FORT KENT – The University of Maine at Fort Kent presented 214 bachelor’s and associate degrees at two commencement ceremonies held within six days at locations 600 miles apart this past week.
On Saturday, President Richard Cost presented degrees to 212 graduates at the commencement at the UMFK SportsCenter, and on May 2 he had been in Canada presenting teaching degrees to a terminally ill Cape Breton Island woman and her best friend who was remaining by her side.
Heather Marie Gillis of Sydney, Nova Scotia, one of scores of students from the Maritime Provinces who are seeking teaching degrees at UMFK, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor last March. She has since been a patient at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital and could not attend Saturday’s commencement.
Learning of her plight, Cost and his wife, Ellen, made the 1,200-mile round-trip drive last weekend to conduct an impromptu commencement ceremony organized by hospital officials, family and friends. More than 30 people attended the ceremony.
Sarah McCormack, a lifelong friend of Gillis – the women graduated from high school and University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, Nova Scotia, together – decided to cancel her plans to attend the UMFK commencement to be with her friend. She too was presented her UMFK degree on May 2 at the hospital.
“We just had to go to the hospital, after learning of the situation,” Cost said Saturday after the more conventional commencement event at UMFK. “There was no question in my mind.
“We pride ourselves on providing personalized attention to our students,” he said. “Attending to this student’s needs represented the very fabric of our campus community.”
At the hospital, volunteers decorated the “An Calla” [Gaelic for “harbor”] room with green and gold balloons – UMFK’s school colors – and brought in a cake and refreshments for the ceremony.
On Saturday, the UMFK graduates and audience were told of the impromptu ceremony that had occurred earlier.
“Your classmate showed incredible grace … personal courage … graciousness and peace,” Cost told the hundreds assembled in the SportsCenter.
In addition to the degrees conferred Saturday, university officials presented Maine landscape artist Neil Welliver an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
The campus also presented a distinguished service award to Genevieve Jalbert Bouchard, a 1926 graduate of the Madawaska Training School, a forerunner of UMFK. Bouchard taught school in a “little red schoolhouse” after graduation, left the profession to raise a family, and returned to teaching in 1959. She taught 13 more years before retiring in 1972. Saturday was her first time in a cap and gown in nearly eight decades.
Welliver, who attended the ceremony in a wheelchair, could not deliver the traditional commencement speech to students because of a heart condition and instead presented the audience a 15-minute video of himself at work on a painting of a waterfall in the Allagash woods.
“I feel calm in the woods,” Welliver said in the video taped about four years ago. “We’ve done horrendous things to nature.
“We have highways to places that are meaningless,” he said while painting his work. “This is beautiful.”
Other speakers urged graduates to challenge themselves, become mentors and role models, and take the time to notice simple things such as smells, but also to become extraordinary and make a difference.
“If and when you become bored, volunteer in your community,” Class President Clinton Ray King told his peers.
“Realize what you find most important in your lives,” Cost told the graduates. “There are many ways to reach your goals.”
Saturday’s commencement was the 122nd in the school’s 125-year history.