Claudette LaBonte Kane laughingly says that the story of her life is that she starts things but never finishes them. But more than four decades after taking her first class at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, she will be completing her undergraduate experience by marching in UMPI’s Commencement Exercises on May 16 and receiving her Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree.
She is traveling from Pennsylvania and her family will join her as she participates in all the end-of-year traditions, including marching practice, Senior Class banquet, and, of course, Commencement. In addition to traveling the furthest to attend graduation, at 64, Kane will be the oldest student participating in this year’s graduation ceremonies.
Kane began her college career at UMPI in 1970, taking continuing education classes in the evening through Orono, and continued her studies until 1975. She had graduated from Van Buren District High School in 1969 and had moved to Presque Isle to pursue work. She landed a job at Sears in the credit department because she was bilingual. She said it wasn’t too long after that, while living in an apartment above Wilder’s Jewelry Store on Main St., that she realized she was living just down the street from the University and should start taking classes.
Kane focused her studies on French and English and remembers going on exciting geology field trips with UMPI professor Bill Forbes and taking French classes from Dr. Guy Gallagher. She was part of a UMPI group that would travel to Canada to gather information about Acadian history, interview older members of the community and write down their idiomatic expressions, all so these elements could be turned into educational materials for a bilingual school located in the region.
After meeting her husband Michael Kane and getting married in the Spring of 1974 at Loring Air Force Base, her focus turned to home and family. The couple bought a VW Beetle and traveled far and wide for a year, selling Amway soap til they earned enough money to keep traveling. While passing through Pennsylvania, they decided to settle down; they established roots in Greensburg and have lived there for 40 years. They have three children: Melissa, a chef and a filmmaker in New Haven, Conn.; Christina, Director of Culture for the Grove, New Haven, Conn.; and Michael, a systems engineer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“Raising my family has been my biggest joy,” she said.
While her children were small, Kane helped out at their elementary school and ended up putting together and running a French language program for students there. After her children were grown, she was invited to help out with a program in Tanzania focused on quilting.
“I had a friend who was in Tanzania running a clinic and wanted to teach the women and girls how to quilt,” Kane said. “The idea was to teach them a skill so they would go back to their towns and have a means of income.”
Through the success of that program, she was invited to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to help bring the program there. The day she arrived was the day the 2010 earthquake struck. She said that, while she wasn’t able to finish what she started, these experiences have solidified her desire to focus her energies on literacy and helping those who feel they have failed in life achieve success.
Last year, she was contacted about participating in an organizational leadership master’s degree program, and called UMPI to find out how to finish up her bachelor’s degree. It turned out she only needed 3 credits (1 class) to complete her degree, so she took a UMPI English course online last fall and is now several classes into her master’s degree program.
She is very much looking forward to donning a cap and gown—as her three children have before her—and marching in Commencement next week.
“At 64, I decided I was going to change my life, finish my degree, get my master’s degree, and then spend my time making educational literacy an adventure for children and walking with women who feel like they have failed and helping them to succeed,” she said.
A postscript: During the time Kane attended UMPI, she said it seemed like name of the institution on her ID card changed every year—Aroostook State Teachers College, Aroostook State College, UMPI—while her name—LaBonte—stayed the same. The name University of Maine at Presque Isle has stayed the same for many decades now, but now Kane is graduating with a different name. “Let’s hope,” she said, “we both keep our names as we continue to contribute to the world in which we live!”