Donnette Goodenow wears one of her trademark umbrella hats as she stands next to one of her floral displays at the Harpswell Recycling Center and Transfer Station. (JERRY KLEPNER PHOTO)
Standing by the town trash compactor with a smile as big as Casco Bay is a ray of sunshine. She’s wearing a multicolored, pint-sized umbrella on her head; purple glasses; a grubby, fluorescent-green T-shirt; and jeans.
“Hello, how are you today?” Donnette Goodenow cheerfully asks as Bill Wells gets out of his Volkswagen after wrangling for a parking space.
“How are you doing?” he automatically responds.
“I’m good now,” the Harpswell Recycling Center and Transfer Station employee says with a grin. Most don’t know that Goodenow (pronounced “good now”) is her last name, and Donnette loves the pun.
Wells, like most others who come from every part of Harpswell to dump a week or two of trash, says Donnette is a treasure. “She’s outgoing, very jovial and kind to everyone,” notes the Bailey Island resident.
“Take care of this lady,” another customer says as he walks back to his truck. “She’s awesome.”
Vehicles continue to pull in on a hot, end-of-summer day, loaded with heavy, black plastic bags stuffed with stinky garbage; piles of leveled cardboard boxes; empty mayonnaise jars; and crumpled soup cans bound for the compactor or for recycling. It’s a nasty job that Donnette takes seriously, while at the same time being the happy-go-lucky greeter. Sharing duties with her is John Warner, whom she playfully refers to as “the grouch.”
Donnette dashes between SUVs to direct traffic as heavy equipment rolls over fresh blacktop to make way for more parking spaces.
“I love this job,” she says. “I meet great people and get to be outdoors. I drive a tractor. I like all of it.”
Many simply know Donnette as the colorful “umbrella lady” who tells people where recyclables go and where trash is tossed. She plants fake flowers in the top of orange traffic cones near the one remaining trash compactor while another compactor is being built.
Her distinctive “hat” is a dinner plate-size “umbrella” she wears with a black band across her forehead to keep it in place. It keeps out the sun and the rain. Her dad bought her one years ago and now she has a cardboard box of about a dozen of them with different colors and designs. She picks one to match her mood each day. “It beats wearing a sunhat,” she says.
“I guess people like me because I’m extra nice. I like seeing people smile,” she says. “I’ve always been outgoing. My dad was and I’m one of those people — if I see something to be done, I do it.”
She rushes to help a frail, older woman who drives up in her sedan. “I like to help the elderly who can’t get out of their cars or don’t walk well,” she says.
After working for the community TV station for 10 years, Donnette trekked down the short hill to the recycling center, where she pitched in for three summers and now works full time.
“Hello, how you doing?” she asks as more drivers arrive to dump their household garbage. The response is always the same when she’s asked about her own day. “Good now,” she says, chuckling. “I say it all day.”
Dave Keaney, who lives on Orr’s Cove, tossed a bag of trash into the bin and called Donnette “wonderful.”
“They’re all really good. I love this place,” he says.
Everyone who walks by greets her and she teases them and loudly calls most of them by name across the parking lot. “I’m a boring, normal person,” she jokes.
She prefers working in the winter, when it’s cold and the trash doesn’t stink as much. When the recycling center is really busy in the summer, it’s wicked hot and the smell of rotting garbage is enough to make anyone lose their lunch. Donnette combats the smells by smearing Vicks VapoRub or cinnamon under her nose.
Donnette, who grew up in Bowdoinham and Brunswick, was named after her father, Donald, and mother, Pearlette.
“I’m 56 but I tell everybody I’m 47,” she says, grinning. “I like to say 47 because it’s odd, like me.”
She lives in Harpswell with her husband, Richard Graves, an excavator. They have three children and seven grandchildren.
“I’m very family oriented,” she says. They hike and camp and she likes arts and crafts and photography. She looks after the Harpswell Scout Hall near Kellogg Church on Route 123, mowing the lawn and taking care of its bottle bin.
In August, Donnette made her debut in a community theater production of “Leaving Iowa.” She played a farm stand vendor, a hog farmer’s wife and a “car chaser” whose spoken line was “Don’t park there.”
In the play’s last scene, she walked on stage wearing one of her recognizable umbrella hats and happily announced: “I’m good now.”