They’re leaders. Business owners. Volunteers. A look at some of the Bates College grads who decided to stay in L-A  and the difference they have made.

LEWISTON — Ben Chin was a newly minted Bates College freshman — an 18-year-old kid who’d grown up in Syracuse, N.Y., and Pittsburgh, Pa. — when Lewiston’s mayor hinted at his future.

“You’re young right now,” Mayor Lionel Guay told incoming students during a tour of the downtown. “But someday, you might want to settle down, have a family and raise your kids here.”

To teenager Chin, it was like being told to plan for his retirement and eat more fiber.

“I remember being 18 years old and thinking, ‘Oh, yeah. Please. Settling down and having kids. That’s the last thing on my mind right now,’” Chin said recently. “I didn’t think it would happen at the time, because that’s not what you’re thinking when you’re 18.”

A decade later, Guay proved prophetic.

After Chin graduated in 2008, he stayed. He got a job on Lisbon Street, working as an activist with the Maine People’s Alliance. He married his girlfriend, Nicola, and last summer they bought a house in Lewiston.

“The mayor wrote the script to my life,” said Chin, now 28.

He followed many others — teachers, politicians, businesspeople, charity workers, doctors and lawyers — who came to Lewiston as Bates students and stayed as grown-ups, contributing to the community and Maine in incalculable ways.

Currently, the city and its surrounding communities host about 850 alumni, said Elaine Makas, who serves on the college’s Alumni Council.

They stayed for many reasons, she said. A few were raised here. But most were born elsewhere and found something unique in the scale of this place, in the sense of community and in the belief that it’s neither too big nor too rigid to change and improve.

And their contributions are extraordinary.

“I think it’s substantial, I really do,” said Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and a former Auburn city manager and Maine Department of Labor commissioner. “What I see are people who are willing to get their hands dirty and get involved.”

In part, it’s what they were taught, Morrison said.

“Bates seems to say, ‘We’re going to give you the best education that you can get,’” he said. “‘But we’re also going to give you some values.’ And one of those values is community involvement.”

Because of the graduates who’ve stayed, Lewiston is a “warmer” place to be, said Larry Gilbert, former Lewiston mayor and police chief.

They’ve held local and state office. They run soup kitchens and youth activity centers, he said.

“Without them, we wouldn’t have the Trinity Jubilee Center,” Gilbert said. “We wouldn’t have Tree Street Youth Center.”

They’re learning — despite coming from away — to care for this community, Gilbert said, and he believes such caring is inevitable once the students leave campus and meet people from the community.

“Once people open up to each other, it’s just a human thing to connect,” he said.

Making connections

For much of Bates’ history, making those connections to the community has been a challenge. But over the past several decades, greatly influenced by former Bates President Donald Harward’s efforts, the “town-gown” divide has eased.

In 1995, Bates established a Center for Service-Learning with longtime dean, James Carignan, as director. It was renamed in honor of Harward and his wife, Ann, when he retired in 2002.

“Engagement of students in the community was of critical importance to President Harward,” said Peggy Rotundo, director of strategic and policy initiatives at the school’s Harward Center for Community Partnerships. “He wanted the college to be an integral part of the community and a good neighbor.”

Today, initiatives by the college — ranging from academic programs to more informal sports department outreach efforts — are creating lots of opportunities for students to venture outside the so-called “Bates bubble.”

Last year, 23 of the college’s 32 departments and programs included community work in their curricula.

The school’s students documented more than 50,000 hours of academically related work in the community and more than 8,500 hours of volunteer work, aiding about 150 agencies and institutions.

Students work with children in every local public school. They coach, perform, mentor, counsel and guide.

For example, 77 students volunteered last year at the Tree Street Youth Center, most helping kids with their homework. At Lewiston High School, 30 students helped teens prepare for their SAT exams. Eighteen gave time to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.

There’s so much sharing that Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte believes the community has yet to feel the full benefit of the school’s presence as more students settle locally.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more as people study at Bates and people find ways to advance their careers here in the community,” he said. “I think we’re only going to see that impact grow.”

The community ought to be reaching out more to Bates students, finding those students who rarely leave campus and giving them a reason to emerge, he said.

It can be done. The school proved it, LaBonte said.

Getting around the bubble

The community has never had so many alumni living here from away, said Douglas Hodgkin, a historian and professor emeritus at Bates.

For much of the college’s 159-year history, students had little interest in wandering off campus, he said.

There were exceptions. At the end of the 19th century, Keeseville, N.Y., native Frank Morey settled in Lewiston after his graduation. He would become Lewiston’s city attorney and mayor. From 1907 to 1912, he served in the Maine Legislature and spent a couple of years as speaker of the House. (His grandson, Bates grad Frank Morey Coffin would serve in Congress, run for governor and serve many years as a federal judge.)

The school began changing in the 1960s, gradually opening up as it brought in more students from farther away, Hodgkin said. It soon became known nationally and, later, internationally, for its rigor and liberalism.

A wave of young people who entered the school during that era — including Kelly Matzen, John Jenkins, Blake Whitaker and Elaine Makas — would poke holes in the bubble.

Their collective impact would be felt years later.

