$1.2M donation to expand NMCC

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Posted Jan. 24, 2011, at 9:30 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 8:54 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A California woman who already has had a big effect on the Star City bestowed $1.2 million on Monday to Northern Maine Community College.

California resident and Presque Isle native Mary Smith’s gift is one of the largest private contributions ever given to a community college in Maine, according to NMCC officials.

Smith made the donation in honor and memory of her late husband, Rodney Smith, a native of England, who, despite an impoverished youth and incredible odds, achieved extraordinary success in the United States as a businessman and pioneer in the semiconductor industry.

Tim Crowley, president of NMCC, said Monday that the college will use the funds to establish the Northern Maine Center for Excellence in Alternative Energy Training and Education. The facility will allow for expansion of NMCC’s wind power technology program. The college will develop the new center at a recently renovated 7,800-square-foot building located near the campus. The structure on Skyway Street formerly was used by the Presque Isle Public Works Department.

Smith was represented at Monday’s press conference by her attorney, Richard Engels of Presque Isle, who also is a member of the NMCC Foundation’s board of directors. He read from a letter in which Smith characterized her husband as coming from “an environment where he could never have dreamed of achieving the heights of success that he realized in his lifetime.”

“This might be true of many of the students who begin the journey toward achieving their life’s dreams by attending Northern Maine Community College,” said Smith in a statement read by Engels. “Rodney was a philanthropist who believed very strongly in giving to those less fortunate who were working to better their lives and those of their families and communities. He also respected greatly the fact that I loved the area of northern Maine where my roots are. That is why I believe strongly in the work of the college and want to support its efforts in improving the lives of people and the economy of the region, while paying tribute to Rodney’s amazing life in a meaningful way.”

Crowley said Monday that the college would use $650,000 to purchase instructional equipment for the new center. This equipment will allow the college to double its enrollment of first-year students in the wind power technology program from 18 to 36.

“This is really a transformational gift for us,” Crowley said Monday. “It will allow us to transform what we are doing with alternative energy at this college and take it to a new level. It will help this college, current and future students and it will help enhance economic development in this region. By bringing the education and training needed for the use of renewable resources that are abundant in this region under one roof, we can respond to the demand, as well as make the best possible use of our resources to educate the public and the work force of the future.”

Crowley said that $500,000 would be used to support the establishment of the Center for Excellence. The college previously had made arrangements with the Presque Isle Industrial Council to lease the facility beginning this spring to provide additional classroom and lab space. The donation will allow for development of the center and for the purchase of needed technology and equipment to ensure students have training opportunities that will be most effective toward creating a new industry in the region and moving it forward.

Brian Hamel, chair of the NMCC Foundation, said Monday that the new center would bring students in touch with state-of-the-art equipment and faculty.

“They will be prepared to enter the work force,” he said. “I believe northern Maine is perfectly situated to explore alternative energy projects. This energy center will have state-of-the-art equipment to train employees.”

Crowley noted that the college already has begun the work needed to build a solid education program focused on the use of renewable energy. He said that Smith’s gift will have “significant impact” on the college’s ability to help Aroostook County “build the infrastructure and work force needed to ensure alternative energy is key to unlocking the future economic potential of the region.”

Rodney Smith was born in Oldham, England, and grew up in a very poor working-class neighborhood, according to biographical information provided by NMCC. He enlisted in the British Army at age 16 to be a student in the Army Apprentices School at Arborfield. Through the support of the British Army, he received his degree in electrical engineering.

He came to the U.S. at age 27 to work for General Electric. He left a short time later to work for Fairchild Semiconductor, where he spent 13 years, becoming general manager of the company’s second-largest division. In 1983, he was hired by the founders of the Altera Corp. to serve as the first CEO. Altera is the leading company in innovative custom logic solutions and invented the world’s first reprogrammable logic device in 1984. Smith led the company for two decades before retiring in January 2001.

Hamel noted that Rodney Smith “was instrumental in advancing the high-tech electronics industry in Silicon Valley.”

Crowley said that NMCC officials hope to open the new Northern Maine Center for Excellence in Alternative Energy Training and Education in March.

This is not the first time Smith has donated to the college or to the city of Presque Isle.

Last spring, Smith donated $1 million to the Mark and Emily Turner Library in honor of her grandmother who was a librarian in the city from 1932 to 1945.

In December, she directed a $50,000 contribution to NMCC for the purchase of technology and equipment for the wind power technology program. Those funds were used, in part, to purchase a new multimedia interactive programmable controller unit. That donation was given in memory of her husband and her parents, Hope and Robert Akeley, both of whom were born and raised in central Aroostook County.

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