It is interesting that two Caribou natives currently hold significant leadership positions because they responded similarly to defeat, achieving even higher posts than those they originally sought.
One came in third in a four-way race for governor of Maine, but later won election to the U.S. Senate. The other was an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the University of Maine, but went on to become chancellor of the University of Maine System.
Is it coincidence that U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and UMS Chancellor James Page are both from Caribou? Is there an element in an Aroostook County upbringing that gives one the self-confidence and motivation to defy defeat and try again?
How does one acquire the ability to take risks, pursue dreams and have faith? What contributed to these particular career decisions? I had to know. So I asked.
“Aroostook County breeds in you a resilience that helps you come back when you meet an obstacle or adversity,” said Collins.
“To be successful in Aroostook County you have to be resilient,” Page said. “You have to be creative, be prepared to learn and have a certain humility in the face of facts.”
While they pursued different careers after leaving Caribou, there are parallels in the paths that led to their current positions.
In her first bid for public office in 1994, Collins won an eight-way Republican primary to become the first woman picked by a major party as its nominee for governor of Maine. In the general election, however, she placed third behind Democrat Joseph E. Brennan and the winner, Independent Angus King, now her colleague in the U.S. Senate.
“Were it not for Green Party candidate Jonathan Carter, I would have been dead last,” Collins recalled this week. “I lost fair and square. It was not a squeaker.”
The campaign left her “flat broke, uninsured and unemployed,” she said. “I had lived on my savings for 14 months and did not have enough money to pay my mortgage. I was facing the indignity of asking my parents for a loan.”
But the tough campaign was a positive learning experience, offering Collins opportunities to meet people, increase her appreciation of her home state and develop a sense of what she had to offer. She accepted a position as executive director of the Center for Family Business at Husson College and was happily settled in Bangor when, in 1996, her former boss William S. Cohen retired from the U.S. Senate.
Her phone started to ring. People encouraged her to run for Cohen’s seat. Could she give up a secure job and once again face the possibility of losing and being without an income?
“The decision was a difficult one,” she said. “But my parents always said, ‘You have no right to complain if you are not willing to get involved.’ I felt my voice would be heard if I got involved.”
She was also influenced by a Lewiston Democrat who promised her support because Collins had been “such a gracious loser in 1994.” The comment taught Collins that “how you deal with setbacks and disappointments affects and shapes how people view you. It reflects your character.”
So, with her parents’ “wonderful example of public service” and memories of “those who did believe in me” she launched another tough campaign.
“Had I not taken the risk of losing, I would not be in the U.S. Senate,” she said. “I loved Husson, but I felt my calling — my dream — was to serve the people of Maine in elective office.”
She defeated Joseph Brennan for Cohen’s seat in 1996 and was re-elected in 2002 and 2008. “Disappointments and setbacks are part of life,” she tells Dirigo Girls’ State delegates each year. “You can’t let them make you give up your dream.”
Jim Page was skeptical when encouraged to seek the presidency of the University of Maine in 2011. He said he “thought about it and warmed to it,” and ultimately decided to enter the public arena for the first time.
Page had returned to Maine in 1997, leaving a career in academia to join James W. Sewall Co. of Old Town, a consulting firm specializing in civil and spatial engineering, forestry and natural resources. He had served as CEO since 2001, a position he could have retained after Paul Ferguson was named UMaine president.
But Page had learned so much during the presidential search that he was eager to seek the position of chancellor. He said he emerged with a better understanding of the challenges to be faced and of the solutions needed to meet them.
“Without that experience, I would not have thought of or been prepared for the hiring process and work required for the position of chancellor,” he said. “The first experience gave me the impetus to go after the second.”
In March 2012, Page became the first Maine native appointed chancellor of the University of Maine system and the first chancellor to have graduated from a school in the system. A graduate of the University of Maine at Fort Kent, he earned a master’s in the philosophy of physics from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a doctorate in the philosophical foundations of mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He was not looking for a career change, but his candidacy for UMaine president awakened an awareness that he could apply what he had learned in his career to higher education in Maine.
“I had a case I wanted to make,” he said of the decision to seek the chancellorship. And his commitment was strong enough that he was willing to risk losing again to make his case. His success resulted in a position he considers a better fit than the one he initially sought. “Being unsuccessful enabled me to be successful.”
They lost, but they learned. By taking risks, they recognized their abilities and strengthened their commitment to public service.
Resilience? “It’s a Maine trait,” says Collins. Page agrees: “It’s not unique to Aroostook.” But a quality both Caribou natives attribute to their Aroostook County roots is the value of hard work.
Coincidence? Maybe. Similarity? Certainly. And they were born just 11 days apart in December 1952.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.