BANGOR — Rep. Jane Saxl, the wife of former Bangor Mental Health Institute Superintendent Joe Saxl, was taken aback when she opened the door of her new home on the BMHI campus one wintry morning in 1974 to find Florence Griffin, a longtime resident of BMHI, standing outside.
“May I have one of your sweaters?” Griffin asked. “I’m running away and it’s getting cold.”
“She was quite resourceful,” Saxl recalled about Griffin, a woman who has spent most of her life behind the institution’s walls after being committed involuntarily at age 13.
More than two decades later, Saxl and about 60 other people attended an event Wednesday that honored Griffin for an educational achievement.
At 62, Griffin received her high school diploma in a ceremony marked by dignity, humor and emotion at BMHI, her home for the past 49 years.
After listening to praise heaped on her by BMHI Superintendent Larry Ventura, Saxl and other dignitaries, Griffin stood up to receive her Bangor High School diploma for completing the general course curriculum.
“Florence is a prime example of perseverance paying off,” said Richard Madore, Bangor adult education director. He explained that Griffin had to show competency in courses from mathematics to history to computer literacy before receiving the diploma.
“It may have taken awhile, but she earned it every step of the way. Nobody gave it to her,” Madore said.
In fact, it took 17 years for Griffin to earn her diploma. Mary Alice Jellison, a teacher at BMHI’s learning center who has tutored Griffin throughout the years, also was recognized at the event.
The pair formed a close bond as they worked toward Griffin’s academic goal.
“I’m very proud of her,” Jellison said.
Sporting a bright blue cap and gown, Griffin, an outgoing, talkative person, opened the cermony when she marched to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” toward the middle of a balloon-festooned room on the first floor of BMHI.
Griffin received a standing ovation when Madore handed her the maroon-colored diploma jacket. The actual diploma has not arrived; it is in the mail somewhere, according to Madore. He assured Griffin and the crowd that the certificate inside the diploma jacket would suffice until the actual document arrived.
Overwhelmed, Griffin said she “usually was not at such a loss for words.”
Peering at the group of well-wishers who crammed into the BMHI learning center, Griffin approached the podium and shielded her eyes against flashing cameras.
“This has been a long haul to get this,” she said. “I want to say to Mary Alice, thank you, and I love you all. I appreciate it.” Then, displaying a spunky style that has become her trademark, Griffin said, “I’d like to have a waltz played.”