Story posted November 10, 2006
They spoke only French as children, yet rose to prominence in business, finance and public service in Maine, a state that historically has been hostile to the Franco Americans who populate its communities from the northern tip of the St. John Valley through Lewiston and Biddeford in the south. They told their stories at Bowdoin November 13, 2006, as part of a panel discussion exploring "Tactics and Success in Franco Upward Mobility."
Bowdoin College honored its own French roots with the three-day symposium — "Celebrating the Franco-American Heritage of Maine" — co-sponsored by the Bowdoin College Multicultural Affairs Program and the departments of Government and Romance Languages. The Nov. 13 panel discussion was the first of three held through Nov. 15. (Listen to podcasts of the three events.)
Bowdoin was founded by James Bowdoin III, whose grandfather had Anglicized the French surname from its original "Baudouin," a practice that continued for generations of immigrants attempting to gain wider acceptance in a new land.
"I issue a challenge to Bowdoin to see if it will revert back to the original spelling, and provide scholarships to students with French surnames," joked Severin Beliveau, a partner in the Portland law firm Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau and Pachios, who moderated the discussion. His suggestion met with rousing applause from the audience.
The panelists shared stories of overcoming financial and cultural hardships, of struggling to gain a foothold as French-speaking citizens of English-speaking countries, both the United States and Canada, and of the importance of their Franco community.
In the St. John Valley in northern Maine, for example, all the public schools used to be government funded but run by nuns of various religious orders from Québec. All the classes were taught in French until the mid-1950s, when the state education commissioner issued an order that all public school classes were to be taught in English. Children caught speaking French, even outside of class, were often subjected to corporal punishment.
That ruling remained for 25 years, until legislators from Franco-American districts succeeded in holding up the state budget until the edict was repealed, Beliveau said.
Robert Daigle, president and CEO of Camden National Corp., was born and raised in Fort Kent, in the heart of the St. John Valley. He did not speak English until he went to school, where he was taught English as a second language while his regular classes were taught in French. While he was still in grade school, his family moved away from Fort Kent; he returned five years later to find that English had replaced French in school.
"There were all the same nuns, but they were all speaking English," he said. "It was very hard."
Daigle's first job was picking potatoes for 25 cents a barrel. At 11, he went to work in a slaughterhouse, carrying cow hides to the salting shed, "a small building full of flies," he said. "That's where I learned I needed to go to school."
He worked at the slaughterhouse for four years, and eventually paid his way through the University of Maine. After graduation, he was recruited by the Industrial National Bank of Rhode Island, which later became Fleet Bank. He served as regional president of Fleet in Maine for five years before he was recruited to be the 10th president — the first Franco-American president — of Camden National Bank.
Berthier Martin, who became the first French-speaking person to rise through the management ranks of Fraser Paper Ltd., was the youngest of 13 children in a French-speaking community of the English Province of New Brunswick, Canada.
"French was the only language in our house," he said. "My mother and my father never spoke a word of English. All of our school books were in English, except Catechism and French language, but when I graduated from high school, I couldn't speak a word of English in conversation."
Martin enrolled in a technical college in Moncton, New Brunswick, where the classes again were all in English. He didn't do well his first semester and tried to quit, but a professor there refused to let him leave. He graduated with a surveying license and had his pick of jobs, but was determined not to work for Fraser Paper because he "didn't want to work for an Anglo company. No French-speaking person had ever made it past line foreman," he said.
But the company needed a surveyor and convinced him to take the job. By the time he retired 37 years later, Martin was president of the company.
Norman Boulet, former president of Boulet Lumber Co., also was born in Canada, and moved with his family to Waterville in 1949.
"In those days, the south end of Waterville was all French, and the north end was all English," he said. "It was like two different cities. We were always fighting."
Boulet's father was a logger, and Boulet followed in his footsteps as soon as he graduated from high school. By the time he was 22 years old, he was running the business, logging Maine's wilderness with a team of 48 horses and 80 men. In 1961, he sold the horses for six skidders, and sold the whole business in 1983 to retire. His retirement lasted a year before he returned to work as a wood broker.
Lucien Gosselin, president of the Lewiston/Auburn Economic Growth Council, was born and raised in Lewiston, one of nine siblings who all still live in the city.
"Many of my friends never went beyond sixth grade," he said. "I was never encouraged by my teachers to attend college, even though I was an honor student most of the time."
His older brothers did what most kids in Lewiston did: They went to work in the textile mills and shoe factories. But Gosselin knew that was not the life for him.
"I had seen my father and brothers worrying about whether the union would strike, and whether the mill would close," he said. "That was not an option for me."
Gosselin went to work for the city and took college courses at night. When he was appointed controller, a job he held for 20 years, he no longer had time for school, but continued to take professional development classes as often as he could.
"I always had an inferiority complex of sorts about that," he said.
When Lewiston-Auburn College was established in 1987 — largely due to Gosselin's efforts — he went back to school again at 47, earning a bachelor's degree in 1991 and a master's in 1994
"I started a doctoral program in 2000," he said. "I haven't completed it yet, but there's still hope."
Juliana L'Heureux, executive director of CHANS Home Health Care and author of the Portland Press Herald newspaper column, "Les Franco Americans," praised Bowdoin College for sponsoring the symposium.
"This is the only event of its kind for Franco Americans," she said. "Francos predate the Pilgrims; they were the first to ally with Native Americans; they are a part of Maine's fabric dating back to the 1500s. To have a private organization like Bowdoin recognize Franco Americans is truly unique."
"This is the first time I have witnessed such testimonies, such stories, which are very moving to me," said François Gauthier, the Consul General of France in Boston, who came to Brunswick for the event. "It is very interesting and also very encouraging, because they are very proud of this culture; it shows how strong it is and how it is an asset in their lives. It is like being in the same family. It is very moving to be part of this event."