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Person of the Week
Three Careers, One Town: Spurrell Gives Back to Guilford
As the town’s first K9 officer, a successful builder, and now realtor, Guilford native Steve Spurrell has given back to his hometown in many significant ways that all have a special meaning to him. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier)
Steve Spurrell has enjoyed three distinct, productive careers in Guilford, and in each incarnation, he’s dipped into a seemingly endless well of commitment to better his hometown.
The Guilford High School (GHS) Class of ‘74 member left town only briefly to complete his law enforcement degree at Bryant College (now university). Returning, the Guilford native started off his first career with Guilford police, also becoming its inaugural K9 officer. That effort began in 1979, when the still-new patrolman researched, wrote, and presented an 80-page outline to the Police Commission, and eventually the town, explaining the value of adding a K9 unit. Steve was literally responsible for instituting the program in this town.
By 1986, however, a side business Steve started to supplement his police income, Neighborhood Builders, Inc., was so successful, he reluctantly left his police work with his K9 partner, Lancer—but once a handler, always a handler. Steve adopted Lancer, giving the him a great “retirement home” for the last year and half of his life.
Though he gave the department many month’s notice to allow for a new officer to take over and complete training at the State’s K9 Academy, after Steve and Lancer left, Guilford’s K9 Unit lapsed.
What people may not recognize is that, for the next three decades, Steve kept up a recurring effort to meet with every police chief to pitch restoring the town’s K9 unit.
“When I left, it cost $549 a year to have the program at the Police Department,” says Steve, who even offered to pay the costs, at one point, taking his plea to then-first selectman Frank Larkin, because “I firmly believe a police dog is a tool that every police department should have one of.”
As he was working toward these goals, Steve was also tapped to assist as a local leader. He served on the Police Building Committee as vice chair for the current headquarters at 400 Church Street. In addition, he served the town for six years through his appointment to the town’s Standing Building Committee, and also served for eight years on the Board of Finance.
Perhaps the most rewarding result of his efforts arrived last year, on four legs. After a 30-year hiatus, in 2016, Guilford Police renewed its K9 program. In all those years, Steve hadn’t given up pushing for the program.
“I met with [current Chief] Jeff Hutchinson on the day he was sworn in. He knew it was coming! He said, ‘Every option is on the table.’ I said, ‘That’s all I can ask for, chief.’ Police work...it becomes you, and you become it,” says Steve.
When you consider Steve kept pushing for three decades for something he believed in, you understand why he never gave up on another promise made about 11 years ago. At that time, Steve answered a call from Guilford Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 7666 Commander Larry Santamaria to assess adding heating and cooling to the VFW building.
“I walked in with my builder hat on, looking around,” says Steve. “The place is falling down—and worse yet, it has no insulation. How do you heat a tent?”
Instead, Steve made a commitment to raise all the money and materials needed and build the VFW a new home. For free.
Steve, a past president of the Home Builders Association of New Haven County, had the needed connections to add to his passion for the project.
“The economy was screaming. Construction was going on all over,” says Steve. “I went every local vendor I knew and said, ‘How about if we do a barn-raising type of thing for the VFW?’ And everybody was in, 100 percent,” says Steve.
Plans were racing along, until the recession hit in 2008, slamming on the brakes and slowing the project to crawl. During that time, Steven was forced to close his own construction business.
“The world changed, very quickly. I put a key in the door, and closed it up and said, ‘Okay! What am I going to do when I grow up?’” says Steve.
He found his next career as a realtor.
“It wasn’t pretty for a lot of years. You were working your tail off,” says Steve.
Through it all, Steve kept fundraising for a new Guilford VFW, knowing he couldn’t give up.
“We did a fundraiser every single year, for awareness and to raise a little bit of money. One of our top years was $10,000—knowing we’d need between a million and million and a half.”
In 2014, then-state representative Pat Widlitz came through.
“She called and said, ‘Steve, I need a proposal, right now,’” says Steve, who pulled together VFW principals and reached out for favors from local pros including architect Russell T. Campaigne.
In a very quick turnaround, Steve had an architectural design and the needed budget numbers. Steve and Santamaria went up to Hartford to, as he recalls, “hear the gavel bang” as the State Bonding Commission approved funding for the nearly $1.4 million project.
Even with money, Steve faced a few more hurdles. Once again, he didn’t give up.
“What we didn’t know, what we learned the hard way...is because it’s state money, the contractor has to be bonded for 100 percent of his bid. So that takes it away from all of the local contractors, and gives it to those with a higher overhead. So the first [proposal] came out 30 percent over budget,” says Steve. “We came to the conclusion to take down the hall portion of the building, rebuild it substantially in just about its same footprint, and remodel the kitchen and members’ bar.”
The project was redrawn and put out to bid. This October, the selected builder is scheduled to start construction, expected to be completed in six months.
“It is finally going forward,” Steve says. “It’s going to be a huge improvement, and best yet, we can hand Larry the keys for free.”
Before Steve watches the ground break for the VFW building renovation on Mill Road in just a few more weeks, there’s something he needs to do next week, for another great cause. On Saturday, Sept. 9, Steve will once again head up traffic and safety for the Closer to Free Ride. The ride, which now spans 18 towns and draws thousands of cyclists annually, is the primary fundraising event for Smilow Cancer Hospital.
Steve signed on seven years ago for the first ride, after an organizer asked Steve to contribute his traffic and safety skills honed on the police force. On Sept. 9, he’ll be back at Yale Bowl from about 4:30 a.m. until well after the last rider comes in that day, usually about 6 p.m.
“There are 500 volunteers in the course of that day who...do a great job,” says Steve.
In the meantime, if anyone needs Steve, they know where to find him—in downtown Guilford, working with the realtor team at Page Taft Christie’s IRE.
“Agents are constantly remarking on the amount of people who will walk by, see me in the window, and stop in say ‘Hi,’” says Steve, a father of two (both daughters now live and work out of state) and brand-new grandfather.
Office Manager Suzanne McCormick has seen it first-hand.
“He is loved by all who know him, especially his family, and his co-workers here,” says McCormick. “We know, if there is any person in need, someone who needs help in any way, that [with] one phone call to Steve, and no matter what he is doing, he’ll be there, ready to help.”