Two Lewiston-Auburn bridges spanning the Androscoggin River have now been fittingly named to honor two extraordinary men with local ties who excelled in their chosen fields, experienced but rejected bigotry and violence, devoted their lives to improving the lives of others, and strived to bridge the differences that divide humanity.

On Tuesday, the city councils of Lewiston and Auburn resolved to name the pedestrian foot bridge, which connects parkland on either side of the river, in memory of John T. Jenkins, former mayor of both cities, who died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 68.

In 2008, a short distance to the south, a parallel motor vehicle bridge connecting the former immigrant enclaves of Lewiston’s Little Canada and New Auburn was named in honor of Bernard Lown, a world-renown cardiologist, inventor and advocate for nuclear disarmament who died this year at age of 99.  To add a nice poetic touch, it was John Jenkins, then Auburn’s Mayor, who helped preside over the dedication of the Bernard Lown Peace Bridge.

Jenkins, an African-American, was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1952, the youngest of three children. He was raised by a single mother, who tried to keep him away from the gang violence plaguing the city by enrolling him in karate classes and Boy Scouts. Scouting introduced him to the outdoors and wilderness, while karate taught him to discipline his mind and body. He graduated from Newark’s Malcolm X Shabazz High School in 1970.

By 1970, Newark, an important industrial center and transportation hub, had become one of the most segregated cities in the country, with African-Americans comprising 54% of the population as the result of white flight to the suburbs.  That same year Maine’s entire Black population represented only three-tenths of one percent of the State’s population.

Jenkins enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston in 1970, founded the college’s Afro-American Society and graduated with a B.A. in psychology in 1974.  A talented athlete, he travelled the world competing in the Karate World Championship. He won the karate championship in 1977 and went on to win three other world championships in karate and ju-jitsu.

Returning to Lewiston-Auburn, Jenkins became Bates Director of Housing in 1980, started a martial arts academy, and served two terms as mayor of Lewiston from 1994 through 1998. He was the first African-American elected to the Maine State Senate, serving from 1996 to 1998, and was later elected as a write-in candidate for mayor of Auburn in 2007, becoming the first person to lead both cities.  He served on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Glass Ceiling Commission. He also gained a national reputation as a motivational speaker, trainer in personal and professional development, and wellness consultant.

Whether engaged in martial arts, politics, motivational speaking, personal training or social activism, Jenkins was universally loved and admired for his warm, friendly personality, ability to get people to work together, and talent for inspiring youth to seek the best in themselves and see the best in others.

Lown came to Auburn as a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, which his parents fled in 1935 as the threat of Nazism and virulent Anti-Semitism loomed darkly over the small Baltic country. His father found a job here with a shoe company owned by his brother and worked his way up to director.

Though not fluent in English, Lown, then 14, enrolled as a sophomore in high school.  His father hired him to work as a replacement worker at Lown Shoe during the bitter 1937 Auburn Shoe Strike. A picketing worker, angry at “scabs” who were crossing the picket line, punched the boy in the nose, knocking him unconscious. Rather than becoming incensed at the strikers, Lown sympathized with them and took sides against his father, who represented management.  The strike, he later said, made a “radical” out of him.

Lown graduated from the University of Maine at Orono, earned his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and became a physician in Boston.  Specializing in cardiology, he made a number of breakthroughs in the treatment of heart disease.

Lown popularized the “chair treatment” method of getting heart attack patients out of bed as soon as possible, significantly shortening hospital stays and reducing mortality by two thirds.

In 1961, he and his co-workers proved that the application of direct-current electricity applied to the heart could safely reverse ventricular fibrillation, restoring a normal heart beat without injuring heart muscle. This discovery led to worldwide acceptance of the defibrillator and cardioverter. He also discovered new applications for existing drugs, digitalis and lidocaine, in the treatment of cardiac problems.

Lown’s impressive medical achievements were exceeded only by his global efforts to prevent nuclear war. In 1961, he brought together a group of physicians from Boston’s teaching hospitals to address the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. They published articles about the potential consequences of a 10-megaton nuclear attack on the city, entitled “Medical Consequences of Thermonuclear War,” in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1962. The articles spawned anti-nuclear medical movements around the world and contributed to passage of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.

In 1980, Lown and a Soviet cardiologist organized International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. By 1985, IPPNW had grown to a membership of 135,000 physicians in 60 countries, and the two men accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the group.

Some communities celebrate their best, brightest and bravest with statues and other impressive monuments.  However, by associating the names of Jenkins and Lown with bridges over the Androscoggin River, the Twin Cities could not have picked a better way to honor them.

Like the title of Simon & Garfunkel’s signature song, each man spent his lifetime building a “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 15 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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