KATHRYN OLMSTEAD

Aroostook ties run deep, pay big dividends

Posted Feb. 16, 2012, at 10:28 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 17, 2012, at 5:44 a.m.

Generosity is not a trait typically associated with the nation’s wealthy in this age of anger among the “99 percent.” Yet recent and past gifts to Aroostook County provide a counterpoint to popular stereotypes of the affluent.

I remember back in the 1980s when townspeople in Easton were surprised by a sizable gift and plan for creation of an educational science center in the town. Born in 1894, Francis Malcolm never forgot his youth on the family farm located where the town of Easton meets Fort Fairfield. A product of Easton elementary and secondary schools, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Ricker Classical Institute, a master’s at Cornell and did advanced study at Columbia in preparation for a career in educational administration.

Late in his career, he invested in real estate in California where he had vacationed and eventually retired. This investment grew and after he died in 1977 Francis Malcolm’s memory and his fondness for Aroostook became tangible in the Francis Malcolm Science Center on Route 1A in Easton. His will provided not only funding and 400 acres of land for construction of the center, but also a vision for its administration and management.

For almost 30 years, the center has offered a variety of natural science and planetarium programs for student groups, adult and youth recreation and church groups, boy-girl scout and 4-H troops, the elderly, people with disabilities and private and business groups. The center welcomes 5,500-6,000 visitors each year at no charge for programs and use of extensive nature trails. Through his gift to his hometown Francis Malcolm enabled future generations to share his appreciation of the natural world.

That same spirit of generosity and love of Aroostook County has been expressed recently by a Presque Isle native who, like Malcolm, also made her home in California. With gifts to both the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library and Northern Maine Community College, Mary Barton Akeley Smith has honored her parents, Robert V. Akeley and Hope Greenlaw Akeley and her late husband Rodney Smith, who came from modest means in England to achieve great success in the electronics industry in California’s Silicon Valley.

“My husband came 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,” Smith said in a statement read on the occasion of her $1.2 million gift to the college in January 2011.

“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.”

The parallels between her husband’s life and the lives of students at NMCC were cited again this month when NMCC announced her gift of $5 million, the largest private donation to any community college in Maine. The donation will honor her husband with creation of the Rodney Smith Center for Fitness and Occupational Wellness in a building that currently houses the college dining commons, and her parents with conversion of the gymnasium into the Akeley Student Center.

NMCC used the funds awarded by Smith last year to establish the Northern Maine Center for Excellence in Alternative Energy Training and Education, a project that allowed for expansion of the college’s wind power technology program. Last fall, the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle opened the new Robert and Hope Akeley Memorial Wing made possible by a $1 million gift from their daughter in 2010.

Born in Presque Isle, where she spent her early childhood, Mary Akeley moved to Maryland with her parents when her father accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She later met and married Rodney Smith and the couple made a life together in California.

A native of Oldham, England, Rodney Smith grew up in a poor working-class neighborhood and attended an Anglican school. Encouraged by a teacher who noticed his brilliance, he excelled on a competitive exam and received a scholarship to an exclusive private school. He continued to achieve academically, but socially he felt out of place among the wealthy upper-class students. Fiscal challenges, a two-hour train commute, and no time or place to study compounded his discomfort and he left the school at age 16. Adrift and without parental guidance, he enlisted in the British Army as a student in the Apprentices School established to train young soldiers in specialized technical trades. When he completed his service in the Army’s Royal Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he received a degree in electrical engineering.

He left the army at age 27 and migrated to the United States, where he worked a short time for General Electric on the east coast, then spent 13 years with Fairchild Semiconductor in California, becoming general manager of the company’s second-largest division. In 1983 the founders of Altera Corp. hired him as the firm’s first CEO and he led the company to great success for two decades before retiring in 2001.

Altera combines the programmable logic technology originally invented in 1983 with software tools, intellectual property and customer support to provide programmable solutions to over 13,000 customers in the electronics industry, according to the company website. Based in San Jose, Calif., the firm employs 2,700 people in 19 countries and reported revenues of $1.95 billion in 2010.

“Rodney Smith was instrumental in advancing the high-tech electronics industry in the Silicon Valley,” said Brian Hamel, NMCC Foundation chairman when the college received the $1.2 million to support alternative energy education and training. “This gift in his honor will serve as a catalyst for the development of yet another promising sector that holds significant potential for northern Maine.”

NMCC President Timothy Crowley said the recent gift will have an economic impact on Aroostook County not only in creating jobs in the short term but also in creating a healthier and more competitive work force long term. “Mrs. Smith shares our vision and commitment to the people of Aroostook County,” he said.

Aroostook residents often lament the departure of The County’s sons and daughters. Perhaps these woes are short-sighted. People like Francis Malcolm and Mary Smith demonstrate that out-migration can have a silver lining.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.

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