OXFORD HILLS — Strong women have shaped history and continue to define the world in which we live.
The Oxford Hills is no exception. The community has always benefited, and continues today to prosper, because of the work of such women.
The National Women's History Project began commemorating women's history month 33 years ago to celebrate those with the "tenacity, courage, and creativity" to make a difference.
March 31 marks the last day of 2013's Women's History Month. In honor of that, here are eight women who embody these characteristics, and who we may be talking about as part of Women's History Month in 2050.
Brenda Melhus volunteers numerous hours a week keeping Norway's Main Street clean and making it an attractive place to visit, live and work.
"She has huge amount of energy, has great ideas and a very positive outlook on the community and volunteering," said Scott Berk, a member of the board of directors for Norway Downtown.
Berk, who has known Melhus for about five-and-a-half years, calls her an "ambassador to the community."
"It's this endless source of energy," Berk said, of Melhus, who has lived in Norway since 1994. "If you need something, she's often available and enthusiastic."
Melhus has been an active member and photographer of ND's Board of Directors since 2006 and a member of the Norway Opera House Corporation since last summer.
She is currently the chair of the design committee for ND, dedicated to improving the physical appearance of Main Street and is passionate about its historic preservation, said Andrea Burns, president of ND.
She explained that Melhus has volunteered her time to help save the Norway Opera House, which includes pulling thousands of staples from its oak floor last June.
In the warmer months, she plants and maintains the flowerbeds in downtown Norway.
She has also been spearheading a project to revitalize the Norway Branch Railroad Trail, to make it a more user-friendly, safe and attractive walking trail for pedestrians, as well as extend the sidewalk from downtown Norway to Lake Pennesseewassee Park.
"She's been involved in a lot of what makes downtown look good," Burns said. According to Burns, Melhus has the energy and talent needed to fulfill ND's mission.
"Norway is my home," Melhus said. "If people in Norway don't take an initiative and are waiting for someone else to do it, nothing gets done.
"When Andrea invited me to participate, I made it part of my life. To me it's important to keep the street alive. There's an amazing history in Norway and we can't just let that slip through our fingers."
In her free time, she enjoys traveling, baking and ballroom dancing with her husband Ola.
committed to cats and dogs
It's more than just their cute faces or wag of their tails that inspires Shirley Boyce to dedicate her time to caring for animals.
Boyce is the president of the board of directors for Responsible Pet Care, an animal shelter in Norway, where she began as a volunteer in 2000. Two years later, she became RPC's president.
She was inspired to care for animals after becoming well-acquainted with one cat in particular that had a terminal illness and had to be put down. "It wasn't pleasant. It was very emotional," Boyce said.
"There are so many animals that need help. I just felt compelled from that point to move forward with the organization and do what I could," Boyce said.
In addition to animal care, Boyce has been working for the town of Norway for more than 20 years – 18 years as town clerk. She grew up in West Paris and moved to Norway when she was 18 years old.
"It's fun to work with her ... and I admire her great interest in animals," said Norway's town manager, David Holt, who has worked with Boyce for 24 years.
Holt said he especially respects the amount of time Boyce puts into the shelter, pointing out that unfortunately, "not many of us would give as much of ourselves as she does."
Boyce's work at the shelter includes feeding the cats and dogs, making sure they get exercise and medication, and writing grants and fundraising to help them find a new home.
A month ago those efforts paid off when RPC was able to sign the purchase agreement for a new, roomier shelter on Lower Swallow Road in Paris.
Sandy Geddry, who has worked with Boyce as a volunteer for RPC for more than eight years, says when she first met Boyce, she was impressed by her unwavering love for animals.
"She's very, very dedicated to making sure homeless animals have a place to live," Geddry said. She has even taken sick animals into her own home to foster them and bring them back to good health, Geddry said.
According to Geddry, once Boyce sets a goal, "she puts everything into making that goal become a reality," such as helping raise the money to buy a larger facility for the animals.
"It's very rewarding to see how things have changed and evolved," Boyce said.
"I think that's the best part. It's taken a lot of dedicated and caring people to make it happen, and it's certainly well worth it."
conserving land and culture
Conserving natural beauty and protecting cultural heritage are important for many people, but very few can say they have quite literally made it their job.
Lee Dassler is one of those few.
