STANDISH, Maine — One after another, students of the late P. Michael Bourgoin recalled how he used theater — the art of playing a character — to help unsure teenagers grow comfortable with themselves.
On Saturday, the theater at Bonny Eagle High School, where he taught and directed plays for a quarter-century, will be renamed in his honor during an alumni variety show. A scholarship fund for graduating seniors pursuing drama also is being set up in Bourgoin’s memory.
“I think after school people could be themselves while they also learned to be somebody else,” said Heather Hilton, a 1995 Bonny Eagle graduate and thespian who is now a criminal investigator with the U.S. Army. “At that age it’s not as much of an escape as it might be for an adult actor. He allowed us to be ourselves and have fun doing it.”
Saturday’s event, which comes 15 months after Bourgoin succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, has triggered an outpouring of memories of the locally famous teacher who had brushes with the big time but seemed to prefer playing the role of mentor most of all. Many former students interviewed by the Bangor Daily News teared up remembering his impact on their lives.
“He was like a second dad for me,” said 1992 Bonny Eagle graduate Jim Roberts. “My dad died when I was in high school, and he was always there for me.”
When Roberts was a senior, he videotaped an interview with Bourgoin as part of a class project.
“They’re all my children,” Bourgoin told Roberts in the interview. “You can’t say you like this child more than that child.”
That apparent ability to make each student feel uniquely special resonated with alumni leading into Saturday’s show and theater renaming.
“He had this ability to make everybody feel like they were his favorite,” said Hilton. “I don’t know if he recognized in us something other people didn’t, or if he fed whatever that was he found in each of us, but he definitely had this amazing way of making everybody feel special.
“I think he made room for everybody,” she continued. “I think he understood that at that age we all had something — whether it was a problem or a talent or energy — that needed to get out. Whatever it was for each of us, he gave us a place for that to happen.”
Jeff Hamm, from the Class of 1993, echoed a common refrain of former students — that Bourgoin gave teens who faced adversity or didn’t fit in elsewhere in the school a place to feel at home.
“He gave me approval for being a weirdo, and I liked that,” he recalled. “He gave me a lot of confidence — confidence to perform and confidence to fail. You don’t get a lot of that, at least I didn’t at the time.”
Added Susan Eberhart from the Class of 1982: “I was shy initially and he was able to bring that out of me because he had an uncanny ability to put you in a role where he knew you could showcase your talent. It cured me of my shyness, it really did. I think it affected every part of my life thereafter. After that I was never afraid of speaking to people. I was never afraid of speaking before a crowd, and I know that’s something I learned in the theater at Bonny Eagle.”
In the case of Jonna Boure, a 1986 graduate who will sing “Nobody Tells me How” from the musical “Working” on Saturday, Bourgoin’s casting was eerily on target. The insightful teacher tapped Boure for the “Working” part — the role of a teacher — long before she realized she wanted a career in the classroom.
“I never thought I’d get into that line of work,” said Boure, who now teaches kindergarten, first- and second-grade Spanish. “Now, for me to be able to do exactly what I did 20-something years ago is really incredible.”
Boure this year submitted the petition to rename the school’s theater in Bourgoin’s honor, a request she said was unanimously approved by the local school board.
“He did what was best for us and what was best for the show,” she recalled. “He didn’t do ‘just enough.’ There are teachers out there who do just enough, but he did incredible things.”
Eberhart said Bourgoin taught his students to be empowered by their youth rather than restricted by it. She said he once talked her into joining him and other students on a trip to New York City when she initially declared she would be staying home to concentrate on homework.
“He sat down with me in the cafeteria and said, ‘You know, any college would be glad to have you, and you’re going to have plenty of time to get your schoolwork done, but you’re only going to have a chance to be 16 in New York City once,’” she said. “I can still see the way he looked at me when he said it.”
Former students interviewed for this story struggled to find superlatives that they felt truly did justice describing Bourgoin, whose after-hours acting career was based in community theater but included roles in a commercial with baseball great Ted Williams, an episode of the television show “Unsolved Mysteries,” and the independent 2001 movie “Liberty, Maine” alongside soon-to-be “Without A Trace” star Eric Close.
“There’s nothing I can say on film or write or anything that would be able to explain to anybody what he meant to so many people,” Hilton said. “There’s no way. It’s way too big. He was way too big. He was just a big person in a very subtle way.”
Saturday’s event is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at Bonny Eagle High School.