September 26, 2023

Bert Clifford, pioneer in cellphone industry

From a small town, Bert Clifford made big things happen.

A nationally recognized telephone industry pioneer and Maine philanthropist and one of the founders of Unity College, Clifford died Friday at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

Born in 1920, Clifford started his career in the telephone industry in 1962 when he and his wife, Coral, began acquiring stock in Unity Telephone Co., with Bert Clifford becoming president and general manager of the company.

Under Clifford’s leadership, the Unity Telephone Co. became Maine’s first small independent telephone company to receive permission form the Rural Electrification Administration to perform its own outside construction and the first such company in all of New England to have a fully digital central office network.

It was Clifford who helped introduce the ubiquitous cellphones to the region, establishing UNICEL in several Maine communities in 1988.

Clifford’s contributions to the rapidly emerging telephone industry included leadership roles as President of the Telephone Association of Maine and president of the Telephone Association of New England. In 1996, Clifford became one of a select group of telephone industry pioneers inducted by his peers into the Telephone Association of New England Hall of Fame.

Founded in 1902 and providing local service to just seven subscribers between Unity and Dixmont Corners, the Unity Telephone Co. – now known as UNITEL – became a leading independent telecommunications company that now serves more than 5,400 customers in all or sections of 11 towns in Waldo, Penobscot and Kennebec Counties.

As chairman of UNITEL, Clifford directed its impressive growth into an array of telecommunications services and products that includes local dial service, access to long distance, voice mail, data circuits, Internet access, paging and cellular services.

Clifford also left his mark in other fields, from farming to philanthropy.

In the mid 1960s, Clifford was joined by nine community leaders in Unity who all shared a similar vision and belief that young people from Maine with academic potential deserved a chance for higher education. Together they incorporated Unity College, with Clifford serving as the founding chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees as well as chairman in the early 1990s.

Until 1964, Clifford raised a prized herd of registered Holstein dairy cattle on his family’s farm on the Albion Road in Unity, where he started his own family. In 1960, Clifford was appointed Chairman of the Maine Agriculture Stabilization Conservation State Committee, a post he held for five years. He resigned as chairman to become postmaster in Unity. In 1977 after 30 years, Clifford retired from the U.S. Post Office.

In the 1990s, Clifford undertook the challenge of revitalizing the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad that runs between Unity, Burnham Junction and Belfast. More than 16,000 visitors ride the privately owned “Spirit of Unity” train each year.

Another civic project spearheaded by the Cliffords is the “Field of Dreams” sports complex that was built in 1995 overlooking picturesque Unity Pond. The extensive complex offers free public access to regulation baseball fields, softball fields, soccer fields, basketball courts, tennis courts as well as a playground, outdoor exercise equipment and walking paths.

He and his wife formed the Clifford Charitable Foundation to build and perpetually maintain the “Field of Dreams.” The foundation also recently opened a historic museum called the Whistlestop Museum and Antique Soda Fountain across from the railroad station. The Whistlestop preserves and exhibits mechanical music machines, telephones, town artifacts and railroad memorabilia.

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