Dassler, currently the head of the Western Foothills Land Trust, has secured thousands of acres of land for conservation since becoming director in 2006, a position funded mainly through grants Dassler wrote herself.
"Dassler" might also be familiar with those who frequent Café Nomad in downtown Norway, where a sandwich bears her name.
"There are those of us who talk about the things we're going to do and then there are people like Lee, who make things happen," said friend and café owner Scott Berk.
"She took the land trust and turned it into this incredibly attractive organization that not only saves land but also creates recreational value, turning it into something people can enjoy," Berk continued.
Dassler, a St. Louis, MO native, moved to Bolsters Mills in Otisfield in the early 1990s.
Since then, she's affected the local landscape – literally, first by helping organize the McLaughlin Foundation's purchase of the McLaughlin Homestead Gardens in South Paris, saving it from demolition.
While working with the group, Dassler became more involved with WFLT, eventually finding the resources to create a position as director.
Bob Van Nest, president of WFLT's board of directors says Dassler changed the group's entire focus – from a small, fully volunteer group to an active, energetic non-profit.
Since Dassler became director seven years ago, WFLT's holdings of conserved land has gone from 400 to 5,000 acres, Van Nest said.
She's also been instrumental in finding grants and other funding sources to support the organization – a task Dassler says she really enjoys.
Moreover, Dassler has been instrumental in organizing community activities like the Norway Triathlon and the winter Shoe and String Festival.
"Lee has a 110 percent level of enthusiasm for that stuff," said Van Nest.
Dassler says there is plenty left on her plate — the Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway has opened up a galaxy of opportunities for education, recreation and community building, and determining the project's future is a prime focus for her, Dassler says.
The natural beauty, community and history of Oxford Hills have resonance for her, Dassler says. Preserving those qualities for future generations through her work have offered a major contribution to the wider community.
brain of SMH
Pat Cook, senior vice president of clinical services at Stephens Memorial Hospital, has helped shape health care in the Oxford Hills, said Bob Hand, director of PACE Ambulance Services at SMH.
"She's an experienced administrator," said Hand, of his boss. "She does so much! She is literally on almost every committee at the hospital."
But Cook also gives credit to all SMH staff, and other members of the community who have supported her.
"I am so proud to work here," said Cook, who is involved in every aspect of patient care at SMH. "We provide the best health care I've ever been associated with."
Cook has been the brain of SMH for 14 years. She grew up in Rye, NY with her two siblings, and lived there until graduating from the State University of New York in Plattsburgh where she received her Bachelors Degree in nursing.
"It's always been health care," said Cook. In college, she admitted that she weighed the possibility of becoming a physical education teacher, but was inspired by her mother, who was also a nurse, to work in health.
"I visit with people, but I don't necessarily take care of them," Cook said of her current position at SMH. "I make sure we [SMH] have everything to support the staff that do."
"Everything stops at her door, as far as how the different departments are functioning," explained Barbara Allen, vice president of development and community relations.
Cook also has a Masters Degree in both education and business, as well as a Doctorate in education. She's worked in a number of hospitals, in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Wisconsin, before joining SMH.
"I've never been bored in anything I've done in nursing," Cook said, but she was especially interested in acute care, so when she noticed the open position at SMH on-line, she jumped at the opportunity. "It was just what I wanted," she said.
Cook said she likes the relationships she's able to develop with her patients, and that the staff, no matter what department they work in, is completely focused on patient care.
"I get letters from summer visitors who say, 'the care you give is outstanding,' compared to what they're used to," Cook explained.
Cook was also instrumental in establishing Healthy Oxford Hills, a Healthy Maine Partnership and project of SMH, in 2001. She has been the treasurer of the Rotary Club of Oxford Hills for seven years and does community service whenever she can.
"She's one smart lady," Allen said.
'priest at large'
Even though she retired her position as pastor at Norway's Christ Church in 2011, Anne Stanley wants people to know she's still an active member of the clergy.
"Active" might be an understatement – it's hard to keep track of the number of organizations, groups and causes in which Stanley invests her time.
"There's a lot of good people in this community and there's a lot to be done," Stanley says.
Locally, she offers guidance and a kind ear to patients at Stephens Memorial Hospital as a Chaplin and holds regular services at Norway Rehab and Market Square Health Care Center.
On occasional Sundays, Stanley also travels the state, filling in and conducting services for absent clergy.
