PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When Robert Gagnon, 57, of Madawaska first began punching a time card at Fraser Papers in 1971, he thought he would continue doing so until the day he retired.
But after 36 years at the mill, Gagnon saw fewer orders coming in and layoffs becoming more prevalent. It was then that he began reconsidering a dream that he had long buried beneath the responsibilities of being a husband, father, grandfather and homeowner — a desire to return to college.
Gagnon soon chose to close the door on his career at Fraser Papers and opened one to a classroom at Northern Maine Community College. That decision earned him not only a degree, but also a new career and a major accolade from the college.
Gagnon, who will earn his associate of applied science degree in plumbing and heating during the May 15 commencement ceremony, recently was named the 2010 student of the year. The distinction has earned him the right to address his classmates at the ceremony and to share the commencement podium with featured speaker Gov. John Baldacci.
Gagnon spent a semester at the University of Maine at Fort Kent right after high school, but left in early 1971 for a well-paying job at the Fraser mill. In 2007, however, Fraser shut down two machines and offered him a buyout. He decided to accept the offer and start a new chapter in his life.
“A lot of my co-workers thought I was crazy,” he said Tuesday. “I was making close to $80,000 a year as a beater engineer and was the second-highest in my department in seniority. But the shift work was starting to wear on me, and spending day and night working in a hot, noisy mill was pretty stressful.”
With the support of his wife, Diane, and their two children, Nicholas and Stephanie, Gagnon accepted the buyout and set his sights on enrolling at NMCC in the fall of 2007. He soon was told to alter his vision.
Because of the illness of another employee, Fraser could not release him from employment until the end of the year. Gagnon said that when he heard the news, there was a moment when he started to think college just wasn’t in the cards for him.
“But it turned out to be a good thing,” he said. “I enrolled in some classes at NMCC’s St. John Valley Center in Madawaska and commuted to the Presque Isle campus for other courses. It was like sticking your toe into the lake instead of jumping right in. It really helped me acclimate to the new environment.”
Qualifying for federal funding to finance his tuition, Gagnon started taking classes and secured a work-study job assisting plumbing and heating instructor Al St. Peter. After he learned that the income he would receive would negatively affect his unemployment compensation, he continued on in the job as a volunteer.
Although he felt at times like “an old man in a young person’s world,” Gagnon soon became an inspiration to his peers, according to St. Peter. He now serves as a senior intern and tutor to students.
“He has been a blessing,” St. Peter said Tuesday. “He is a very good teacher and is very patient with the students. He is my right hand here, and sometimes my right and left hands.”
Gagnon will graduate next weekend with a 4.0 GPA. He said he was pleased to be named student of the year, but said Tuesday that he feels there are other students who are equally deserving.
“I was able to concentrate just on my studies during my time here,” he said. “But other students here have to work, and they have children to take care of as well. They deserve this just as much as I do.”
After commencement, Gagnon intends to find part-time work as he secures his master’s license in plumbing and heating. He also will work at his son’s business, County Plumbing and Heating in Caribou.
Following her husband’s lead, Diane Gagnon will graduate later this year from the Empire Beauty School in Caribou.
Returning to college has been the best decision of his life, Gagnon said Tuesday.
“I have had older people tell me that they have always wanted to go to college, and I tell them to go for it,” he said. “If you are willing to work hard, you can do it. Some people think that just because you are older you can’t learn. Nothing could be further from the truth.”