Nate Churchill, a man with white hair wearing a maroon baseball cap and a red shirt, stands with three women with brown hair. The woman directly to Churchill's right is holding a plaque.
At the Northern Maine Fair in Presque Isle in 2015 are, from left, Nate Churchill, with his daughters Heather Stretar and Heidi Sawyer, and granddaughter Katie Sawyer. Credit: Courtesy of Heather Stratar

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Potato farmers knew him as a source of harvest news. The harness racing community knew him as a horse enthusiast and announcer at events. But his friends and colleagues miss his sense of humor the most.

Thomas “Nate” Churchill was familiar to many in The County as a local radio announcer and a television host for WAGM’s early morning harvest program, “Potato Pickers Special.” But he was renowned statewide for his work in the potato industry, having served on the National Potato Promotion Board for more than 20 years, and for his expert announcing at harness racing events throughout Maine. Churchill died Nov. 30, 2021 at age 84.

In “Potato Pickers Special,” Churchill talked with guests from the industry and the community about how the annual harvest was progressing, gave the latest market information and shared news about specific farms.

As a Maine Potato Board member, Churchill was a voice for the industry, marketing the state’s largest agricultural crop and promoting its use in products.

Churchill was also well known in harness racing circles. His love for horse racing led him to own and train horses, and was a member and past president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association.

Mike Cushing, current president of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association, said that Churchill had a high win percentage as a trainer, and that he was a kind person who kept his horses to a strict training regimen that paid off.

“When he served as chairman, he had to make some tough calls, but he always did what he thought was best for the industry. He also had a very rich voice. When you heard him announcing at the Northern Maine Fair, you knew you were home,” Cushing said.

Churchill taught many about raising and training horses, including Joe Nelson, who worked with Churchill in Aroostook County. Nelson described Churchill as a person who had an incredible work ethic.

“I have been in the horse business for 33 years. Nate taught me the proper way to take care of a horse,” Nelson said. “While he was very successful, he never gloated about his success or rubbed it in anyone’s face. He really enjoyed training the horses and seeing them improve.

Although Churchill will be remembered for his work in the potato and harness racing industries, he also had a sense of fun enjoyed by his colleagues at WAGM where he worked.

One such colleague was Gene Brewer. Churchill grew up attending Washburn High School where he met Brewer. While they were two years apart, they would reunite at WAGM, with Brewer working behind the scenes as an electronics engineer and Churchill in front of the camera.

WAGM employees held social gatherings multiple times a year, which normally went into the very early mornings of the next day, Brewer said.

“We decided that we needed to have a hot dog roast,” Brewer said, recalling a favorite memory. “There was nowhere open to buy hot dogs at the time, so my wife and I raided her parents’ freezer and joined the group at the Feeder Farm picnic area and we had a hot dog roast.”

The party ended when Churchill had to speed to the radio station for his 5 a.m. broadcast, just barely making it into the announcer’s chair by air time.

Churchill was known for his professionalism and ability to keep his composure, and proceed with broadcast in almost any circumstance. Only fellow colleague Ken Little, with his dry sense of humor, could splinter Churchill’s calm exterior, Brewer said.

“People would try to break him up on camera and they could not do it,” Brewer said. “He could not be distracted. Only Ken Little could show up with a neutral expression on his face, and if Nate happened to relax and look, he would have to break up.”

Another friend, Norm Johnson, said he admired Churchill’s ability to remember all of the horses’ names in a harness race and announce them smoothly because he memorized them by their colors.

Johnson said that Churchill was always there when he was needed, and described a canoe trip on Portage Lake in which their ride back to their starting point was fully in the dark with only a flashlight. The canoe hit a rock and Churchill fell in the water.

“When we got back around 4 in the morning, he cooked scrambled trout for my son and I. We will always remember that,” Johnson said.

Churchill loved spending time with his family, and bringing laughter and love into his conversations.

“He was just wonderful,” his daughter Heather Strertar said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and had lots of friends. He made me into the person I am today. He was the best dad ever.”

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David DiMinno

David grew up in New York, and moved to Maine to study political science at the University of Maine. In his spare time, he loves hiking, playing tennis and skiing.