BETHEL – It may have been for his collaborative work in forming the Franklin County Community College Network that has brought community college courses here. Or, maybe it was the adult laptop computer loan program, or the college transition program or the program with Cianbro that has to date trained and put to work 60 welders. Or, perhaps it is his work in educating the state’s inmates, with the Literacy Volunteers of Franklin and Somerset Counties or the many who have graduated from the local Work Ready program.
According to Cathy Newell, executive director of the Maine Adult Education Association, it was for all those reasons and more that Ray Therrien, director of the MSAD 9 Adult and Community Education program, was awarded the state’s 2008 Gerald LeVasseur Award at the annual conference held at Sunday River Thursday night.
“He is so well deserving,” Newell said. Since 1982, the award, named for LaVasseur of Van Buren who was a state education director, is given annually for outstanding work in Maine’s public education. Therrien was nominated for the award by several local agencies including United Way of the Tri-Valley Area, the CareerCenter, MSAD 9 and MSAD 58.
“He does an exceptional job,” Newell said.” It’s his collaboration with all the organizations. He’s always on the go and willing to help. He has incredible commitment.”
His commitment to adult education comes naturally because that’s where he got his start.
“I’m a trench guy. A blue collar worker from the mill,” Therrien said. His father worked at the Otis Mill in Jay – now Wausau – and he went to work at the mill too. It was a family tradition. Known as a member of the “bull gang,” Therrien and crew were the “cleaners.” They were called in to do the dangerous stuff, like a tank leaking some nasty stuff or a dicey wielding fix was required.
“I was one of the bad boys,” Therrien said with a laugh. He also operated the heavy equipment as needed, was a truck driver. The mill’s managers saw a hard worker in him and encouraged him to get training on the paper machines, “but I wanted more. I had no interest in that work,” he says now.
A veteran of the Navy, he qualified to receive higher education funding through the veteran’s early college entrance program. But the larger battle to be fought was one with his self-confidence. From years of expectation, Therrien recalled back to the fifth or sixth grade when a school counselor evaluated his grade record and said, “Oh, you want to work with your hands, don’t you?” His life’s work had already been mapped out by the time he was 12. So this idea of going on to higher education seemed nearly an impossibility to him.
“I was afraid I would fail. I was terrible in school,” Therrien said. “I had so few skills; I couldn’t pay attention in class.” Nonetheless, he signed up for basic studies program classes at the University of Maine at Farmington in 1974 and graduated in 1979.
“I was the first in my family to go to college. I was stunned that I could make it,” he said. Now, when he sits down with the many adults who doubt their abilities for course work, he says with conviction, “if I can do it, you can do it.”
As 150 Wausau mill workers face layoffs by December, Therrien said he is sure to be there to help.
“I’ve almost come full circle going back to Wausau,” he said. Only this time he will be able to show them first hand how big changes can be made. He expects to do it how he’s always done it: with the help from one of his many collaborators such as Patty Ladd at the Wilton CareerCenter, Janet Smith at Women Work and Community and Gary Perlson, MSAD58’s Adult and Community Education director and more.
According to Perlson, Therrien’s “passion for adult education and connecting the disconnected transcends his job as an adult eduction director. His work is his life’s mission …,” he wrote in his letter of support for the award Perlson described as “the most prestigious.” The award for Therrien was completely unexpected.
“It kind of surprised me – really surprised me,” he said and added, “It’s pretty grand.”