– Robert Gagnon felt a little out of place last week.

There he was in Augusta, one of seven “students of the year” from Maine’s community college system being feted at a luncheon for their outstanding achievements over the past two years. But one thing clearly set Gagnon apart.

“I was the oldest,” Gagnon said.

Gagnon is 57. He’s a grandfather. And if life were a straight, unwavering line, he’d still be pulling down somewhere around $80,000 a year as a beater engineer at the Fraser Papers Inc. mill in his hometown of Madawaska.

Instead, when Northern Maine Community College holds its commencement on May 15, he’ll be up there on the stage, right next to Gov. John Baldacci, explaining to his fellow students how a dream deferred can be a life unfulfilled.

“All my life, every time I made a decision, I’d question it,” Gagnon said by telephone last week from NMCC’s campus in Presque Isle. “But this time it felt right. Deep down in my heart, it felt like I was doing the right thing.”

A little history:

Gagnon grew up on Maine’s northernmost border, one of eight boys in a French-speaking household where his father and six of his seven brothers did what just about everyone did in those days — as soon as you hit 18, you went to work at the mill.

He graduated from Madawaska High School in 1970 at the age of 17. Too young to become a papermaker, he thought about enrolling at what was then Northern Maine Vocational Technical Institute some 60 miles to the south in Presque Isle.

But the University of Maine at Fort Kent was closer. And so there Gagnon enrolled for one, fleeting semester.

“After that semester, I knew it wasn’t me,” he recalled. “And Fraser was hiring.”

So, feeling the gravitational tug of the mill, he dropped out of college. And for the next 36 years, Gagnon lived the secure, well-paying life of a union paper worker.

He and his wife, Diane, raised two kids — Nicholas and Stephanie. They lived in a comfortable house, paid for by the frequent overtime shifts that came Gagnon’s way as he climbed ever higher on the seniority ladder.

In short, life was good. But it wasn’t perfect.

2007, the struggling mill was going through hard times that would eventually land it in bankruptcy. There was talk of early retirement — at 55, however, Gagnon was too young by five years.

But there was also talk of a buyout. And that got Gagnon thinking: Is it too late to go back to school?

More to the point, were he and his wife willing to trade life as they knew it for an associate’s degree in applied sciences?

In a word, yes.

They put their house on the market late in the summer of 2007. Gagnon signed up for the buyout and, working with the Maine Career Center and NMCC’s off-campus center in Madawaska, learned how the Trade Adjustment Assistance program could help him segue back to school and into another career.

(The TAA, established to help those whose industries have been hurt by foreign competition, provides eligible workers with income support and other benefits as they make the transition to other walks of life.)

Gagnon’s leap of faith did not start out smoothly.

Just before he and Diane were to close on the house, the buyer backed out. Then Fraser Papers told him it lacked sufficient backup for his senior engineer position, so the buyout would have to wait a few months.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” Gagnon said. “So I spoke to my kids.”

“Go for it, Dad,” said Stephanie, who’s well on her way to becoming a physician’s assistant.

Ditto for Nicholas, who owns and operates County Plumbing and Heating in Caribou.

So Gagnon took a deep breath and, on Dec. 27, 2007, punched out of the mill for the last time.

He’d helped Nicholas with the plumbing-and-heating business from time to time, so he decided to steer his studies in that direction.

But first, he had to brush 40 years of dust off his algebra — which he did through an adult education course back at his old high school. At the same time, he enrolled in English and computer courses to prepare for his full-time enrollment at NMCC.

“When I was younger, I’d go to classes and be anxious for them to be over,” Gagnon said. “But this was a whole, total different experience. I had it in my mind that I’m going to do the best possible job I can. This is my job now, so I took pride in everything I did.”

It showed.

From physics and sociology to English composition and introduction to literature, Gagnon has aced every course he’s taken for a perfect grade point average of 4.0. And in the applied sciences department, he’s become student, teacher and father figure all rolled into one.

Al St. Peter, who’s taught plumbing and heating at NMCC for 22 years, said Gagnon is not the first older student to come along — in fact, 4 percent of the 16,000-plus students currently enrolled in Maine’s seven community colleges are over the age of 50.

But St. Peter, who nominated Gagnon for student of the year, said he’s rarely if ever seen someone leave such a comfortable life simply “to better himself. That’s the uncommon part of it.”

Nor has St. Peter ever seen a stronger work ethic: Over the past two years, Gagnon has volunteered as a lab assistant, organized study groups, tutored his fellow students and, most recently served as senior intern in the plumbing and heating program.

“At times he was almost like (his fellow students’) dad. If I couldn’t always get to them, they knew they could come to Bob and he’d help them out,” said St. Peter. “I’m going to miss him greatly.”

So will Jennifer Graham, who teaches English at NMCC and also nominated Gagnon for student of the year.

“His attitude is exceptional,” Graham said. “I feel very lucky to have had him as a student.”

The challenge, of course, is far from over. Gagnon still needs to figure how to shore up a family income that dropped from $80,000 back in the gravy days to about $17,000 now. (Diane, following her husband’s lead, will graduate later this year from the Empire Beauty School in Caribou.)

“That really weighs on me,” Gagnon said, adding that he might find part-time work at a local Lowe’s and hopes to hook up with his son and work toward getting his master’s plumbing-and-heating license.

“I’m open to anything at this point,” he said.

More immediately, he has to polish up that speech he’s scheduled to deliver on graduation day — just before the governor’s.

“My message is if you have a dream, don’t let anyone discourage you from that dream,” Gagnon said. “You’ll hit hard times and obstacles, but don’t give up. And when you do it, don’t have regrets. Don’t look back.”

One more thing about that “students of the year” luncheon last week. Conscious as he was of his age, Gagnon couldn’t help but notice one more significant number as he looked around at his counterparts from all over Maine.

“I felt a little out of place because I was the oldest,” he said, “But I was also the only one with a 4.0,”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]

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