UNITY, Maine — The Unity College community this week is mourning the death of a founding faculty member, who many said was instrumental to the small college’s success.
Don Mortland, 87, of Searsport and Unity, was a writer and Maine history buff, but most of all he was a teacher who cared deeply about his students.
“The heart and soul of what Unity was over 30 years had a lot to do with Don,” Wilson Hess, a former president of Unity who now is the president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent, said Tuesday. “Don was educated in an Ivy League environment. Don was also uniquely Maine, and that was an extraordinary combination.”
When Unity College was founded in 1965, it was more of a hopeful idea than an institute of higher education. There were just 32 students who started classes on the campus that just a year before had been a poultry hatchery. Many of the students were the first in their families to seek higher education, and many likely wouldn’t have done so if it wasn’t for the Vietnam War, which encouraged some young men to enroll in college in an effort to avoid the draft, Hess said.
It was a humble start — but Mortland, who taught English, elevated the surroundings, his co-workers said.
“He was very formal. Everybody at Unity called teachers by their first name, except Mr. Mortland,” Dot Quimby, who was the college’s first librarian, remembered. “He believed very firmly in the mission of the college — the fact that Waldo County kids, ‘B’ average kids deserved to have higher education. He didn’t cut any slack. He was very kind, but his standards were strict.”
The generations of college students who learned grammar, a love of Shakespeare, an appreciation for Maine writers and much more from Mortland registered their appreciation for his long career on the college’s alumni Facebook page.
“Dr. Mortland was a class act. I took all his classes,” one student wrote. “He encouraged my love of literature and guided me to new authors. He was a great teacher and a kind man.”
Prior to teaching at Unity, Mortland served in the U.S. Army during World War II, then earned degrees at Bowdoin College and Yale. He taught at high schools and preparatory schools throughout Maine and New Hampshire, meeting Jacqueline Currier, a fellow teacher who would become his wife, at Potter Academy in Sebago, according to his obituary.
Mortland was “always tickled” to have been the first faculty member hired at Unity, Quimby said, and he stayed there until his retirement, though the young college struggled with some major challenges during his tenure.
During the early 1980s, the nation’s forestry industry underwent a major change and suddenly needed fewer foresters. Forestry had been the dominant program at Unity, Hess said, and it took Unity College about a decade to successfully retool itself as a natural management and environmental science college. During that time, the college suffered serious financial problems and then accreditation problems. In 1990, when Hess became president, he persuaded Mortland to be the college’s first provost, though the English teacher really preferred to continue teaching.
“True to his love for Unity College, he gave us two years to be the first provost we’d ever had,” Hess said. “He brought with him an unparalleled sense of integrity of academics and an unparalleled sense of the code of ethics … in that regard, I personally, and I hope the college still, recognizes the debt that we owe to Don, because out of that period of time, Unity College emerged as a phoenix from the ashes, and went on a path that still continues today.”
According to the official statement released Monday by Unity College, Mortland’s commitment to the school was “exemplary.”
“When the college needed him to provide leadership on issues or step into various administrative roles, he always answered the call,” said Mark Tardif, associate director of media relations. “He was a gentleman who never raised his voice, was masterful at drawing out the best in his students and led by example.”
Services to celebrate the life of Mortland, who is survived by daughters Pamela Mortland of Milton, Mass., Deborah Woodbury of Morrill and their families, will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 8, at Young Funeral Home at 31 West Main St. in Searsport. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Penobscot Marine Museum, because Mortland loved and worked throughout his life to preserve Searsport’s maritime history.