One of six children, Senator Susan Collins was born in Caribou, Maine, where her family operates a lumber business established by her great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel W. Collins, in 1844.
Her parents, Patricia and Donald F. Collins, each served as mayor of Caribou. Her father, a decorated veteran of World War II, also served in the Maine Legislature.
Recently, U.S. Senator Susan Collins graciously welcomed MAINE WOMEN into her home. She reminisced about growing up in Caribou, shared stories about her family, and discussed the importance of friendships on both sides of the aisle, as well as bipartisan efforts that helped Mainers financially during the pandemic.
She worked as a legislative assistant to U.S. Representative, and later U.S. Senator William Cohen, who went on to become Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton.
But the senator’s life is more than politics. As Mary Barstow discovers, there are many sides to Susan Collins.
Mary Barstow: You grew up in Caribou, one of the coldest places in the country.
Senator Collins: Well, let’s put it this way. It’s made me immune to cold winters. But I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Caribou. Much of my family still lives there.
Senator Collins: My family was among the first white settlers in Caribou in the 1840s. We have a six-generation family-owned business. One of my nieces and one of my nephews have come into the business to work with their fathers now. And both of my parents were always very active in the community and at the state level. I had wonderful teachers and just a wonderful sense of community.
Mary: Did you really work in the potato fields?
Senator Collins: I did. I picked potatoes for two years.
Mary: That’s hard work.
Senator Collins: It was the hardest physical labor I’ve ever done in my life, but that was part of the sense of community, and part of the reason it was so strong. We went back to school in mid-August for three weeks, then, we broke for three weeks for the potato harvest. And everybody of all ages … most all the families of Caribou and the surrounding areas … turned out to help the farmers get the potato crops in before the freeze made it impossible. Back then, there weren’t migrant laborers who came and did the work.
Mary: This is an example of a real community.
Senator Collins: Yes, and at the harvest, it was largely the school children. We got 30 cents a barrel, and it was a nine-hour day in the fields. It tended to start off very cold in the morning, but then got quite warm by the afternoon. You brought your lunch with you and a gallon of water to drink.
It was really hard work, but it gave you a great sense of satisfaction, and taught me the value of hard work and the value of a dollar. And I remember the exciting trip we would take to Bangor with our potato-picking money. We would buy school supplies and school clothing after the harvest was over.
Mary: So, you went all through school in Caribou.
Senator Collins: Yes, I did.
Mary: What is it with Caribou? You’re a distinguished U.S. Senator and someday soon we’re going to have Jessica Meir from Caribou on the moon.
Senator Collins: I know, isn’t that neat? And the new U.S. Attorney is a woman from Caribou.
Mary: It’s amazing. What do you think about this tiny little place?
Senator Collins: I love it. I’m very proud of Aroostook County. And people are very caring, as they are throughout Maine. They work really hard, and the sense of community is so strong.
Mary: During your high school years you were on the student council?
Senator Collins: I was.
Mary: Did you know then that you wanted to go into politics?
Senator Collins: I had no idea. I remember my parents telling me one night at dinner that you had no right to complain if you stayed on the sidelines and weren’t willing to get involved. And so, they were always very encouraging. I was president of the student council, but I had no idea that one day I’d be in the United States Senate.
Mary: Your parents, even your mom, were in politics.
Senator Collins: Very much so. They each were mayor of Caribou.
Mary: Which was unusual for a woman back then.
Senator Collins: Exactly. My mother is a very strong person, and she was a wonderful role model, as was my father. My father served in the state senate. My mother was the first woman to be the chair of the University of Maine’s Board of Trustees.
Mary: You have a very strong mom. A great role model.
Senator Collins: She was a great role model.
Mary: What did they think when their little girl became a U.S. Senator?
Senator Collins: I hope, I think they were very proud. There was an intervening of them, I want to tell you about, and that was when I was a senior in high school. I was selected as one of two students to go to Washington as part of the U.S. Senate Youth Program.
Mary: How nice.
Senator Collins: This was sponsored by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. I had never been on an airplane. I had never gone to Washington. I’d never met United States senators. And my senators were the best senators in the United States – Margaret Chase Smith and Ed Muskie.
Mary: What an experience!
Senator Collins: Margaret Chase Smith, for reasons I will never fully understand, very generously took nearly two hours of her time to talk with me in her office. And she was the only woman in the senate at the time.
Mary: What a gift.
Senator Collins: I remembered leaving her office and being so proud that she was my senator, and thinking that women really could do anything. Because remember, this was back in 1971, and despite the fact that I had the world’s best role model in my own mother, there were still doubts about what you could do as a woman.
Mary: Oh, such judgment about it, too.
Senator Collins: Exactly.
Mary: Do you think you had to give up a lot as a woman to do what you’ve done?
Senator Collins: What I have noticed is, there are certain hurdles that women have to overcome that don’t exist for men. And I remember when I ran for governor in 1994, and I had won against all of the odds in the eight-way republican primary. And then I remember in the general election talking to this young banker, and he said to me that he agreed with me on all the issues, but he just couldn’t imagine a woman running the state of Maine.
