Debbie And Don Aikman: Monitoring The Pulse Of Chatham

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Aging

Debbie and Don Aikman. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

CHATHAM — Don and Debbie Aikman are one of Chatham’s power couples.

If you have appeared before the town’s municipal boards, you have likely met one of them. Debbie currently serves on the community preservation committee, as a member at large, while Don is a member of the Chatham Historical Commission — a board he has served on for the past 20 years or more. Among other things, the historical commission considers proposed changes to historic structures and can levy a demolition delay of up to 18 months when someone wants to tear down a historic structure.

This morning the couple is sitting in the front room of their charming 1935 Cape in the heart of the Old Village. Colored glassware catches the sun in one window, while outdoors geraniums overflow Debbie’s window boxes. The house was built by the first commodore of the Monomoy Yacht Club and later, in the late 1950s, lived in by the writer Clair Baisly, author of the 1989 book “Cape Cod Architecture.” Baisly ran a copper shop in this front room — Debbie has a postcard showing the room with Baisly’s copper on display. Interestingly, Baisly was also passionate about historical preservation and served as chair of the Chatham Historical Commission, a position Don, too, has held.

Is Chatham able to preserve its historic structures? Unfortunately, Don sees the town as suffering incremental losses.

“Chatham has become a very, very desirable place for people to come to retire,” he says. “They want what they had before they moved,” he adds, meaning that people sometimes enlarge houses without nodding to historic preservation.

Debbie, though, points to the annual Chatham Preservation Awards as success stories in preservation.

Both Don and Debbie have roots in town going back decades. In 1999 Don retired from sales at a chemical manufacturing firm and the following year Debbie retired from teaching mathematics in Woburn. They then moved full-time to the Old Village.

Don first came to Chatham at the age of 3 in 1937. In 1938 his family stayed at the Hawes House on the corner of Water and Main Streets in the Old Village. Except during World War II, Don and his parents traveled from Brooklyn, N.Y. and lodged there each summer with extended family.

Twenty-two years after his first summer in Chatham, Don met Debbie in the Hawes House, where she was waitressing. It was 1959, and she was a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Don had already graduated from college by then and was working at the Walter Baker Chocolate Company. On weekends he stayed at the cottage of his cousin Nancy, who had married Bill Koerner — all “alumni” of the Hawes House.

What prompted Don and Debbie to marry is a bittersweet story. On the evening of Oct. 4, 1960, Debbie’s father was one of 62 passengers killed when Flight 375 out of Logan crashed into Boston Harbor. The disaster, caused when the plane flew into a flock of starlings, has been called the worst “bird strike” in U.S. history.

“Don read about it in the newspaper and he decided to attend the funeral service in Walpole, the town next to where he was living — Westwood,” Debbie says. “It was there that he decided he’d like to marry me, and we then reconnected. So, some good did come from that tragic event.”

The couple married in June 1962. They are now the parents of four children and the grandparents of nine.

While they were raising their children in Andover, the couple bought a house on Seaview Street. In 1974 they bought the house in the Old Village.

Once established full-time in Chatham, they quickly became involved with the town. Preservationist Norm Pacun introduced Don to the historical commission. Don was already interested in old houses as his first house was a 1700-era dwelling in Groton. He also volunteered at the Chatham Railroad Museum, at one time serving as its co-director, and in 2012 served on the town’s tercentennial committee.

Debbie began with a committee that looked into burying downtown’s wires.

“Was there a way to do that? It would improve the ambiance of downtown,” she says. Ultimately the board decided the cost was prohibitive. She later served on the water and sewer advisory committee and the capital project review committee, which looked into building the new fire station. She chaired the 2009 charter review commission and served on the more recent charter review committee. She worked with the group to bring a Revolutionary War monument to Chase Park, and is currently vice-president of the Old Village Association and a trustee at the First Congregational Church of Chatham. Both Don and Debbie watch select board meetings “religiously” on Channel 18 to keep up with the pulse of the town.

Why are they so community-minded?

Debbie says her father served in Walpole, and she was later elected a class officer in college. These early influences “instilled a sense of wanting to do something to be useful to the community,” she says.

As for Don, he says care for the town that his family has so enjoyed drives his involvement. And, he adds, his work keeps him young.