FORT KENT, Maine — Fifty years can generate a lot of paperwork. Just ask Kathryn Donahue.
The assistant director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent was nearly halfway through cataloging tens of thousands of documents donated to the archives by Rep. John Martin representing his half-century in Maine politics when 350 more boxes arrived last month.
“These are the culmination of John Martin’s career from the late ’60s to 2012,” Donahue said last week. “Really, it’s everything you can think of that passed through his hands while he was in office.”
Working in a room on the second floor of the UMFK Blake Library, Donahue is surrounded by boxes piled to the ceiling containing letters, emails, drafts of bills, memos, news clippings and speeches.
She has spent several years inventorying the collection and only recently began processing the boxes to determine what the library will keep or will discard.
Once the cataloging is complete, Donahue said the collection will represent a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in the state’s political history.
Which was exactly what Martin was thinking when he gifted the papers to UMFK in 2012 after deciding they should be stored at the campus where he has taught political science for decades.
“Keep in mind, I was in leadership for 26 years, whether in the Senate or in the House,” Martin said recently. “There are a lot of items in there that I am sure people would want to look at dealing with some of the issues I was involved in, like the formation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, shoreland zoning, mining and all the stuff I sponsored over the years.”
The Eagle Lake Democrat was first elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1964 and is in his 20th nonconsecutive term in the House, where he served 10 years as speaker.
Martin also served four terms in the Maine Senate.
“When I was speaker, it was not unusual to get 50 or 60 letters a day,” he said. “There will be some interesting letters in there.”
Among them are three letters to Martin from Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, thanking him for his support and participation in an International Day of Remembrance.
“That was quite something to see a letter from Elie Wiesel,” Donahue said.
Other correspondence was not as friendly.
Martin remembers one in particular in which the author called Martin a “damn frog” and told him to “go back to your lilly pond in northern Maine.”
Martin can not remember what he had done to upset the individual.
“Obviously he was not happy with whatever issue I was dealing with,” he said.
Donahue has come across thousands of letters written to Martin, asking for his assistance for everything from helping a son in the military to negotiating the state’s human services regulations.
“It appears he answered every one of them,” she said.
An important part of her work is inventorying those correspondences and removing any private or personal information, Donahue said.
“Whatever I did in public life is public,” Martin said. “But there are things that are being shredded as we speak, like individual’s medical records or other personal and private information.”
That means Donahue is reading a lot of papers.
“Do we end up looking at every single piece of paper?” she said. “Do we have to? No. Do we end up doing so? Yes.”
Because the ultimate focus of the collection is the work Martin did over the years, the documents will be kept only if they have specific bearing on that work and don’t contain any private information.
“I remember thinking when we got the collection people would remember personal information they sent him and worry about seeing it made public,” Donahue said. “But we are packing anything like that back up, sending it back to John Martin, and he decides what he wants to retain. If he does not want it, we shred it.”
Everything else, she said, is fair game for eventual public perusal.
For decades, the papers were in boxes stored in the attic of the State House in Augusta, Martin said.
“I had two secretaries — Carrie Pelletier and Phyllis Stafford — during my leadership years in the House who were very good at filing,” he said. “Every year, they would box up the documents and take them up to the attic.”
From an attic in Augusta, the boxes moved to the attic of the UMFK gymnasium before Donahue began indexing them in 2010.
Now those boxes are at Blake Library, some with faded indexes taped to their sides, some with a hint of what they contain scrawled in magic marker and others blank, their contents a mystery.
Donahue is working to bring order to the chaos and said an index will be developed and at least part of the collection will be digitized.
“For someone who has an interest in what happens in a small state [by population] and what one person can be involved in, I think they will find the collection useful,” Martin said.
One box contains dozens of political cartoons lampooning Martin over the years.
“I have a lot more framed at home,” he said. “I’ve been a great subject [and] given them some excellent ideas to draw from.”
Donahue will keep working on the collection until she leaves her position later this summer.
Retiring UMFK President Wilson Hess said earlier this week he is in negotiations with the University of Maine System to take over editing and cataloging the collection, which likely will continue to grow.
“I’m a little bit of a packrat, so I rarely throw anything away,” Martin said. “I still have some boxes from my first six years in the Legislature in my attic at home. At some point, I will give [UMFK] those, as well.”