brown) McKeever


Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Dec 21, 2018 13:31

Sheriff Dennison is a great role model for girls and women. She has paved the way for them and broke the glass ceiling. Let us see more women in law enforcement.  Best wishes for her future endeavors.

Posted by: Nicole Jeanette Boutin | Dec 21, 2018 13:04

She was one of the best...James Raye


Posted by: Walter Foster | Dec 21, 2018 09:51

And you will not find a nicer person.  Carolyn Foster

Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Dec 21, 2018 05:48

Yes, there have been many positive changes; in both her personal life and the Sheriff's department. Thanks for a very inspiring story that shows that with a willingness to do the work the sky is the limit.  And that old saying, "Nice guys finish last." is hogwash. ;)

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