April 01, 2020

Judge urges students to look for their niche

BATH – Offering himself up as an example, Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen urged students Tuesday to avoid the “big mistakes” in life and told them that they will succeed if they keep searching for their niche.

Wathen described himself as 16th out of a class of 17 at his high school in Easton in Aroostook County in 1957 and noted that he flunked out of Ricker College in Houlton several times until he married and settled down.

“I wasn’t born a judge,” he said. “I’m not sure anyone in Easton thought I would have a career in law, or on what side of it.”

Many students, like Wathen, whose interest in school didn’t take off until his 20s, are late bloomers, he said. The key for them, as for all students, is to avoid impulsive mistakes that can throw a life off track, he said.

Superintendent William Michaud invited Wathen to speak to students at Bath’s middle and high schools because of the spate of bomb threats that closed schools several times this fall and disrupted academic work days.

On Tuesday, Wathen took off his black suit coat, marched to the podium, rolled up his sleeves, and cut to the chase in his lecture.

While he did not directly address bomb threats, the chief justice of the state’s highest court did not hesitate to use his own life as an example of how all students – even those who have been written off – can succeed.

“I’m not speaking to the National Honor Society or the valedictorian,” he told students at Morse High School. “I’m speaking to those who don’t feel they have done their best. Don’t underestimate the importance of these four years. Whether you are at the top or the bottom, you are preparing for life.”

Wathen said he was a defiant teen-ager but that those in his community cared about him. Eventually, he found himself on the dean’s list and began enjoying himself in college.

His brother urged him to apply to the University of Maine School of Law, where Wathen said he found his niche.

“You’ll know it when you find it, and that’s the problem with late bloomers,” Wathen told the students.

Wathen brought along his longtime friend, Duane “Buzz” Fitzgerald, former president of Bath Iron Works, whom he called another late bloomer.

Fitzgerald’s high school principal at Morse did not want to give him a letter of recommendation to college because of his grades.

“When I think about doing something impulsive, I stop and think about the consequences,” he said. “The trick is don’t make the big mistakes. Buzz and I were lucky that some of our little mistakes were not disastrous.”

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