June 24, 2018
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‘Really precious stuff:’ St. John Valley video interviews help leave lasting legacies

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

The lives of two people intersected in Fort Kent last week, giving me a deeper understanding of what it means to leave a legacy.

For more than 20 years, retired chiropractor Dr. Marc Chasse, 75, has recorded the personal histories, stories and events of St. John Valley residents on two-hour video tapes, preserving not only local history, but also the French language. Aired continuously on Fort Kent’s local access cable channel, WFKTV, many of his more than 500 videos have been collected and digitized by the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent for distribution to schools and libraries throughout the Valley.

When the University of Maine at Fort Kent honored him with a distinguished service award in 2002, he realized, “Wow, this is really precious stuff.”

A labor of love that began in 1987 while he was still practicing, Chasse’s work increases in significance as the people he interviews pass away.

“About half of the people I have recorded are gone,” he said. Recalling a dozen World War II veterans he interviewed in 1995, Chasse added, “Only one is alive today.”

“They are really precious,” he said of the tapes, “and as you go along, they become more so.” His only regrets are the interviews he put off. Two times he had plans to interview people with interesting stories to tell, but they died before he could make a recording.

“I always regret not doing one. I never regret doing one.”

Chasse discovered video recording when he attended an RCA convention in Bangor in 1980.

“It hit me in the brain,” he said. “I bought everything they had.” It was back when video cassettes were $30 apiece. He bought a box of 10 and began by videotaping his family skiing. He was so excited when he first viewed them in color on his own TV, he ran back to the ski slopes to invite people to come see.

With video as a resource, he envisioned a new life for the Fort Kent Historical Society, reviving the organization and building an archive of oral histories. “I was hot there for about three years. The society sold 186 tapes in the fall of 1987, and 30 more after that.”

Since then, the Franco American Centre at the University of Maine in Orono has acquired the tapes and uploaded them onto the Internet. “They can see them in China,” Chasse exclaimed, adding that the tapes have evoked comments from viewers in France with the same surnames of people in the St. John Valley they saw in the videos.

So when Chasse learned that a former Fort Kent resident and popular portrait photographer was coming to town to promote a book about her experience as a World War II refugee, he not only scheduled an interview, but also coordinated an event to welcome her to her former hometown.

Working with Patricia Dow, who got the word out to a vast list of senior college members, Chasse mobilized members of the historical society and other residents to greet Philomena Baker, 79, now of Bangor, when she arrived on June 26 at the Swamp Buck Restaurant to introduce and sign her new book, “Flight to Freedom.”

Baker lived in Fort Kent from 1959 to 1970, arriving three months after her marriage to Fort Kent native John Baker, whom she met when she was a photo lab instructor on the U.S. Army base in Amberg, Germany. His kindness and descriptions of the beauty of his home state of Maine helped win her heart and she was not disappointed.

“The Bakers accepted me as a member of their family,” she said, remembering that John’s mother, Irene, greeted her with the words, “You are my daughter and you will always be my daughter.”

Using skills she learned as an employee of the U.S. Army Special Services Center, she founded a portrait photography business that flourished in Fort Kent and later in Hampden, where she settled after her marriage ended in divorce.

More than 40 years after her departure from Aroostook County, Fort Kent natives who remembered Baker came to book signings in both Fort Kent and Caribou carrying albums of wedding photos and other photographs she had taken in the 1960s. Page by page, they shared their recollections. There were hugs and tears.

“I can not imagine a better way to have spent my time,” Baker said, after seeing how photographs she took decades ago continue to kindle memories.

A steady stream of Fort Kent residents filed into the Swamp Buck during the afternoon on June 26, beginning with 20 people at a luncheon arranged by Dow, which included Baker’s daughter and two grandsons who surprised her by driving to Fort Kent from their home in Hampden. “I was expecting 12, maybe 15,” Dow said.

They brought pictures of newborn babes and graduates, as well as brides and grooms, remembering the events Baker had photographed years ago as though they were yesterday.

And when the photographer-turned-author took a break from book-signing to chat with those who had gathered late in the afternoon, Chasse was there with his video camera, recording the event for future generations.

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, ME 04736.

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