PORTLAND — Gov. Paul LePage’s life story — growing up in poverty, suffering beatings at the hands of his father and living on the streets before succeeding in business — is admired by many, even those who oppose him politically.
And it resonated Wednesday with students of LearningWorks, a nonprofit that helps at-risk, immigrant and low-income youths succeed in school.
LePage’s story is well known, but not one that he discusses often. He retraced it Wednesday as part of LearningWorks’ “Community Conversations” series, before about 150 people at a Maine Medical Center education building.
LePage said he still carries a 50-cent piece from 1960, to remind him of the time his father beat him badly enough to send him to the hospital. When his father told him to tell doctors that he had fallen down the stairs, LePage said, he decided he would leave.
LePage spent part of the next few years on the streets, “sleeping in cellars, hallways and with friends” until two families took him in.
Eventually, with help from mentors, he got into Husson College, earned a master’s degree from the University of Maine, started his own business, became general manager of the Marden’s retail chain, won election as mayor of Waterville and, last year, became governor.
LePage sprinkled his talk with humor, such as when he noted that he sent copies of his Husson College and UMaine degrees to the high school counselor who had told him that a career as a house painter would be a reasonable goal.
He ran into the counselor several years later, LePage said, and before he could speak, the counselor said, “Please don’t tell me you just got your doctorate.”
LePage said the story had a serious message for LearningWorks’ students: to set high goals and learn from mentors.
The governor also told the students to remember their roots, be honest and stay focused. A few of his other suggestions came with caveats.
For instance, he advised them not to burn bridges because they can never know which relationships will be important later in life.
His only exception to that, LePage said, is with the press.
He also said people should follow the Golden Rule and treat others as they want to be treated. But, “on occasion, when they’ve treated me in a way I didn’t like, I treated them (the same way) back,” LePage said.
LePage’s conservative views came out at a few points, such as when he said LearningWorks could help students faced with a choice “go down the right road, instead of the left one.”
He then paused and looked at Ethan Strimling, the CEO of LearningWorks and a former Democratic state senator, to make sure he caught the drift.
LePage said government agencies and community groups are always ready to provide resources to the needy, but aren’t as good as teaching the needy to help themselves.
“Sometimes people say I’m heartless and I’m tough,” LePage said, but he believes that teaching self-reliance is the best course.
The students seemed receptive to LePage’s message.
Kirkland Patterson, a 10th-grader from Biddeford, said the challenges that he and his fellow students have may be different from LePage’s, but it was helpful to hear how someone overcame such a difficult upbringing.
Strimling said that was a key reason LePage was asked to speak at the event. He pointed out that much of the governor’s speech focused on the need for mentors and support for those who go through difficult times, things that are as important today as when LePage ran away from home.
“The issue of relationships is the same today as it was 50 years ago,” Strimling said.
Strimling noted that LePage said he often relied on a saying he heard during his time on the streets: “If it is to be, it’s up to me.”
At the end of the speech, LePage said he has altered that and now says, “If it is to be, it’s up to us.”
“That’s a great evolution,” Strimling said.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: