Walter Musson is seen clearing snow and ice from the roof of an apartment building on Center Street in Bangor in February 2017. Musson died Jan. 4. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Walter Musson, a man known by clients, friends and acquaintances in the Bangor area as “The Slate Man,” died Jan. 4 due to complications from a fall from a ladder. He was 68.

Musson, a Newburgh resident, was for more than 40 years renowned as a master roofer, copperworker, builder and repairer of chimneys — the go-to guy for preservation of the slate roofs atop the Bangor region’s countless 19th- and early 20th-century homes, via his roofing business, Bangor Slate Company.

According to his obituary and to many tributes posted on social media, Musson re-roofed and repaired houses and buildings ranging from single-family homes built during the Victorian era to roofs of notable Bangor buildings, such as the Unitarian Universalist Church on Park Street and the turreted Main Street building belonging to People’s United Bank, formerly the home of the Penobscot Theatre Company. In his obituary, his wife, Ellen Pariser, called the bank building his “masterpiece.”

Musson was born in 1950 in Great Pond, a town about 30 miles east of Bangor where 58 people lived as of the 2010 Census. He was the only student in his grade in a one-room schoolhouse, and according to his obituary, his main education came from reading the encyclopedia. He said he got up to the letter W.

He began attending Brewer High School in 1964, where he was on the 1968 Brewer football team that won the Class A state championship during an 11-0 season. He was offered admission to the United States Naval Academy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University. He attended the latter briefly, but dropped out in the early 1970s and traveled to Europe. It was while working at a salvage lumberyard in the Netherlands that he homed in on his lifetime passion: recycling old materials into something useful and beautiful.

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“Growing up in the country, you just have that innate sense of being able to reuse stuff,” Musson said in a 1999 Bangor Daily News profile. “The whole slate thing kind of came to me by virtue of growing up in the country, having to make do with a lot of things and recycling things.”

Musson returned to Maine in 1972 and began approaching people who were tearing down old buildings, asking them if he could have or purchase the slate from their roofs. Once he had enough slate — often stone quarried from slate deposits in Monson and Brownville — he began offering his services as a slate roofer.

Slate is still mined in Monson, but prices for the durable, fireproof stone can be astronomical. Musson made a living salvaging slate — and brick, copper and other building materials — and using it to restore old buildings to their former glory.

Musson said in 1999 that he was a hands-on, outdoorsy sort of guy, so roof work suited him perfectly.

“Basically, I like doing the work. A lot of people will hire a lot of people and then go ride around and oversee, but to me the work is the fun part, so I prefer to do that,” he said. “It feels more natural to me. I’m an outside kind of guy. I’d be crazy if I had to work in an office.”

Though it was his craft that made him a well-known name in the Bangor region, it was his personality that made him something of a legendary figure. Sarah Parcak, a Bangor native and internationally renowned archaeologist, met Musson when she was a child growing up in Bangor’s Little City neighborhood. She posted a long and heartfelt tribute to him on Twitter on Tuesday night.

Parcak said Musson “spoke with a super thick Main-ah accent,” was “unassuming and gentle,” was a “genuine off the charts puts MENSA to shame genius” and had “a smile to melt glaciers.”

“He told me he had gone to Yale, but it just wasn’t quite for him, and he dropped out,” said Parcak, herself a Yale graduate. “It was a major lesson for me, early in life, that the full worth of a person’s intelligence and abilities had nothing whatsoever to do with fancy college degrees.”

Peter Martin, a carpenter in Bangor, met Musson in the early 1970s, when both were young men starting out in the trades. Musson befriended both Martin and his father, and stayed close with them both even after Martin’s father retired and was in assisted living.

“There were hidden layers to Walter. He had a very gruff exterior, but behind it there was all kinds of stuff,” Martin said. “When my dad was living in the Freese’s building, Walter would just show up and take my dad to lunch. Wouldn’t tell anybody. Would just come and do it. That says a lot about his character.”

Musson was for many years on the board of directors for the Maine Forest and Logging Museum in Bradley, also known as Leonard’s Mills, and in recent years led workshops on slate roofing at the Curran Homestead in Orrington. In a 21st-century world where building materials are often not expected to stand the test of time, Musson was determined to retain the craftsmanship, attention to detail and resiliency of an earlier age — something he almost always succeeded with in his work.

“You’ve heard people say, ‘They don’t build ’em like that anymore or they don’t build ’em the way they used to,’” Musson said back in 1999. “Well, I was all bent on proving that wasn’t the case and proving that they can still be built the way they used to be built.”

A memorial reception for Musson is set for 12-2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12 at the Brookings-Smith Family Reception Center at 163 Center St. in Bangor.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.