You could say Ernest Hibbard comes from venerable New England stock. You could say he's as dependable as the Connecticut River. You could say he likes community affairs.

But it all falls short of explaining why the 97-year-old retired tobacco farmer has made his annual pilgrimage to Hadley's town meetings for 86 years.Nothing - not even the annual drone of police and fire chiefs - has deterred Hibbard from his self-appointed rounds.

"My father said I would get more out of that than I would to go to school. I'm sure he was right," Hibbard said Friday, the day after he attended this year's meeting.

Hibbard's passion for participation started when his father let him play hooky from school and took him to his first town meeting.

"Johnson of Johnson's bookstore said the town was indebted $2,000 a year . . . and he'd like to see the town get out of debt," Hibbard said.

He said the town eventually solved its problem, but he kept on going to the annual meetings, putting in his two cents.

"He always spoke at every town meeting. He always added something," said William E. Dwyer, a 90-year-old lifelong friend who attended many of those sessions himself.

"I suppose it's that old Yankee feeling of commitment to a community," Dwyer said. "His father was interested in the community, and I know his grandfather before him was, too. So he's part of the community, and he feels it's very important to maintain that heritage."

Hadley is a rural town of about 900 people 25 miles north of Springfield in the Connecticut River Valley. In this region, it's known as the Pioneer Valley.