July 2, 2004
For more than three decades no one has seen history unfold at the University of Maine at Fort Kent quite like Naomi Nicolas.
As she marks her 35th anniversary of service to the campus community this week, the executive assistant to five of UMFK's nine presidents is reflecting on a career that has, through the accounts of those who know her best, made her an institution within the institution.
Nicolas, a resident of Fort Kent who grew up in nearby St. John Plantation in a family of 14 children, officially began working at UMFK on July 7, 1969 as a clerk/typist making just two dollars per hour.
She began her employment on the UMFK campus straight out of high school.
"I needed a job; I saw the opening for this one in the paper and applied," she recalls. "I remember Lucille Pelletier was the one that interviewed me and Verna Daigle had given me a test in shorthand and typing skills. I had not yet had my turn at the high school on the electric typewriters, so it took me almost an hour to type one letter. Finally Verna came in to ask if I was alright. I explained to her my situation and, feeling very badly about it, she dug up an old manual typewriter for me. I typed that letter in two minutes."
Although she feared she made a bad first impression, Nicolas' strong St. John Valley work ethic and positive can-do attitude quickly became her trademark on campus.
"She is a very, very good worker. Everything she did was always done correctly. I feel that she is such a fantastic person and she is very good at what she does," remarked Pelletier. "She worked in my office initially, and then she moved to the president's office however, she would always return to help me out whenever she could. She always did wonderful work and helped others as much as she was able to."
Nicolas has a slightly different recollection of those first days.
"I was scared to death. I beat out two people for the position that were already employed at UMFK. It was very tense."
But she stayed on for 35 years, because she says "Basically, I like my job. I like working with people and I like the people I work with. This is as secure of a job with decent benefits that you can get in this area. You need a secure job when you are trying to raise a family."
Throughout all of her time at UMFK, Nicolas has been an eyewitness to the evolution of a small rural college at the top of Maine, which has grown to be an incredibly thriving learning institution.
"The University has tripled in size. The program offering has gotten so much better," Nicolas says of the progress she has seen at the university since her first days as a member of the UMFK family.
"When I first started, you came to UMFK to be a teacher and that was it. I have seen twelve different buildings constructed and added to as well as Dickey Hall demolished. I have been through four different accreditations."
The university has gone through many name changes in its history as well, and Nicolas was present for the most recent. When she first started the name of the school was Fort Kent State College of the University of Maine then, one year later it became the University of Maine at Fort Kent. "And, they can't change it again until I leave," she jokingly adds.
"It is so great to see a place this small grow and flourish the way that it has. It is nice to see the students graduate and how they have grown and changed in four years. I love being able to get to know them along the way," said Nicolas.
The woman who has seen so much institutional change over the years herself admits to having changed immensely along with the university over the years.
"I have become more assertive. I had to, to survive in this position. I'm surer of myself than when I first started. I have become stronger, more confident about my abilities to do things."
For those who know Nicolas today, it is hard for them to imagine her not embodying all of those characteristics.
"Many people who haven't seen me since high school ask me "What happened to you, you've changed so much; you used to be so introverted?" I tell them, "It's called growing up"," said Nicolas.
Among the individuals who have witnessed that growth in Nicolas are UMFK's long-serving faculty members, including Dave Hobbins, professor of forestry and environmental studies.
"Naomi is the heart of UMFK," said Hobbins. "She is very professional and one you rely on during busy or serious times. She also balances her professionalism with a great sense of humor. Naomi speaks the truth but has a big heart and goes out of her way for others."
Nicolas has always been recognized around campus as reliable, driven and self-assured, and as the unofficial campus historian. The phrase "Go ask Naomi" can frequently be heard in offices all around campus. Students, faculty, staff and the presidents themselves all know exceedingly well that Naomi is the one who will get the job done.
"Without doubt, Naomi Nicolas has helped to shape this institution during some very important growth years," said current UMFK President Richard Cost. "And at the same time she is an absolute joy to work with."
"Naomi has worked with five different presidents, and she has been able to mirror each of their styles perfectly. Whoever sits out there needs to be able to represent the president as well as the institution. If people are angry or feel badly, she has already calmed them down or made them feel better before they see me. Frequently she resolves people's problems before they even see me. That's a wonderful outcome for everybody. She's a marvelous professional," added Cost.
Those comments are echoed by UMFK's fifth President Richard Spath. It was Spath who first took on Nicolas as the president's assistant and worked with her for fifteen years, which he recalls as extraordinarily wonderful years.
"She was flawless as an office assistant. I would say that her most endearing quality would be that she treated everyone that came into the office whether it be president, vice president, faculty, student or whoever with complete dignity and interest. She made absolutely everybody feel good," said Spath.
Former President Charles Lyons worked with Nicolas for five years. He too agrees that having her as his assistant made his tenure that much more enjoyable.
"I worked with Naomi everyday and I think that any president would be successful if he/she came in and did exactly what she told them to do. She would anticipate exactly what I needed and do it without being asked. She is so smart and so good at what she does. She told me on my first day "I will do whatever you ask me to just as long as you promise to tell me when I've made a mistake." It takes a lot of self assurance to say something like that, and I never had to tell her that she made a mistake because she never did," said Lyons.
Although she has seen both rewarding and stressful times, Nicolas admits to enjoying her extremely demanding job.
"For the most part I really enjoy my job; I wouldn't still be here if I didn't," she said. "I enjoy working with people. I love the students, I don't get to see them as much as I used to. I wish that were different and I had more contact with the students than I do."
Keeping life in prospective, the very humble woman cites her major accomplishments in life as her 35-year marriage to her husband Danny, raising her three grown sons and now enjoying time with her six wonderful grandchildren.
"Every time things get rough I look at their pictures and know that is what matters. I am proud of each and every one of them. They are what is important. A job is just what you do to survive," said Nicolas. "The memories that I enjoyed the most since working here were the days that two of my sons graduated from UMFK. They were able to do something that I couldn't do. I was able to live it through them, and they will never know how much that meant to me."
Even though Nicolas has achieved so much she still feels there are some things she would change if she could go back.
"I would have held my ground and gone to school to be a teacher. That is what I really wanted to do." she says. "My children used to tell me when I would correct their homework "Mom I just wanted you to look at it, not grade it. You should be a teacher." If I had more backbone back then I would have gotten married and gone to school."
Although her work has been challenging, Nicolas speaks of the encouragement and backing she has had over the years from her second family.
"For the most part my greatest supporters have been my supervisors," she said.
As one of those supporters, President Cost, truly appreciates both the professional who greets him each morning and the wonderful person he has the honor to work with everyday.
"She has a great sense of humor. She knows how to assert herself but she also knows how to say "okay, it's your turn now, have it your way." She has been able to reflect and work for very different people without changing her sense of self. She cares very much for people and does not want to see anyone walk out of here unhappy. She is extremely smart, marvelously intelligent and so very caring,"