A Statewide Leader with a Hometown Heart
A native of Dover-Foxcroft, Laurie Lachance has studied the Maine economy from many angles and worked on it in many roles and capacities, over the years. Now she is helping guide the state through some of its most challenging days.
Her background has prepared her well. After graduating from Bowdoin College as an economics major, she obtained her MBA at Thomas College while working as a corporate economist for Central Maine Power (CMP). It was at CMP that Laurie met David Lachance. The couple married in 1989 and has two grown sons. Andrew, 25, is in the U.S. Navy and is attending medical school at Tufts, while Michael, 29, started studying for his Master’s in Business Management in the Chicago area this fall.
She then served as the first woman Maine State Economist with Governors John R. McKernan Jr., Angus King, and John Baldacci, and she served as president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation.
She has achieved many other shining accomplishments. In 2012, Laurie became the fifth president of Thomas College, and its first female and alumna leader. In 2014, she was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame. She served on the New England Board of Higher Education’s Commission on Higher Education and Employability. She is a board member for Educate Maine and the Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Company. And until this past spring, she also chaired the board of Educare Central Maine (she is still a member), and was a trustee at her former high school, Foxcroft Academy.
“Obviously, that [trustee role] was near and dear to my heart, and it pains me, but I couldn’t do it all,” Laurie said.
It was this spring, in April, that Laurie was tapped to co-chair Governor Janet Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee, a group that was given a big agenda. This committee is charged with developing recommendations to mitigate the damage to the state’s economy caused by the pandemic, to jumpstart a long-term economic recovery for the people, businesses, and organizations of Maine, and to position the state to get back on track with the 10-year economic development strategy released in 2019.
“Oh, my goodness gracious, it was all consuming at first,” Laurie said. “The Governor wanted us to lift our eyes from the current crisis and find a path forward. Our job was not to deal with the crisis, per se, but to find the very best recommendations to get our economy back on track and accelerate that, if possible.”
A small-town girl in a big world
Laurie’s father, George Gagnon, was a store manager for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. Her mother, Mattie Gagnon, was a registered nurse.
“They were two very different people, and I think I embody both of them,” she said. “My father was more gregarious and outgoing and wore his heart on his sleeve. My mother, as a health professional, was very steady in her emotions, very calm, and didn’t jump to conclusions. I find that I have some of my mother in me. When faced with really big challenges, I can stay calm and get through it.”
Her father became ill when Laurie was five. “I have very few memories of that time, but I have a very clear recollection that because he was sick and missed work for some time, it put the family in financial peril,” she said. “If my mother had not been working, our story might have been different. As a young woman, I always felt that I needed to make sure I could contribute to my future family, always felt that drive for safety for the family I hoped someday to have, and to be a true partner in the financial part of that.”
Laurie had no interest in economics when she arrived at Bowdoin. “I was going to be a math major, but when I got to math theory, I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I need something more practical!’ And I just fell in love with economics, which seem to apply to everything. Every decision you make is a tradeoff.”
In addition to being practical and good at math and economics, Laurie has a knack for getting to know people wherever she goes. As a child, she remembers traveling by car to Quebec, New Brunswick, and occasionally to see relatives in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It was not until an AFS international exchange program between her junior and senior years at Bowdoin that Laurie traveled by plane and train to stay with a family in Austria.
“I became enthralled with going new places and meeting new people,” she said. Playing on her college basketball team and playing saxophone in the college swing band provided other opportunities for travel.
As a corporate economist with CMP, “I traveled a lot for professional development for industry groups in Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, and we flew out to Washington State—they were on the cutting edge of energy conservation measures. I learned a lot out there.
“And I just fully embraced meeting people wherever I went, in airports, at professional development events. I just couldn’t stop myself because it was so fascinating to meet other people from different backgrounds,” she said. “I have this incredible curiosity about people and their backgrounds. When I was the state economist, I was learning about people’s businesses and challenges. I was doing that to an even greater extent at the Maine Development Foundation. I just loved it! If I met someone who had moved to Maine, I would ask, ‘How did you get here and what drew you here?’ It became very natural to just get to know everyone that I could.”
One thing leads to another
Those relationships she formed—and a deep understanding of Maine’s economy and of what Maine needs to thrive—are the assets that enabled Laurie to take on being a college president, she said. “I am in no way, shape, or form of the pedigree for a college president! I had a very non-traditional route. But what I bring to this little college in central Maine is a great understanding of the needs of businesses for talent, of where we draw our students from, and, as a first-generation student myself, the barriers for folks from more humble routes to achieve all they can and get their careers launched.”
What’s it been like to be at the helm of a college during the COVID-19 pandemic?
“It’s been fascinating,” Laurie said, laughing. “Just becoming a college president was a big, hard, uphill climb to understand all that the job encompasses. I felt like different years, things have been thrown at me that were very challenging, not the least of which is trying to grow a small college, with a humble endowment, that serves students of promise, mostly from Maine.”
As Maine’s population ages and fewer children are born, the pool of potential college students diminishes. “And nationally, there’s been an assault on higher education, particularly four-year institutions. They are focused on debt . . . but they miss the point that with a bachelor’s degree or Master’s, your lifetime earnings far exceed what you put in. It’s an investment in your future,” she said.
“So, when COVID came along, all these trends were already making it challenging. And then we have a pandemic and a difficult decision that for the safety for an entire community, we need to send everyone home and refund their room and board money.”
It was almost beyond comprehension how students would safely be brought back to campus this fall. “To do it best, we have to have them on campus so they can have personal relationships with their professors and with the community,” Laurie said. “COVID was a huge barrier we had to get around if we were going to bring them back safely. We made what I think was a very wise decision to invest in a testing regime that is very aggressive. A month in, we have zero positive results. Our students are stepping up, wearing masks, social distancing, following cleaning protocols. I am just so proud of this community!”
As September waned, Laurie was excited about the future of Thomas College. She implied that a big announcement would be coming within a few weeks about a set of grants and gifts of historic proportions “that will enable the college to truly differentiate itself and guarantee the future of this special little place—the college with the ‘can do’ attitude!”
Laurie has never had time for hobbies, but what does sustain and renew her is returning to the family camp on Sebec Lake in Dover-Foxcroft as often as possible. “The traditions of the lake are what keep me sane,” she said. “I do lots of reading, lots of walking on dirt roads and wooded paths. I jump out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and grab a blanket and my camera and go down on the dock to watch the sun rise and take pictures. So much joy comes from family being there, and best friends visiting and the absolute simple pleasures in my hometown. Being very much in touch with nature and appreciating the simple pleasures every single day is what gives me joy, energy, and boundless optimism . . . not 24/7, but pretty much, I can find a path through anything as long as I have that chance to nurture my soul, so to speak.”