That's aside from Stanley's membership on the board's of Stephens Memorial, Oxford Hills Area Clergy Association and the Child Health Board, among others.
As an ordained Episcopal minister without a dedicated parish, Stanley considers herself "a priest at large" to the wider community.
"I think faith plays a bigger role than people know," she says.
Stanley's personality fits her role in the community perfectly, says friend Kathy Richardson.
"Anne has a ready smile that warms the heart and a wicked dry wit capable of cutting to the chase," Richardson says.
"She possesses a fierce intellect that is always looking for the next thing."
Carlyn Watts, who worked with Stanley when she was pastor at Christ Church, agrees.
"When you first meet her, you think you've know her all your life," says Watts.
"She's very interested in everyone and their well-being."
Tending to the spiritual and physical needs of her flock was important to Stanley as a parish pastor, which she calls "the best job in the world."
She came to the church later in life, after being a teacher, mother, world traveler and violinist.
Seeing the dedication put into Norway's Christ Church by its congregation convinced her to make the move to Oxford Hills in 1998.
Her connection to her parish made it hard for Stanley to leave – no longer the pastor, she now needs to maintain some distance from her flock.
"I was drawn into the lives of people and the life of the parish ... it makes it hard to leave, because I can be their friend, but I can't be their pastor anymore."
Stanley still remains committed to the needs of the wider community. Several years ago, she helped organize a community resource guide to help people in need connect with socials services and is currently involved in updating the guide and making it electronic.
Beyond her local engagement, Stanley works with the Episcopal Dioceses of Maine on marriage issues and collaboration with congregations in Haiti.
She's also involved in Paris town affairs and is committed to preserving Paris' historical, cultural and natural heritage.
"It's important to know what's going on and be part of what's going on to make it a strong community," Stanley says.
Maureen Howard will be the first to tell you she's not employed by SAD 17, even though, she jokes, all evidence would point to the contrary.
Howard's office is in the high school. She sponsors the SAD 17 employee of the month. She's intimately involved with students' educational and professional aspirations.
But in truth, Howard is her own one-woman non-profit, the Oxford Hills Community Education Exchange.
The exchange, founded 20 years ago, is meant to provide a bridge between the schools and the community. Howard runs 11 different programs aimed at improving the future choices for students and recognizing their accomplishments.
Most people will probably recognize the Aspire Higher initiative that encourages students to become informed about their future choices and features a huge march through Paris and Norway.
But that barely scratches the surface of the program Howard operates.
Howard arranges college visits for groups of high school students and a college fair, which 76 schools attended last year.
She also organizes a financial fitness fair, maintains a student job database and develops partnerships with local businesses and organizations to support the schools and scholarships for students.
In sum, Howard acts as the liaison between the community and schools, keeping her eye on the best interests of students.
"She has been an outstanding community advocate for kids," says SAD 17 Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett, who works closely with Howard.
"She has an unfailingly positive attitude about what she does," Hartnett says.
"She is always looking for ways to solve problems and always looking for ways to advocate for kids and to get them to see a world outside where they currently are."
Howard says she is invested in encouraging students to think hard about what they want out of school and where they want to be in the future.
One of her accomplishments is the community internship program, which has provided 238 high school juniors and seniors real life experience with area businesses and organizations.
Being able to offer that experience to students is invaluable, Howard says.
"That's an opportunity previous generations haven't had."
Her investment in area students, however, goes beyond her work with OHCEE. Howard is also involved with the local Kiwanis Club and coordinates activities with the Rotary Club to help children in need and provide safety activities in the summer.
She also serves on the board of REACH and SAVES.
Her first foray into the community was to fight for the Otisfield Community School when her daughters were growing up in the town.
She says living in a small town has given her a chance to really "make a difference," in her community.
Her experience with the Otisfield school morphed into membership on the school board, then directorship of OHCEE, and involvement with Kiwanis.
Her work is rewarding, she says. In particular, she remembers the "thank you" notes from the high school and other students, expressing their gratitude for her encouragement and support as they chased their dreams.
Gretchen Kimball approaches her job as a middle school teacher with a passion that is intense and infectious.
"That passion is really something that comes out in everything she does," says school Principal George Reuter.
As a middle school teacher at Buckfield Junior-Senior High, Kimball helped develop innovative programming at the school, including the school garden, for which she and colleague Annette Caldwell were awarded state and national awards in 2011.