I was so shocked that he said that. I was not only shocked that he believed it, but also that he actually said it to me, and that he was not embarrassed to say it. And I think for executive positions, there is still often, a barrier.
Mary: Oh, absolutely. Did you say anything back to him?
Senator Collins: You know, I don’t recall. I mainly recall being shocked, so I think I probably just said, “Well, I hope you’ll reconsider,” or something like that. I certainly didn’t take him on.
Mary: Sometimes we have to realize that some people are beyond changing.
Senator Collins: Exactly. I moved on to the next person to try to persuade that person that I was worthy of his or her vote. And now there are more and more women in the senate. We’re at, I think, 25. But when I was first elected, there were only nine women in the senate.
Senator Collins: And I remember quickly realizing that if you were a man elected to the senate, it was assumed that you belonged there and that you were qualified. Whereas, we women had to prove that we belonged in the senate. Now, once you did that, you were accepted as a member of the club. But there was that extra hurdle for women.
Mary: Your record is so impressive. You’ve never missed a vote.
Senator Collins: Never.
Mary: That is incredible.
Senator Collins: Well, I’ve been fortunate to be blessed with good health, but it has taken a lot of effort, including going back on Sundays rather than Monday mornings in case there’s a storm or a canceled flight.
Mary: It must be so difficult to have so many folks disagreeing constantly. How do you deal with that?
Senator Collins: Well, it is a challenge, and it’s gotten much worse in recent years, as our country’s become so polarized and hyper-partisan. I work so hard for the people of Maine, and I’m honored to do so. And I realize what an honor it is to have their trust placed in me. And I don’t mind meeting with folks who disagree with me. I’m having a couple meetings tomorrow morning with groups that disagree. That’s absolutely fine.
What’s happened in the last few years is, it’s become so uncivil, to the point where I’ve had to have security systems installed in my home in Washington and my home in Bangor.
To give you an example, during the Kavanaugh debate, I arrived home late one night. It was raining. I couldn’t find a parking place close to where I live. And there was a man waiting there with a camera for me. There was no one else on the streets, and he started harassing me and following me up to my house, and yelling at me.
And I finally turned to him, and I said, “You stop harassing me.” And I got in as fast as I could and called the police. But that was unsettling because there was no one else around.
Mary: I can’t imagine.
Senator Collins: I’ve had my car mysteriously burst into flames and be totaled.
Mary: So horribly frightening.
Senator Collins: I can show you a picture of that. It’s unbelievable. I’ve had death threats, threats of sexual assault, and protestors at my homes. And worst of all, threats against my staff.
There are two people in prison because one said he wanted to put a bullet through my brain. It’s just gotten out of control. It’s fine to disagree on issues, but this has become really crazy.
Mary: I have always been so proud to live in America, where a person has a right to choose.
Senator Collins: Right.
Mary: This really shocks me.
Senator Collins: Yeah.
Mary: Do you ever think that you can’t do this anymore? Do they get to you?
Senator Collins: At times I think it makes me stronger because I refuse to be intimidated. And I’m going to do what I think is right for the people of Maine and for the nation. And I think when you start getting intimidated – which doesn’t mean that you don’t listen. I always want to listen to people on both sides of an issue, including people who vehemently disagree with me.
But the threats get tiresome. At one point, I actually had to have a police escort.
Mary: Growing up you had five siblings?
Senator Collins: Yes.
Mary: Did anybody else go into politics?
Senator Collins: My brother, Sam, was head of the school board in Caribou. My brother Greg was head of the hospital board. So, they’ve continued the tradition of community service.
Mary: So nice.
Senator Collins: My brother Sam was also chairman of the University of Maine Board of Trustees for the entire system, for many years. His term kept getting extended, and he did a fabulous job. And that was a lot of work. And so, three generations of my family have been chair of the University of Maine Board of Trustees – my grandfather, my mother, and my brother Sam. And I’m very proud of that.
Mary: Oh, that’s just wonderful. Now, my big question is … will you run for president?
Senator Collins: No, I don’t think so. There are times, though, when I’ve listened to the presidential debates and I think, ‘Gee, I could give a better answer than that.’
I’m very happy being senator from Maine.
Mary: Will you retire? You’re still young.
Senator Collins: I really haven’t thought at all about what I would do after I leave the Senate. The job that I have is so all consuming. Yesterday was supposed to be a rare day off. I spent the entire day working on Afghanistan. There was a briefing. I had a conversation with the head of the Intelligence Committee. I was working with my six state offices who have all gotten pleas from people who either were stationed over in Afghanistan [or] worked with interpreters who were having a hard time getting out.
There’s a girls’ school that I’ve worked with called SOLA (School of Leadership), where students’ parents teach there. And they’re targeted by the Taliban and ironically, just a couple of months ago, (Democratic) Senator Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire and I met with the head of the school to talk about what would happen if the Taliban took over.
