Thursday, May 23, 2013
Sen. Roger Katz
We can't understand the history of 20th century Maine without appreciating the story of the French Canadians who immigrated here seeking a better life, overcame decades of discrimination and eventually ascended to their rightful place in the American dream.
There were giants along the way who not only did well for themselves and their families but also helped open doors for French Canadians in the larger community and inspire others to raise their own aspirations. Two of them lived here in Augusta. They were both doctors. They were brothers.
I recently spent a snowy Saturday morning chatting with their sons, Bob and "Doc" Gingras. Both of them are success stories in their own right, Bob as an attorney and Doc in the insurance business.
On this particular morning, they reminisced about their fathers and the impact they had over the years.
Doc's father, Adolph "AJ" Gingras, moved here in 1923. Besides Doc, AJ's other kids were my friend Paul Gingras, Connie Crawford and Marie Ottman.
AJ and his brother, Napoleon, grew up in Rochester, N.H. When AJ moved here in 1923, he was the first and only Franco-American doctor in Augusta. In those days, virtually everyone on "The Hill" spoke French and were not always welcome in the rest of the city. Sometimes the discrimination was subtle; sometimes it was not.
AJ helped change all of that. He was known as "the baby doctor," and his reach extended well beyond The Hill. He delivered nearly 10,000 area babies, including those of then-Gov. Edmund Muskie and Bill Dunham, then president of Central Maine Power.
He was "on call" all the time and house calls were as much a part of life as the sun coming up every day.
Doc said, "That's why we are fat. He was always coming home with apple pies and cakes from the families he served. We used to hear the garage door going up and down a lot at night because he was always making house calls."
His last day on Earth summed up well the kind of man AJ was.
After buying a suit at Farrell's Clothing Store, AJ began to feel sick. Despite that, he kept a promise to make a house call on his way home. He felt so ill that the patient's husband drove him home. He died the next day.
AJ's influence went far beyond medicine. He served his country during World War I. He was the first Franco-American director at Depositor's Trust Co. and at Kennebec Savings Bank.
AJ, however, wasn't the only physician in Augusta named Gingras. A few years after he settled here, AJ convinced his younger brother to come here, too.
Napoleon was a general practitioner at first and became Augusta's first anesthesiologist. Before that, apparently doctors just did anesthesia for each other's surgery. Like his brother, Napoleon was on call 24/7.
Bob Gingras still remembers all the times a police car would show up in the middle of the night to take his dad through a snowstorm to the hospital to help with a surgery. His wife, Jeanne, always had a hot meal waiting for him when he returned, no matter what the hour.
Napoleon served his country as a flight surgeon during World War II and the Korean War and later was surgeon for the 101st Fighter Wing. He retired from the military as a brigadier general.
Both brothers knew many of their patients could not pay. It made no difference. Vegetables and baked goods were sometimes all they got from their grateful patients. Doc recalls how his dad would sit down a couple of times a year in front of a fireplace with a box of bills. "They can't afford to pay this" he would say as he threw one after another into the fire. Napoleon did the same. For them, that was direct charity -- nothing through the government.
They were incredible men, who selflessly served thousands of patients. They installed a real work ethic in their children and were an inspiration to generations of Franco-Americans who yearned for a better life. Their families remain important parts of the fabric of our community today.
For all this and more, I am pleased to say that the 126th Maine Legislature will induct AJ and Napoleon Gingras into the Franco-American Hall of Fame in a ceremony in the House of Flags on Wednesday.
The brothers were nominated by Blackie Bechard and Pat Paradis, award winners in their own right.
For the first time, brothers will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. This also marks the first time the awards will be given posthumously. It is long overdue. "Bien mérité!"
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, is in his second term in the Legislature, representing Augusta, China, Oakland, Sidney and Vassalboro. He is the Senate assistant minority leader and serves on the Government Oversight Committee.