She won’t be in the Augusta Civic Center this evening when Janet Mills takes the oath to become Maine’s first female governor. But for those who believe in such things, Margaret Chase Smith will be watching from afar.

“Dear Janet,” begins the Jan. 7, 1948, letter from Smith, then Maine’s first congresswoman, to Mills, then a baby girl whose family lived in Farmington. “I was in Aroostook County on Dec. 30 or I would have sent a telegram of welcome to you. I am sure your parents are happy and I hope you will be a good little girl so that your Mother will not be too busy.

“Remember,” Smith continued, “you have much to live up to because your two brothers will expect a great deal of you but I know that you can do it.”

Good call.

Smith, who was 60 when she penned her salutation to “Miss Janet Trafton Mills,” could not have known that the infant daughter of Kay and S. Peter Mills Jr. would someday grow up to be Maine’s governor. By all indications, the letter was hardly unusual for an ahead-of-her-time politician known for her personal touch in cultivating a constituency that spanned four decades.

Still, when Janet Mills opened a box of mementos – compiled over the years by her mother – on Election Day and there, right on top, sat the letter from the matriarch of Maine politics, it was one of those rare moments when the distant past and the faraway future intersect, however fleetingly, in the present.

As Mills put it with a chuckle during an interview Monday, “It was a good omen.”

Not to mention a moment for the ages: Smith, the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress, and the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president by a major political party, echoing her greetings across the decades to Mills, the first woman to serve as a Maine district attorney, Maine attorney general and now, Maine’s chief executive.

Two very different lives, to be sure, lived in starkly different times. Yet joined nonetheless not only by friendship, but by a shared belief that, as Smith once put it, “when people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try it.”

Memories of Smith, who died in 1995 at the age of 97, punctuate Mills’ progression from childhood through the tumultuous 1960s and on to a life of law and politics.

There was that day when Mills was 7, waving frantically from behind the picket fence in her front yard as an entourage drove by. It was none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, fresh from a visit to Rangeley, on his way to call on Smith at her home in Skowhegan.

There was the time Mills memorized Smith’s famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech, in which Smith, by then Maine’s first female senator, condemned the smear tactics of anti-communist zealot Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Mills recited the epic address in a high school public speaking contest – and won.

There was the afternoon back in the 1980s when Mills, troubled by the headwinds she’d encountered in her law career, sought out a retired Smith’s counsel on how to handle such adversity.

“You’re too gullible, Janet,” remarked Smith, never one to mince words. “You’re too trusting.”

“Maybe I was,” mused Mills. “And maybe I’ve learned from experience.”

Photos of their ever-crisscrossing paths lay amid the piles of memorabilia soon to be moved from the Office of the Attorney General over to that of the governor: Smith in a rocking chair, cuddling a 6-month-old Mills on the front porch; Smith, circa early 1950s, posing with Mills and her siblings on their front steps; Smith at Mills’ wedding in 1985 to Stanley Kuklinski, who died in 2014.

“Oh look!” Mills exclaimed, pulling yet another framed photo from a stuffed office drawer. Taken during one of many luncheon visits to Smith’s home, it shows a 30-something Mills smiling broadly, hands folded in her lap, seated next to Smith, also smiling, both hands wrapped resolutely around her cane.

Truth be told, becoming Maine’s first woman governor is not that big a deal for Mills personally. Over and over during the campaign she told people she was running not because of her gender, but because “I happen to think I’m the most qualified person for the job.”

Still, when a mother approaches Mills in a store or on the street these days to introduce her star-struck daughter to the governor-elect, or when Mills reads the many letters that have poured in since November from girls statewide, she understands the import of this moment in Maine history.

“It’s really pretty moving,” Mills said.

One such letter came from Eden Young, 13, of Yarmouth.

“I always thought that I was just a girl from Maine and my dreams would be near impossible to reach,” she wrote. “Because I have some pretty big dreams!”

Eden wants to go to Georgetown University to study political science, then law school at Stanford. From there, she’ll get into politics “AFTER I’m a civil rights lawyer.”

Sure, she conceded, people tell her she’s crazy. Let them.

“I think back to you and the amazing thing you’ve accomplished,” Eden wrote. “Thank you so much for empowering the girls of Maine!”

Another letter came from Lucy Griset of Brunswick. She’s only 8, but she knows a freshly blazed trail when she sees one.

“Now I feel like I could be governor someday!” Lucy wrote. “Thank you for caring about my future.”

One can only imagine how one of these notes, so full of promise and passion, might resurface seven decades from this Inauguration Day.

For now, suffice it to say that when Janet Mills takes the stage this evening and raises her hand to take the oath of office, countless young eyes will look up to her as she makes history. At the same time, others will look down and smile.

With that letter so long ago, Margaret Chase Smith, who never went to college, told little Janet she was including “something that I wish you would add to your school fund. I am sending it instead of a jacket because I think you have enough jackets.”

Talk about a wise investment. What might the legendary Senator say now?

“Oh my,” Mills replied. “I think she’d be delighted.”


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