PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Northern Maine Community College of 1967 was much different from the campus of today, Eugene McCluskey admitted while seated in the gymnasium Wednesday afternoon.
But for a couple of hours on Wednesday, McCluskey was taken back to the year he graduated from NMCC with a degree in auto mechanics, as he and 600 others attended a 1960s sock hop to officially kick off the 50th anniversary of the college.
Dressed in poodle skirts and leather jackets, participants danced the Twist and Mashed Potato, and sipped on malted milkshakes in between songs of the era as they enjoyed the opening event of many that will be held throughout the year to mark the institution’s birthday.
The college was founded on June 17, 1961, when Maine Gov. John H. Reed, an Aroostook County native from Fort Fairfield, signed a bill into law that established an institute in the deactivated buildings of the missile base in Presque Isle.
As part of the ’60s celebration on Wednesday, the gymnasium was transformed into a diner and drive-in, complete with the screening of movies. Wait staff served free burgers and hot dog baskets and staffed a soda fountain counter featuring milkshakes and ice cream sundaes.
Jason Parent, NMCC director of development and college relations, said a huge crowd was on hand when the doors opened at 11 a.m. By the time the sock hop wrapped up at 1 p.m., more than 600 people had been served. Many of those who attended dressed in clothing from that era, with a group of NMCC staffers recreating figures from the musical “Grease.”
McCluskey, who has worked at the college for nine years and is current director of admissions, said that when he first started out as a student in the ’60s, the college looked “vastly different.”
“All that was here were the old wooden base buildings,” he recalled Wednesday. “Now, all of the buildings are so new and modern. There were no computers on campus at all, and none of the high tech equipment that you see in the classrooms.”
At the same time, however, some things have stayed the same.
“The staff here is still very high quality,” he said. “The instructors here care about each and every student, and they want them to succeed. Everyone is important here.”
Kendra Tracy, a senior automotive student, agreed.
The Caribou resident spent most of her life doing “every job you can think of,” including working as a waitress, cashier, housekeeper and harvest worker, before coming to NMCC. Now, she is looking forward to graduation in the spring and to joining her husband, who also works in the field.
“The staff here are top notch, and I am getting a really good education,” she said. “It was neat to kick off the 50th year with such a nice celebration.”
Not everyone at the event was affiliated with the college. Kim Blake of Caribou has never attended NMCC, but is completing financial aid papers so she can try to enroll in the fall. She spent a semester at a New Hampshire university before deciding that it would be just as easy and “much cheaper” to secure a nursing degree at NMCC.
“I really think that the economy made many people take a second look at community colleges,” she said Wednesday, as she visited the fete with a friend and current student. “I have a number of friends who go here, and they are getting a high quality education that won’t leave them saddled with huge student loans. When I be-come a nurse, I want to serve in a rural area, so the close access of the campus to rural hospitals is a big incentive to come to NMCC.”
The event was put on by volunteers, NMCC employees, students and community members and was accomplished after several weeks of planning. The inspiration for the event came from early NMCC yearbooks that showed students participating in a sock hop on campus in the 1960s.
Event planners wanted to kick off the first 50th anniversary event just as students returned from the holiday break to set the tone for the coming months. The new semester began on Monday.
Among additional activities planned is a luncheon set to mark the anniversary date of the signing of the legislation that created NMCC on June 17. NMCC officials are inviting all current and former County legislators and also hope to have former Gov. Reed attend the event.
Major events will be held on the weekend of Sept. 9, 10 and 11 when the NMCC Alumni and Friends Organization hosts its second annual Homecoming weekend. A gala 50th anniversary banquet is planned for that time.
That weekend, the campus also will honor NMCC’s 50 Stars, individuals selected from each of the graduating classes over the past five decades. The 50 were picked to represent the vast array of careers that the college has prepared individuals for through that time. By virtue of their professions and service to their communities, they also are meant to embody the legacy of the institution.