PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Early Saturday afternoon, Sister Mary Kelley, her hair shorn and her bald head revealed, sat down at a paint-spattered table inside the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Gentile Hall.
Wearing her habit, the nun talked softly to those around her as she prepared to transform her pale scalp into a colorful planet to raise funds for an organization that supports cancer patients.
It is a cause, Kelley said just before the paintbrush touched her scalp, that is close to her heart.
“I am doing this in memory of my father, Rollins B. Kelley, and Sister Maria Cabrini,” she said during the fourth annual Planet Head Day at the college. “They both died from cancer, and I work every day with people who are suffering from this disease. I grew my hair out as long as I could stand it and then I had it all cut off. I wanted to help.”
The nun, who is stationed at St. Mary’s Church in Presque Isle, was one of approximately 70 people who came to UMPI by early afternoon to take part in the event.
First held in 2007, Planet Head Day has a twofold mission: to increase awareness of NASA’s mission to Pluto, and to garner money for the nonprofit Caring Area Neighbors for Cancer Education and Recovery, which provides support to families and individuals dealing with cancer.
The Northern Maine Museum of Science in Presque Isle and CANCER hosted the event on the UMPI campus.
Participants donned theatrical bald caps or had their hair shaved off and their heads painted to look like planets, moons, asteroids and comets.
Gentile Hall was packed Saturday with participants who had volunteered to be “Planet Heads” as well as head painters and hairdressers.
Kevin McCartney, museum director and one of the organizers of the event, said 68 people had been transformed into Planet Heads midway through the event.
“We anticipate that we are going to see more than 100 Planet Heads this year,” he said. “It has been crowded like this ever since we started.”
The event drew so many participants that McCartney, who had his head painted to resemble Pluto, was pressed into painting duty to accommodate the crowds.
McCartney and Jeanne McGowan, project co-organizer, both have experience with the ravages and effects of cancer. McCartney’s father died of cancer last year.
McGowan, who also was painting heads Saturday, is a cancer survivor. At the time of the first Planet Head Day, McGowan was battling breast cancer and was bald because of chemotherapy treatments.
Wade Bright of Fort Fairfield was spending his second year as a Planet Head, his scalp painted a mixture of red, brown and other hues. He had skipped haircuts for three months and then came to UMPI on Saturday morning to have his head shaved and painted like a comet.
Bright had solicited donations from friends and family and brought more than $200 to hand to CANCER representatives.
“I do this because I have a lot of friends who have cancer,” he said. “I think everyone knows someone who has been touched by cancer. It doesn’t discriminate. I have decided to make it a point to do this every year.”
Being bald doesn’t bother him a bit, he said.
“Your hair will always grow back,” he noted. “It is a small sacrifice.”
Presque Isle resident Tomasz Herzog agreed. The associate professor of social studies education at UMPI had his head painted like Neptune.
“This is a very important cause for the community, and it is also a personal one because I lost my dad to cancer six years ago,” he said. “I was glad to be able to participate. I don’t think there can ever be enough attention paid to this disease.”
The event also attracted many children because Planet Head Day is a celebration of the discovery of Pluto 80 years ago on Feb. 18, 1930. Pluto, a dwarf planet, is of particular interest to the museum, which is an educational outreach participant in New Horizons, the NASA mission that in January 2006 launched a spacecraft that is scheduled to reach Pluto in July 2015.
The event also raises awareness of the Maine Solar System Model. The model stretches from the Northern Maine Museum of Science at UMPI south to Topsfield and consists of models of the planets at locations along U.S. Route 1.
Inside Gentile Hall, children in theatrical caps painted red, yellow and brown ate cake baked to mark Pluto’s 80th birthday. Some, who wanted their heads painted to resemble Saturn, sported rings made of cardboard and other materials.
Dakota Mitchell, 11, attended his first Planet Head Day on Saturday. His head, with a theatrical cap instead of shaved, was painted like Mars.
“I have been to the museum several times, and I’m really interested in the solar system,” the Caribou resident said. “I am going to take a picture of [my head] and show all of my friends on Monday.”
Craig Green, CANCER treasurer, said Planet Head Day has become one of the organization’s most substantial fundraisers.
“We give out between $8,000 and $12,000 a year to cancer patients to pay for travel, prescriptions and other extraordinary expenses,” he said. “We also do a golf tournament and accept donations and rely on grants, but Planet Head Day is a huge benefit for us.”
He said he expected this year’s event to garner more than $2,000 for the organization.
McCartney said several relatives of Robert Longlais of Caribou had shown up earlier in the day to have their heads painted in his memory. The 51-year-old UMPI graduate and Loring Job Corps instructor had planned to be a Planet Head this year.
“His disease took a turn for the worse and he died earlier this week,” said McCartney. “His relatives showed up and took part in his honor.”
Anyone who was unable to attend the event may mail donations to CANCER, P.O. Box 811, Presque Isle 04769.