A snapshot in time: Longtime writer releases book celebrating Exeter’s past and present – Seacoastonline.com

EXETER — Kathleen Bailey came to expect visits from certain community members when she was the community news editor at the Exeter News-Letter. 
One such visitor was photographer, Ben Swiezynski, a well-dressed older man, always in a suit, and sometimes in a fedora, who parked his station wagon out front. He then walked into the office and dropped a manilla envelope full of crisp black and white photographs on the desk. 
“There was not a ribbon-cutting that went by, there was not a lodge installation that went by, there was not a Girl Scout cookie sale that went by that Ben did not photograph,” she said. “Ben deeply loved Exeter and he chronicled the town for most of his life.” 
Bailey’s new book, “Past & Present: Exeter”, which releases on Sept. 20 from Arcadia Publishing, is dedicated to Ben. The lifelong Exeter resident died in 2007, but his children, Sandy Swiezynski Parks, and Jim Swiezynski, dug deep into their father’s photo archives to help with the book. The book features pictures of old locations in Exeter and current photos of the same spot to show how the town has, and has not, changed with time. 
“Nobody does historical preservation like Exeter. The office supply store moves out because no one’s buying typewriters anymore, but someone else moves in and they keep the façade,” Bailey said. “Exeter preserves history and preserves its treasured buildings. Really, you just have to walk down Front Street where every other house has a historic plate on it.” 
Bailey, a longtime writer for the Exeter News-Letter, had the last interview with Ben before he died. 
“It was a wide-ranging conversation from photography to where he served in the war, to why he advocated for the Seacoast School of Technology,” she said. “I could think of nobody more appropriate to dedicate the book to.” 
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Bailey co-authored the project with her daughter, Sheila Bailey, a photographer. “She took all the contemporary photos; sometimes standing in a foot of snow, sometimes leaning out a window that we shouldn’t have been leaning out of,” she said. “We grew really close.” 
She is thankful to help from Barbara Rimkunas, Pam Gjettum, and Richard Cole at the Exeter Historical Society. 
“I got a big kick out of Pam because she’s such a tiny lady and she was carrying these files to me that were half her size,” Bailey said. Rimkunas, the curator, reviewed the book for accuracy and the others helped ensure Bailey had the correct information. 
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The heart of the book came from Ben’s boxes of negatives and photos that his children poured over for the book. 
“This is a snapshot if you will of Ben’s work and his love for his town,” she said. “Ben kind of inspired it because in that last interview we talked extensively about what the town was like in the ’40s and ’50s. How the families only had one car and the father took it to work, so even if the mother could drive, she didn’t have the car so she would walk downtown and get her groceries.” 
Exeter’s downtown on Water Street had everything people needed. 
“You could buy everything from a ball gown to a ball-peen hammer,” Bailey said. “It was a microcosm of a small town in New England.” 
Exploring the old pictures gave a sense of what it was like to live in Exeter during that time. “They’d go skating at the Academy skating rink. They’d have their first date at the Ioka,” she said. “Everything was here, and they lived out their lives here, but they also lived out their lives surrounded by this amazing history.” 
She points to Exeter’s role as the Revolutionary War capitol of the state and other significant events in its early years. “I’ve always had this feeling of Exeter, it’s the same feeling I have at Lexington and Concord, but it’s not as bloody,” she said. “You go to Lexington and you’re standing on the green, and you see people walking their dogs, and you think this was the birthplace of our nation. It gives me chills.” 
During that last interview with Ben, she remembers him talking about how the town’s façade along Water Street hadn’t changed from when he was growing up in Exeter. “If you didn’t read the signs or look at people with their phones, you’d think you were still in the ’50s or the ’40s. That was what impressed me,” she said. 
There were challenges along the way to publication, most notably, finding just the right image but then finding the same contemporary image to go alongside it. Bailey’s history in Exeter, dating back to the time the Exeter News-Letter had an office downtown, helped. “We were still doing typed copy then,” she recalled. “Every week I would drop off my copy. When I opened the door, it would hit (Editor) Tom Lynch’s chair in the back, so that was how I got to know Tom Lynch.” 
She calls the book a love letter to a town that counts a number of well-known authors, artists, and public figures as native sons and daughters. Sculptor Daniel Chester French, who designed the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, Ambrose Swasey, who gifted Swasey Parkway to the town, and author Dan Brown. 
“What impressed me about Exeter is pretty much nobody ever leaves, and if they leave physically they don’t leave in spirit,” she said. “People do not forget Exeter and they have amazing ties.” 
She saw evidence of that in several Facebook groups dedicated to posting memories of the town with members who may have moved away but still miss the town. 
“It’s a tribute to a town that takes hold of people’s hearts and pretty much doesn’t let go,” she said, adding there are also some fun tidbits included. “Maybe it will clear up some of the mysteries like who put the bleachers on the roof of the Exeter High School annex for a senior prank: I think it will come out through this.” 
The mother and daughter duo are already at work on their next local history book for Arcadia Publishing, tentatively called “War Monuments of New Hampshire: The Stories and the Stones.” 
The book sells for $23.99 and will be available locally at Water Street Bookstore. 
Lara Bricker is a former staff writer for the Exeter News-Letter, the author of the Piper Greene Exeter mysteries and an Exeter resident. She can be reached at [email protected] An audio podcast version of Exeter Life is available on most podcast platforms and in a video format on EX-TV.