And so, it turned out to be a day that I worked the entire day. But how could I not when there was such a crisis going on? And it’s so horrible.
Mary: It’s horrible that you have to worry about those young girls. They have such desires and such hopes.
Senator Collins: Exactly.
Mary: It’s heartbreaking.
Senator Collins: It is heartbreaking. And the woman that Jeanne Shaheen and I talked to described dressing up as a boy to go to school when she was young during the first Taliban era. And thank goodness she didn’t get caught. But imagine the bravery to do that, and that’s why she’s so passionate about establishing this wonderful school for girls. And it’s called The Leadership School. And she is teaching girls to be leaders, as well as educating them in other ways. And I’m just so worried about her and getting her students out … and their teachers out … because they will be targeted by the Taliban again, without a doubt.
Mary: These poor girls. Thank you for sharing that.
Senator Collins: I’ve flown into Afghanistan four times, Mary. My very first visit to Afghanistan was right after Hamid Karzai had been smuggled by the CIA back into the country. And we were meeting in a green Army tent. I remember it was patched on one side. I mean, this was very early on in the war.
And we each could ask him one question. He speaks excellent English. And my question was, “Are you going to reopen the schools so that girls and women can get an education?” And he promised me he would. And he did. And everyone else was asking him military-like questions.
But I really, I was the only woman on the trip, and I wanted to speak for those who had been voiceless for so long under Taliban rule. And I fear will be once again.
Mary: Thank you for caring about these girls. How did you get to be so brave, to go to these countries? Seriously.
Senator Collins: Well, when I went to Iraq and Afghanistan, John McCain was usually the leader of those trips, and there’s no one who was more brave than John McCain. I do remember one time flying on a helicopter in Iraq with my very good friend, Jack Reed, from Rhode Island, who served in the Army. And I think he was a ranger. He went to West Point. He’s now senator from Rhode Island.
And they left the doors open on the helicopter because it was so beastly hot. And I was convinced I was going to be sucked out. And I must say, I didn’t say a word, but apparently my face showed my terror because he leaned over and patted me on the hand and said, “There, there, it’s going to be all right,” in a very comforting way. I hasten to say, it was not a condescending way. It was a comforting way. Because I truly was terrified. I was determined not to say anything, but apparently, I couldn’t control the expression on my face.
Mary: You are very brave.
Now I have one last question I want to ask you. Is it true Hillary Clinton threw you an engagement party?
Senator Collins: She did, she threw me a shower when I got married.
Mary: I think it’s so important that women hear this. You can have different political views, yet still be good friends.
Senator Collins: That’s true, because the women at the senate traditionally, about every six weeks or so, get together for dinner. And I think it’s very important. It builds bonds of trust.
Senator Collins: It enables us to recognize that we’re humans, and that we’re not evil. We’re not adversaries. We need more of that these days.
Senator Collins: Another person who did a shower for me was Dianne Feinstein, the senator from California. Hillary did one, and not a shower, but a celebration. You know, a party, engagement party, I guess, would be the better term for it. And Sandra Day O’Connor came to it, which thrilled me. It was a very memorable experience.
Mary: That’s wonderful. Now, you’re sure you don’t have plans to run for president? Are you sure?
Senator Collins: I’m quite sure.
Mary: But now, you have how many more years in the senate?
Senator Collins: Five and a half years. It’s been an extraordinary experience. And the best part is, I feel I’ve made a difference for the people of Maine. And that matters so much to me. My roots are so deep, and I care so much for this state.
Mary: What are you most proud of?
Senator Collins: I’m most proud that in the midst of the pandemic, I came up with the concept for the Paycheck Protection Program.
Mary: Such an amazing idea!
Senator Collins: It saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in Maine and across the country. Well, we can get the exact statistics, but it brought more than three billion dollars in forgivable loans for small businesses who agreed to pay their employees. And it saved so many jobs in Maine and kept so many small businesses afloat. Nationwide? Millions.
And that means so much to me because I was able to do it in a bi-partisan way. I went to another republican, Marco Rubio, two democrats, Ben Cardin and Jeanne Shaheen, and then together we fleshed out my proposal, which was born from my days as the regional administrator for New England for the Small Business Administration during the first President Bush’s administration. So, I knew SBA and its programs, and I knew it didn’t have something like this, but I could see how we could come up with a program. I feel this made such a difference.
Mary: It made all the difference, saving so many businesses and livelihoods of Americans.
Senator Collins: It really helped. And I’ll tell you, nothing gladdens my heart more than when I meet a small business owner, and they tell me that without the PPP program, they would have closed their doors forever.
Senator Collins: That is just a great feeling.
Mary: Thank you so much for that.
Senator Collins: That would probably be my number one proud moment. There are many others, but that would be number one.
Mary: The PPP bill saved so many jobs and businesses in Maine and around the country. Thank you for that.
Senator Collins: And thank you. It’s so nice of you to come make the long drive from Camden. This is a really long drive.
Mary: This was such a pleasure, Senator Collins. Thank you!