This is the first of three articles about the gubernatorial candidates’ formative years.
Long before he was elected to Congress, a young Mike Michaud campaigned in the hallways of Schenck High School in East Millinocket.
Not only did Michaud’s fledgling political skills get him elected to the student council, but the 18-year-old was also voted king of the Winter Carnival – a major annual event – and earned the senior class’s superlative award for “Friendliest.”
“He was like a magnet. Everyone wanted to be Mike Michaud’s friend,” said Benjamin Barr, who grew up with Michaud in the Penobscot County town of Medway. “He was concerned about everything and everybody. He never put anybody down.”
Former classmates remember Michaud as a conscientious, hardworking kid who was always smiling – traits that seem to have served him well over his three decades in public office.
He was a statistician for the high school basketball team who spent many evenings working at a local truck stop. He liked to romp through the woods, help his father in the garden and bring home animals as pets.
It was those early years growing up in the Mount Katahdin area, home to Baxter State Park, that helped make the man who is campaigning to become the next governor of Maine.
His early experiences instilled a strong work ethic and a commitment to the environment. Growing up in a large Franco-American Catholic family taught him the importance of compromise, while implanting socially conservative roots, away from which he has gradually evolved.
THE EARLY YEARS
Michaud was born in Millinocket, the second oldest of six children – five boys and a girl, all of whom at some point worked in the former Great Northern Paper Co. mill. Medway, the small town where he was raised, is 190 miles north of Portland. Its motto is “Gateway to the North Woods.”
During Michaud’s childhood, the mill, where his father worked for 43 years and his grandfather worked for 40 years, was the economic engine for the region.
Families had everything they needed and rarely had to leave the Millinocket area to find entertainment, said Guy Duprey, a former state lawmaker from Medway and a distant cousin of Michaud.
“Everybody had what they wanted – multiple vehicles, recreational vehicles, seasonal homes,” Duprey said. “We were making fantastic incomes. We were able to provide for our families. That, I think, was unheard of in many other communities.”
Duprey, who now works in Portland, said the Michauds were a “very close, tightknit” family.
Michaud’s mother, Jean, and father, James Sr., took their kids to St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
Michaud, who speaks a little French, which he learned mostly from his mother, described his family as middle to lower-middle class. They lived in a small, three-bedroom ranch with a large picture window overlooking the Penobscot River, which would eventually inspire him to run for public office.
He and his four brothers shared one bedroom, and his sister, who is the youngest, had her own bedroom.
“My mother and father were very frugal,” Michaud said.
Michaud said the most important lesson his parents taught him was “how to get along, share and look out for one another and be able to compromise.”
The ability to find common ground with Republicans, independents and Democrats is a central theme of Michaud’s candidacy. Michaud has also been a member of the fiscally conservative coalition of Blue Dog Democrats in the U.S. Congress.
“In a large family – we were middle class, but it was tough to make ends meet – you had to share and learn to get by,” Michaud said.
That Catholic upbringing, however, also prompted Michaud to take conservative positions on social issues, such as opposing a woman’s right to choose an abortion and same-sex marriage. He has since evolved to support both.
His father, a quiet man who worked as a mechanic in the mill, enjoyed gardening, fishing, wood-carving, fly-tying and taxidermy. Michaud said he once helped his dad, who died in 2001, build a canoe.
His mother, who died in November, kept the house running smoothly. On holidays, Michaud would help her cook – and clean up after – big family meals. Michaud said his favorite food was his mother’s baked squares – fig bars.
“My brothers and I and my sister were really good kids,” Michaud said. “(Mom and Dad) didn’t need to get strict with us. We all got along.”
Michaud’s sister, Lynne, described the family home as a “hub of activity” and “there was never a dull moment.” Michaud and her other brothers would tease her, she said, but more often than not, Mike would step in and defend her when the joke went on too long.
“He was my protector,” said Lynne Michaud, a 51-year-old Lyman resident who works as a business and technology teacher at York High School and as an adjunct technology professor at York County Community College.
She said her fondest memories of growing up with Michaud are when he would teach her how to play chess at the kitchen table and when they would make noise on the family organ.
“We would sing and dance and act crazy,” she said. “We’ve always been bonded together in that way.”
BUMPS AND BRUISES
Michaud recalled several misadventures of his boyhood in an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram.
One fishing trip with his older brother, Jim, and his friend turned into a memorable experience – and not because of the fish they caught.
Michaud said he was made to carry all of the fishing tackle and food through the woods, after his mother made Jim include him in the trip.
When they got to the still waters of a salmon stream, he said they climbed aboard two homemade log rafts – Michaud and the supplies on one raft, and his brother and his friend on the other.
“The problem was that the raft they put me on actually started slowly falling apart,” Michaud said. “I lost all the food in the water and ultimately I ended up in the water. I got them back. When I got back on their raft, the whole thing tipped over.”
Nature has long been an inspiration for Michaud, who says he ran for the Maine Legislature so he could clean up the Penobscot River, which was being polluted by the mill. Throughout his 12 years in the U.S. Congress, Michaud has a 93 percent rating on key votes tracked by the League of Conservation Voters advocacy group.
To this day, Michaud likes to disappear into his 61/2-acre wood lot in Medway and cut trees during his free time, which these days is scarce.
As a child, Michaud was also an animal lover. In addition to having cats and a dog, he would bring home ducks, chickens, frogs and even a pig.
“I used to bring home small animals. I was going to bring home a horse and that’s when my father put his foot down,” he said.