From there, Kimball says, the projects snowballed – students kept thinking up new ideas, like developing the town's railroad bed into a community trail system and building an outdoor classroom.
This year, Kimball spearheaded a Mass Customized Learning initiative at the school and coordinated after school programs for students, along with teaching six classes.
"Gretchen has more ideas than she has time for, but she doesn't let that stop her," says Reuter.
Reuter has known Kimball for 20 years, back to when she was an ed tech at Hartford-Sumner Elementary.
Kate Buck, a former physical education teacher at Hartford-Sumner, who has known Kimball since she was a teenager, agrees.
"Everything she does, she does it 110 percent," Buck says. "Anyone who steps into her job is going to have to be someone pretty special."
Kimball grew up in California and Washington, but has deep roots in the Nezinscot Valley area – she considers her grandmother, an elementary school teacher in Buckfield for years, an inspiration for getting into the profession.
Kimball's involvement in the community goes beyond her role as a teacher. In 2007, she opened the non-profit Jesse's Gym in downtown Buckfield as a memorial to her son, Jesse, who died in 2003 while in active duty in the U.S. Air Force.
The non-profit filled a niche in the community, Kimball says, offering everyone, from seniors to high school students, a space to work out.
Her five children and their experiences in school convinced Kimball that the public school model needs re-invigoration.
The world has changed but public schools haven't, Kimball argues. She worries about an apathy creeping into public schools; finding ways to excite and engage students is the way to counteract it.
Finding new ways to learn and teach is the way forward, Kimball says – and that means connecting students to their education with real-world examples.
"They're [students] not going to come in and sit down because they want to do quality work ... they need real things to research and real things to write about – real reasons to write the essay."
The projects she's started allow students to engage with their own learning on a level that might be hard to achieve in the classroom.
Even if the learning students are doing in the garden isn't necessary included in Maine Learning Standards, students are still being challenged, solving problems and thinking creatively, Kimball says.
More than anything, however, Kimball says being surrounded by dedicated and caring professionals that give a lot of their time to their students is what helps keep her energy up.
"You don't clock in and clock out," Kimball says, "you can't do the job that way."
making community safer
When it comes to addressing health and life safety issues in local rental units, Joelle Corey-Whitman knows best.
She also does best, according to Norway's town manager, David Holt.
Corey-Whitman is the code enforcement officer for Norway, Greenwood, Woodstock, Hanover and Upton. She has been the CEO for Norway for two years.
After a series of stories were published in the Advertiser Democrat on the deplorable living conditions in Norway’s rental units, in October 2011, “Joelle wasted no time” to ensure the health and life safety issues were addressed in those units, said Advertiser Democrat Editor Anne Sheehan.
According to Sheehan, Corey-Whitman also organized a public meeting for landlords, tenants and other residents to discuss poor conditions in Norway’s rental housing and personally made posters to hang throughout town to encourage tenants to attend the meeting.
“She’s very supportive of landlords but holds firm to ensure tenants live in safe housing,” Sheehan said.
In addition, she formed a committee to rewrite Norway’s Rental Occupancy Ordinance. The ordinance was adopted in 1993 and had not been updated since 2000, Corey-Whitman said. She continues to update the ordinance to make it workable for the town, tenants and landlords.
A further updated ordinance, if approved at town meeting in June, may tighten up enforcement, eliminate redundancy of inspections and allow Corey-Whitman to personally condemn a building or file an injunction in court to prevent rental or occupancy of unsafe units.
“I’ve tried to take a good smattering of landlords in town … and inspect their units and really get to know them,” Corey-Whitman explained.
She said the biggest challenge has been educating landlords on state laws, national electrical codes and NFPA life safety standards, explaining that most landlords have full-time jobs and are not always cooperative in the inspection process.
“Staying up to code can be strenuous when you don’t read every [manual],” said Corey-Whitman, who admits that it’s been a lot of work learning new building codes and how to adequately address other life safety issues.
"She has changed the face of rental housing – most especially low-income housing – in Norway," said Sheehan. "She deserves a lot of credit."
“Joelle impresses me with her energy,” said Holt, whom according to Corey-Whitman, has been extremely supportive of her work, along with the town’s selectmen.
“In the case of rental units, she went to work without being overwhelmed and has certainly made a difference … a proud moment for her and the town.”