Essays of a Camden native

Teachers are memorable people

By Paul Putnam | Feb 02, 2013

In the background of the years at the Knowlton Street School was one dominant figure of whom we all became more aware of as we grew older. That was Miss Mary E. Taylor. She took on the job as principal of the junior high school in 1916 and also taught mathematics. I remember her presence in all school events from my earliest years there (1935). I especially remember how at Christmas each class would have something to present, and we all would move out into the hallways to hear each other’s song, or skit, or whatever, and to sing Christmas carols together. Miss Taylor would always be the Mistress of Ceremonies. She was a rather large woman, not overweight, but tall and solidly built.

She would be marshaling the troops, and she always had a calming influence on any school assembly, or fire drill, or whatever was going on. There was a certain comfort in knowing that she had everything under control. That was balanced with knowing we didn’t want to give her any reason to address us directly.

Somehow we instinctively knew we didn’t want to get on the wrong side of that woman. My father-in-law, Burt Stevenson, told of going to school (probably 1917-19) and witnessing Miss Taylor grab two good-sized eighth-grade boys by the scruff of the neck and virtually lifting them right off the floor.

Anyway, she had a reputation for being fair, but she ran a tight ship. We didn’t want to mess with her, and it was rare for anyone to get sent to the principal’s office. That was partly because of Miss Taylor’s reputation, and partly because the other teachers also maintained good discipline.

Actually, the teacher’s approval or disapproval was our biggest incentive. In general we wanted the teacher’s approval and were willing to turn in a bit of good behavior to get it. Our surliest moments were when we didn’t feel we had been treated fairly. But, surliness could get us sent to the principal’s office, so we soon got on top of any bad attitude. Miss Taylor was certainly a force to be reckoned with, and it is very fitting that the name of the Knowlton Street School was eventually changed to Mary E. Taylor School.

One of the most memorable events of my high school experience was the senior class trip to Washington, D.C., and while many of our teachers, parents and friends were involved in making that trip possible, one major ingredient in making it such a positive experience was Mr. Milford A. Payson, the French and English teacher. He was very much in the forefront as organizer and tour guide. For many of us it was the first time we had ever been further from home than Portland or Bangor and I doubt if any of us had any appreciation for the complex logistics and responsibility for such a trip.

Even now, as I review the list of what we did in my copy of the 1949 Megunticook, it’s hard to believe we packed so much into a 10-day trip, and through it all there was Mr. Payson making sure we recognized and understood the significance of all we saw, from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. By the time we got to New York on the way home we were all so tired we slept at every opportunity, and many slept soundly through Phil Silvers in "High Button Shoes" on Broadway. Two highlights I remember well are the visit to see Sen. Margaret Chase Smith in her Washington office and the tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg.

If the truth is known, Mr. Payson was not one of our most effective teachers in the classroom. I didn’t take French, but Helen did, and she could hardly speak a word of it after two years, but most of us remember him for things he did outside of the classroom rather than in it.

According to Jack Williams’ "History of Camden," Payson entered the school scene in 1933 as the new French teacher, and was immediately elected president of the PTA. Apparently he was active with the PTA throughout the years, and with other public service organizations such as Camden Historical Society and Camden Outing Club. He was active with Outing Club from its inception in 1936, and by the late 1940s he served that organization as president.

There had been little ski activity during the war years, but in 1946, after the war ended, Payson headed up a drive to put a new towrope and engine in place. Most of us who skied remember Mr. Payson standing by the rope tow on the ski slope for long hours, although he himself never skied to my knowledge. Even though new, the engine and towrope needed almost constant attention because of the hard use in cold weather.

Several I have talked to remember Payson for the dance classes he and Doris Heald offered at the Opera House. He started in 1937 showing movies and hosting dances for the students, but in 1938 he teamed up with Doris to have dance classes for an hour and then to continue with a dance for the remainder of the evening. Those affairs were popular and well attended for several years. Referring again to my school yearbook, there is a picture of Mr. Payson dressed as Mlle Fifi in a classical ballet pose. His appearance in our Minstrel Show as a surprise guest brought the house down in laughter and applause.

In those days there really was a good amount of tolerance for the gay and lesbian community as long as they were discreet, but Mr. Payson probably was an early promoter of gay rights, and found it difficult to keep his sexual orientation in a closet. It was pretty much understood that Mr. Payson was gay when I was in school, but that didn’t seem to matter much until sometime later when he was tried and convicted on some count that sent him to prison in Thomaston for three years.

Needless to say that ended his teaching career, but some years later I found him still actively engaged in community projects. He was the first ticket agent for Bay Chamber Concerts, and Helena Bok had secured his services as treasurer of the Children’s Chapel Foundation. Jessie Hosmer and Bertha Clason had provided him with a little office desk in the back of the Village Shop.

There are many people in our lives whose contribution is recognized only in retrospect. I believe Mr. Milford Payson is one of those people. As the saying goes, history is going to be kind to that man.

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