Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Slight Brush With Greatness

Depending on where you conduct your life, you may or may not come into contact with influential people.  For some, standing in line behind a movie star at Starbucks is just part of a typical morning, while for others, attending a party where the mayor of your small town is invited might be as big a deal as it gets.  Here in Maine, we have a surprising number of celebrities for a small, relatively rural state, due in part to the large number of vacation homes situated here in “Vacationland”.  Stephen King, the Bush family, Martha Stewart, Patrick Dempsey and a number of others call Maine home for at least part of the year.

One of our more beloved well-known people was the late Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan.  For those of you unfamiliar with her, she is in the American history books for a number of things, including being the first woman to serve in both houses of the United States Congress,  and the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the American Presidency at a major political party's convention.  Her famous (and politically courageous) “Declaration of Conscience” speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1950 was the beginning of the end for red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts.  She was the first notable person to declare that essentially “Emperor McCarthy” wore no clothes.  After serving in Congress, Senator Smith retired to Skowhegan in 1972, where she became somewhat of a “grand old lady” of Maine politics, much beloved by most of her former constituents and especially by those in her hometown, where almost everything is named after her.  Members of both political parties held her in very high regard.  It was with Senator Smith that I had what I consider my most memorable brush with greatness.

In the summer of 1992, I was fresh out of college with an education degree, and had been hired for my first teaching job, which was slated to start that September.  During that summer, I got my first apartment, a second-floor efficiency, in the town of Skowhegan, Maine and prepared for my first year of teaching as I also adjusted to life on my own.  My personal funding would be pretty limited until I started receiving paychecks in September, so I spent most of my time getting my classroom and lesson plans ready, as well as exploring the Skowhegan area on my mountain bike.

Skowhegan, if you don’t know it, is a beautiful and historic town on the Kennebec River in central Maine, about an hour north of the state capital of Augusta.  A working class community of about 6000 people, I felt right at home there, as the town was very similar in size and character to my hometown in the County, from which I had just moved.  If the weather cooperated and I didn’t feel compelled to give in to my workaholic nature and head to the school, I often hopped on my bicycle to pedal around the tree-lined streets or dusty back roads.  There were cemeteries and historical sites to explore, as well as beautiful scenery and unique architecture.  Unless it was very hot of course, when all I would explore by bike was the road from my apartment to Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, a well-known, locally-based dairy bar on Madison Avenue.

One particular afternoon, I got on my bike and followed my nose up a rather steep street called Norridgewock Avenue, which I had not previously checked out.  Knowing that the next town over was called Norridgewock, I figured I would follow the street to the town line and then turn around.  It was pretty hot, and before long I regretted biting off such a lofty goal, but I was young and stubborn, and had nothing else to do, so I powered on.  Before long though, I ended up getting off my bike and pushing it up what I later learned was called Neil Hill.  I was pretty exhausted from the heat by the time I reached the top.  As I stopped to catch my breath and take a drink of water, I saw a sign nearby that indicated I was across the street from the Margaret Chase Smith Library, which I knew was attached to the home of Senator Smith, who by that time was in her mid-90s.  While I was catching my breath, I caught sight of a figure dressed in a bright blue bathrobe sitting alone on a wicker chair inside a glass atrium and looking over at me.  It was a very slight, elderly lady with a head full of silver-white hair, sipping from a mug.  Before it clearly registered in my mind who this actually was, the lady in the blue bathrobe raised her hand and gave me a wave and a smile.  Suddenly it clicked in my oxygen-starved brain.  It was Senator Margaret Chase Smith herself!  Of course, I returned the smile and wave from the woman who would later be selected the most influential Mainer of the 20th century.  

Having caught my breath again, and not wanting to disturb Senator Smith’s privacy, I gamely mounted my bike again and continued on my way.  On my return trip past Senator Smith’s house heading home, she was no longer sitting in the atrium.  I biked past there a couple more times over the next few years, but never saw the grand old lady again.

Sen. Smith, as she would have looked around the time I saw her. I believe that is the very chair in which she was sitting that day. (Photo from Margaret Chase Smith Library website)

As “brushes with greatness” go, this could probably be considered a slight brush at best.  It wasn’t like I was seated next to Senator Smith at a state dinner and had a foreign policy discussion or anything like that.  It was just a simple, friendly wave and smile from an elderly woman to a stranger on a bike on the street near her home.  Nonetheless, it made an impression on me.  This important and influential woman who had dined with presidents, statesmen and royalty, who had the courage to speak up against a bully when almost every other leader in the country was intimidated, and who had made history by helping clear a path for future female leaders, was still “Margaret from Maine” who would smile and wave at a passing bicyclist.

The memory of that day has stayed with me all these years.  You don't seem to see many in positions of leadership like her anymore.  Maybe when we go to choose our leaders, we should be looking more carefully for people of character and courage, like Senator Smith.

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