My mother was born Gladys Williams in 1919 in Waite, Maine, on the Maine/New Brunswick border. She came to Portland during the depths of the Great Depression to attend what was then known as business college, where she trained to be an executive secretary.
Her first work was in 1936 in the engineering department at the Saco-Lowell factory. In commuting from Portland, she was stopped for speeding by a South Portland policeman, Raymond Dewey, who asked her on a date. They married in 1937 and she lived in the Willard Square neighborhood for the rest of her life until her passing in 2008.
My brother Andy was born in 1941 and I in 1947. While we were young, she worked part-time for a number of lawyers and accountants. In the summer, she and my father leased the Willard Beach Bathhouse from the city for several years.
The old bathhouse was a center of beach activity for both locals and many who came by bus daily from Portland. There was a snack bar and tables where patrons could eat and watch activity on the beach through large windows at the front. In the rear was an area where people could check belongings.
There were racks of numbered baskets, with each basket having a large “horse blanket” pin with a corresponding number that could be pinned to a blanket or towel. I remember hurricanes that required all the ice cream be transported back to the dairy for storage until power was restored. Returning to the beach after such a storm, we would find seaweed on the porches and into the street where cars currently turn around.
One thing I always remember was an older man who would come by bus every day from Portland. He did not appear very well to do, so my mother would ensure that there was always an extra hot dog or hamburger on the grill at the end of the day and she would tell him that it would be discarded if he did not take it, so he would always do so very appreciatively.
In 1956, she went back to work full-time at Maine Vocational Technical Institute (now Southern Maine Community College). Maine Vocational Technical Institute was created at the end of World War II as a vocational training college for returning GIs. In the early days, course offerings were in building and construction, machine tool technology, automotive technology, electrical and electronics.
The campus was originally all old military buildings. The massive gun emplacements were eventually filled in and are now parking areas or have new buildings constructed over them. Many of the munition storage bunkers were torn down and those now provide the open parking areas that allow one to look southeast toward Portland Head.
The old dormitory and the matching building, now called Preble Hall, had their two-story porches removed due to the high cost of replacement, changing the design esthetics. The dormitory was later torn down for the expansion of the athletic field. The Air Force Reserve maintained possession of several buildings; however, they eventually relinquished the property and that area was integrated into the campus we know today.
That area includes the dining hall and the beginning of the Spring Point Walkway off Willard Beach. On a separate note, when I was young, there was still a barbed wire fence across the beach separating the fort.
Gladys first worked in the business office but soon became the secretary to the president, a role she fulfilled until her retirement in 1986. My father was still with the police department and the school had some problems with students in the dormitory. Our family was asked to move into the attached apartment for the school administration thought my father’s presence would help ameliorate the problems.
We moved to the campus in the spring of 1957 when I was in the fourth grade at Henley School. There were several other kids on campus and they welcomed me. The campus was a great place to grow up for we played on the old fortifications, roamed the campus and beaches, and fished from the lighthouse breakwater.
In 1961, my father, who had previously retired from the police department, passed away. At the end of the school year, we were asked to leave the dormitory apartment and returned to our home in Willard Square. My mother was greatly insulted for what the school did not understand, was that my mother kept the students in line, not my father. It took the administration less than a year to recognize their mistake and we were again offered the apartment, which she refused.
My memories of my mother’s work experiences are much more understandable as an adult. Even though she was in a position of authority as the boss’ secretary, she still suffered the issues faced by working women. School presidents were appointed by the State Department of Education in Augusta and there were many over the years.
Earl Hutchinson, after whom the gym is named, was the head when we moved to the campus. “Hutch” was loved by all and always greeted us kids in a very friendly manner. Others came and went over the years. I remember regular calls in both evening and early-morning hours with bosses asking what they had scheduled. My mother would tell them their upcoming commitments and many times she would state that she had written their speech and it was on their desk for them to pick up first thing in the morning.
Those were the ones who truly valued her. She told me of one new appointee, who treated her in a very dismissive manner. That continued until his boss came to visit from Augusta. She stated that he completely ignored the new president and sat down at her desk and asked for an update on everything happening at the college. Her new boss quickly took note and changed his attitude.
She was also immensely proud that her work and worth was recognized in Augusta. Additionally, they gave her the authority, along with the president, to close school in case of inclement weather. She told me that she was the only non-president to have the authority in the entire educational system.
The school changed over time as the vocational programs began to expand. When the marine science and culinary arts programs were added, the student body changed by having women students in these new fields. As more academic courses were added, the student body took on the look it has today.
Gladys got remarried to B.E. “Spike” Collins in 1964. Spike later taught some evening community programs at the college and served as the women’s softball coach for many years.
Upon my mother’s retirement in the 1980s, faculty and staff were daily visitors to our home until her death in 2008. Gladys was known for her fabulous desserts and she would have treats every day for her old colleagues. Those have been catalogued in a memorial cookbook that has also been placed with the South Portland Historical Society.
Trail connector opens in South Portland
South Portland breaks ground on new middle school