He also had a pet rabbit named Thumper, who was trained to use the litter box; a pet frog he named Singing, because that’s what he would do when making a mess on the basement floor; and a pet pig, which he named Homer.
“He liked to have his belly scratched,” he said of his pig.
Michaud and his brothers used to work on his neighbor’s farm – whether it was haying the field, tending to the animals, collecting manure for his family’s garden or peeling bark from felled trees in a wood lot.
“He had big pigs,” Michaud said. “My brother and I would go up there and try to ride them. It got messy.”
One day, his brother was spiking a manure-covered pitchfork into the ground, trying to see how close he could get to Mike’s foot. One throw got too close, Michaud recalled.
“It actually went through it,” he said. “I got out of school for the week.”
HIGH SCHOOL YEARS
Michaud attended Schenck High School in East Millinocket from 1969 to 1973. During those years, America put a man on the moon, and feminism won important victories with the passing of Title IX laws that prevented sex discrimination in higher education. Roe v. Wade legalized abortion.
American culture was experiencing a hangover of sorts. The euphoria of the hippie movement was subsiding as the disco era took hold. And young people were growing disenchanted with marriage, children and clean living.
But a look through the high school yearbook shows those influences were not strongly at work in East Millinocket. The 1973 Katahdin Chronicle mostly shows fresh-faced students with clean-cut styles hearkening back to the 1950s.
On the weekends, kids would pile into station wagons with wooden panels and ride around town, or go to the movies.
At that time popular songs included “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” “You’re So Vain,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Superstition.”
Michaud, however, worked most nights and weekends as a gas station attendant at Bouchard’s Texaco, a small truck stop that was located off Interstate 95 in Medway. When not pumping gas, he washed dishes in the diner.
The truck stop had four gas pumps and two diesel pumps and the diner had a long counter and four tables, according to Lori (Bouchard) Boynton, whose father, Pete, owned the truck stop.
“We worked hard as young kids,” said Boynton, who worked as a short-order cook.
That work ethic has stayed with Michaud throughout his 29 years working at the mill and through his more than 30 years in elective office, during which he returned home on most weekends and crisscrossed the 2nd Congressional District – the largest east of the Mississippi – to stay connected to his constituents.
Both Michaud and Boynton were voted the 1973 Winter Carnival’s king and queen, beating out 10 other classmates – five boys and five girls. They were crowned during a public ceremony.
In a way, they were an unlikely pair. Boynton was a cheerleader who was voted “Most Athletic” by her peers. She hung out with athletes, whereas Michaud, a statistician for the boys basketball team, tended to hang out with the “smart kids,” she said.
“It’s like a big show,” she said of the coronation. “The whole town about comes out.”
Despite hanging out in different cliques, Boynton remembered Michaud as a gentleman – someone who was always fair and honest.
“He was just a good person,” said Boynton, who doesn’t typically like politicians. “Mike has always been a respectable human being. I’ve always liked Mike.”
Even though Michaud worked hard as a young man, Shirley (Deschenes) Tapley said he liked to have fun, too. Occasionally, she would go to see movies with Michaud and other friends.
One of the films they saw was “Tora Tora Tora,” a dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“For a while there we’d say ‘Tora, tora, tora,’ to each other whenever we saw each other,” said Tapley, who is now the administrative assistant for East Millinocket. “When we’d meet in the hall, he’d always have this huge smile on his face and he meant it. You couldn’t ask for a better guy.”
Tapley also served with Michaud on the student council when it helped establish a new “modified attendance” policy, which created an open campus for seniors who didn’t have a class scheduled.
“He was pretty well-liked. I remember him taking leadership roles in things. Politics hasn’t changed him much and that’s a rarity,” Tapley said.
When asked about activities outside of the classroom, Michaud highlighted his work as a statistician for the Schenck High School basketball team, which won three Class B Eastern Maine crowns and two Class B state championships in three out of his four years in high school.
Former basketball coach Ron Marks, 74, said in a phone interview from his Florida home that Michaud “was a good statistician, very trustworthy, (and) someone who worked hard to get things done.”
On the campaign trail, Michaud is quick to reel off statistics, whether it’s to point out that expanding MaineCare would give health insurance to 70,000 Mainers, including 3,000 veterans. He also touts his knowledge of the state budget and the process by which it is developed.
In high school, Michaud also participated in the senior play – Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a three-act play that focuses on the lives of everyday people in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners.
Michaud played the role of Joe Crowell Jr., a local paperboy who ends up dying in World War I before he can put his college education to work.
It would be the closest Michaud would come to going to college, since he went to work at the mill right after high school – a job he held for 29 years until he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2002.
Barr, Michaud’s childhood friend, played the role of the town drunk in the senior play. “He was a fair actor,” Barr said. “He remembered his lines.”
Michaud also attended Boys State, a program run by the American Legion since 1935 that teaches high school students about local, county and state governments by allowing them to run for elections and run a mock government.
Frank Dentremont, a dentist who grew up in East Millinocket who now lives in Alabama, was the yearbook editor and went to Boys State with Michaud. He is not surprised Michaud went on to become so politically successful in real life.
“He was very outgoing and very vivacious,” Dentremont said. “He always had a constant smile on his face. He always wanted to be helpful.”
Michaud, who recently spoke at the Girls and Boys State Conference, credits the experience with giving him a taste of governing and community involvement.
“But, had you still asked me back then when I graduated if I would be in politics, I would have said, “You’re crazy,’” he said.