Matzen, from West Hartford, Conn, would serve as a city councilor and lead Maine housing policy. Whitaker would leave and return, first as a small business owner and later as a professor and associate dean at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. Makas, from Medford, Mass, would teach at Bates and L-A College and serve on the County Commission and in the Maine Legislature.

And Jenkins, the most well-known of the four, became a karate world champion before serving as Lewiston’s mayor and then its representative in the Maine Senate. He later moved across the river and served two terms as Auburn’s mayor.

“I came for the education, but I stayed for the people,” said Jenkins, who arrived in 1970 from Newark, N.J.

Others included Woody Trask, a chemist and former vice president at Gates Formed Fiber in Auburn, longtime Lewiston chief assessor Joe Grube and Marcia Baxter, a longtime social worker who would help local families with adoptions and day treatment for children.

Most felt some isolation from the community while at Bates.

“I honestly think when I was there, it almost appeared that Bates had made the conscious decision that it was a place separated from its community. It shouldn’t have been,” Matzen said.

He had to find his own way off campus.

In early 1968, he joined the local effort to elect Eugene McCarthy as president. Matzen and his girlfriend, Linda, stumped for the Minnesota senator around the city.

“We got to know Lewiston pretty well that way,” he said.

The couple married and stayed. Matzen earned a law degree from the University of Maine School of Law; Linda Matzen went to work as a guidance counselor at Edward Little High School in Auburn.

To Whitaker, a native of Beverly, Mass., Lewiston felt familiar. The machines that made shoes in the local shoe shops were made in his hometown. A runner, he ventured every day onto the local streets.

Jenkins, who like Whitaker arrived in 1970, went to work at night in a downtown office, answering phones at a crisis hotline.

“You learn a lot about a city that way,” he said.

Here, he could grow and make a difference, he told himself.

Connecting with community

It’s the same ideal that seems to drive so many younger Bates graduates to stay.

“Maine offers a lot of hope,” said Albany, N.Y.-raised Craig Saddlemire. “The challenges in Maine are real but they don’t feel as overwhelming as other places.”

He was a senior when he began to venture off campus to meet a bicycling group. Soon, those friends drew him into local politics.

Saddlemire joined the Visible Community initiative that rallied downtown residents to fight a Lewiston proposal that would have created a boulevard through their tenement-heavy neighborhood.

He joined Chin, Matt Schlobohm and other Bates students and alums to help rally the poor neighborhood. And they won.

The success led student Julia Sleeper to co-found The Tree Street Youth Center in 2011 and student Kristen Walter to found the Lots to Gardens program, which has been adopted by the Saint Mary’s Health System. Saddlemire, a filmmaker, campaigned and won a seat on the Lewiston City Council.

“The successes honestly changed my life,” said Chin, who currently serves as the political director for the Maine People’s Alliance. “I just really wanted to be in a place where that kind of stuff was possible. In bigger areas, so much stuff isn’t possible because of the number of people and how entrenched everybody is and nobody is listening to each other.”

The scale also appealed to Buffalo, N.Y., native Kim Wettlaufer.

“It’s kind of halfway between big city and country,” he said. “I always loved it.”

After graduation in 1980, the All-American long-distance runner coached track and spent seven years as a sports reporter at the Sun Journal. He then joined three partners in developing a number of local Subway restaurants.

In his free time, he volunteered. He helped at Androscoggin Home Care and Hospice, eventually joining its board. He also joined the board of the Trinity Jubilee Center, which had become a destination for people in need of a few groceries, a hot meal or a warm place to stay on a cold day.

“Through Subway, I’d gotten involved (at the center),” he said. “I loved what they were doing.”

In 2005, he accepted the job of executive director.

He serves there alongside Erin Reed, who graduated from Bates in 2008. The Pembroke, Mass., native visited the center during a community-service orientation in the city.

“I’m pretty sure my first day in Lewiston was spent here,” Reed said during a break in the friendly mayhem of the center. “And I liked it. It was fun.”

“I’m from a town where you don’t know your neighbors,” said Reed, who works as the charity’s development director. “In Lewiston, it’s an actual community. People live here for generations.”

Long-term contributions

Many Bates alumni who settled here plan to spend their lives here.

Schlobohm, now head of the Maine AFL-CIO, lives in Greene with his wife, Kate Brennan, and their two children.

“When people feel like they have a network of relationships, a strong community of support and are involved in the world with work that is meaningful and important, why would they leave?” he said.

Sleeper, the 2008 graduate who helped create the Tree Street Youth Center, said she plans never to leave.

The Brewer, Maine, native created the charity as a kind of bridge between school and home for children in the downtown neighborhood. She wants to watch these children grow and change the city.

“I literally had a conversation with myself and decided that I will be here the rest of my life,” she said. “I’m all in — like, beyond all in.”

[email protected]

Bates commencement is today

Bates College will hold its 148th Commencement ceremonies this morning, beginning at 10 a.m.

Besides conferring bachelor degrees to more than 450 seniors, the school will confer honorary degrees to author Isabel Alexis Wilkerson, computer scientist John Seely Brown, IDEXX founder David Shaw and his wife, actress Glenn Close, a six-time Academy Award nominee.

The event will be held on the school’s quad if weather allows. In case of rain, it will move to the Merrill Gymnasium.

Though it is not open to the general public, the ceremony will be live streamed on the school’s web site at bates.edu/commencement/live/.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.