OXFORD HILLS — Everyone has a story about Don Gouin.

A great sense of humor, kind, a mentor, supportive, compassionate – they were just a few of the words that flooded the Oxford Hills School District Facebook page last week shortly after news began to spread of the passing of Norway native, educator and longtime SAD 17 school board member Don Gouin.

Gouin, 85, died Wednesday, Jan. 13, at the Hospice House in Auburn, surrounded by his family and friends.

“He lived a good life,” said his longtime friend, colleague and SAD Board of Directors Chairman Ron Kugell, who served with him since 1961 in the Oxford Hills School District where Gouin worked as as a coach and physical education teacher. Together they served as assistant principals at Oxford Hills High School and finally together on the SAD 17 Board of Directors for the past 30 years.

“He was an all around good guy,” said Kugell.

Hundreds of Facebook posts and conversations from Main Street to school hallways have been shared during the past week as friends and neighbors, students, colleagues, town officials from across the eight-town school district and beyond reminisced about the man who left an indelible mark on so many and in particular on the school district that he faithfully served for more than six decades.

Kugell, an 82-year-old Oxford resident, said Gouin, who served as chairman of the board of directors prior to Kugell, always made significant contributions to the board.

“He was very astute. He thought out issues well and frequently came up with excellent solutions to various problems. He was also very compassionate. He’s going to be greatly missed by the board as well as the community.”

A graduate of Norway High School, Class of 1948, and a 1953 graduate of the University of Maine, Orono, where he later received a master’s degree in physical education, Gouin began his career at Paris High School as a teacher and most notably the football coach. Later, as athletic director, he developed the district’s first K-12 physical education curriculum, spearheaded nighttime football and helped build the original lighted ball field on Fair Street.

The Gouin Athletic Complex, where football is played and graduation ceremonies are held each year, was named for him.

When he finally “retired” from the school district in 1986, he immediately sought and won election to the school board of directors. The next year he decided to run for State House as representative of Norway, Oxford and Greenwood.

Despite an unsuccessful bid for the state seat, Gouin made it clear, whether in the State House where he often traveled to support or dissent state Board of Education decisions that affected local education, or on the board of directors seat, that his motivation was to make sure people got the help they needed and to make their lives easier.

It was a trait he exhibited throughout his career.

“My values are such that being in the situation to make someone’s life happier, that’s the road I’d take every time,” he said in 1992.

One of his biggest accomplishments, and one that he was most passionate about, was the approval and construction of Oxford Hills Technical High School in 1995.

“The bricks and mortar is important but the program that we’re going to be able to offer kids is what’s really important and I have committed a lot of time to that,” he told a reporter in 1995.

The technical high school cost more than $25 million – the highest cost for a school at that time, but it doubled the size of Oxford Hills High School that opened in 1966 and created the state’s only comprehensive high school.

In order to get state approval, Gouin drove a bus full of local adults to speak before the state Legislature.

Gouin was convinced and remained convinced throughout the subsequent years, that many students who would not continue their academic education at the college level needed to receive vocational education so they could successfully compete in the job market.

“I would feel if this happens, then my time on the board will have been well spent. It would serve the kids in the Oxford Hills for years and years,” Gouin said while campaigning for re-election to the school board in 1993.

Oxford Hills Technical School, Region 11, Director Shawn Lambert said Gouin – who also served on the Region 11 technical school board – had a vision to create Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.

“When I brag to colleagues about the relationship of the tech school and the high school, the number of different technical programs available to students, and the high enrollment rate in those programs, I always point out that I inherited this situation from people like Don Gouin,” said Lambert this week.

“He had the vision that made this place so powerful and successful. My job is simply to keep the good things he started going,” Lambert said. “Don was a fierce advocate for education in the Oxford Hills and his influence will be felt for generations.”

Gouin was also very aware that good education costs money, and much of that burden was born by local taxpayers.

“He always made sure that he communicated school issues to me and listened to my concerns in return,” said Norway Town Manager David Holt, who spends many hours each year involved in the school budget’s effect on local taxpayers.

“I thought that he was a good citizen and he made me a better one by always enlisting me in important school [and] town issues. I will miss that and him.”

Gouin urged state legislators not to pass laws that would end up taxing people more but to pass laws that would benefits his students. He was not afraid to be the dissenting vote when he felt there was a better way.

Always acutely aware of the limitations some Oxford Hills students face, he urged his fellow board members to look beyond the town borders of the Oxford Hills School District for educational opportunity.

Last July, for example, directors were asked to OK a request by high school Principal Ted Moccia to let a small group of varsity baseball team members miss three days of school to play in a preseason tournament in North Carolina this spring.

But some directors challenged the request.

Perhaps it was the impact of his senior class trip to Washington, D.C., in 1948 that made Gouin remind his fellow board members that some students have never had the opportunity to travel far.

“Be careful we don’t overlook the fact that this is a tremendous educational opportunity … they’ll remember [the trip] for the rest of their lives,” he said.

The board passed the request.

“He put the children first and politics last,” said Superintendent Rick Colpitts, who called Gouin a “quintessential gentleman.”

“He was giving of his time and energy.  His commitment to the students of Oxford Hills is unprecedented; for over 63 years education was his passion. His absence will be noted for many years,” he said. 

In 2014, Gouin was re-elected to the board of directors for another three-year term receiving the highest numbers of votes of any candidate during the Norway town election.

Although his health began deteriorating, he was unable to drive himself to meetings and he sometimes worried about whether he was still a contributing and effective board member, Gouin attended almost every meeting.

At what turned out to be his last school board meeting on Dec. 7, Colpitts acknowledged Gouin’s contribution to the school district and a letter Gouin received from President Barack Obama congratulating him on his many decades in local education.

“The most important thing to me in the last 63 years is the friendships I have made,” Gouin told his fellow board members in his usual humble manner.

He was in a jovial mood and as the meeting was about to conclude, the superintendent asked if there was any other business to be taken care of.

Gouin called across the meeting table to his colleague and friend Dr. Donald Ware.

“Can you give me a ride home Dr. Ware?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.

The room erupted in laughter.

And he broke out in his familiar wide grin.

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(Memorial services will be held on Sunday, Jan. 24 at 1 p.m. at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School gymnasium. In lieu of flowers, those who wish may donate to a scholarship fund in Don’s memory. Checks can be made payable to MSAD #17, noting “Don Gouin” in the memo and mail to: MSAD #17, 232 Main St., Suite 2, South Paris, ME 04281. Attn: Maggie Craig.)

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