THORNDIKE — Regional School Unit 3 and Ecology Learning Center charter school in Unity recently received grants to support and promote agricultural activities within their schools for present and future generations.

Former RSU 3 Superintendent Joseph Mattos, trustee of the fund, awarded Superintendent Charles Brown $20,000 from the Bessey Thor-Nox Farm Trust at the June 14 school board meeting. In May, Mattos awarded $75,000 to Lēza Packard, head of school at Ecology Learning Center.

Speaking at the June 14 school board meeting, Mattos said the Bessey farm is adjacent to the Mount View Complex and that some of the land the school is built on previously belonged to the Bessey family. The family also donated land for the relocated East Knox Schoolhouse, which now stands next to the family barn, and formerly served the Knox Historical Society.

A 2003 Maine Farmland Trust newsletter describes the Bessey family homestead as comprising a two-story 1817 farmhouse, a 42-by-80-foot barn, along with 100 acres of fields and some 320 acres of woodland.

Roy Bessey’s name plate is still visible on the family farmhouse on Route 220 in Knox, shown here June 22. Fran Gonzalez

Shirley Bessey was born at the family homestead in 1925 and learned to appreciate the farming way of life at an early age. According to her obituary, as a child she helped with chores around the farm, including weeding long rows of vegetables, picking up loose hay as it was thrown from the barn loft, and preparing meals for the farm workers.

Her education began early, as her mother brought her as an infant to the one-room school where she taught. The obit goes on to say that Shirley was the class of 1942 valedictorian at Freedom Academy, and graduated from Colby College in 1948.  

Working at the Agricultural Extension Service in Maine, Shirley later moved to Kansas, working in education and training before transferring to Saskatchewan, Canada, to coordinate rural education programs. She returned to the U.S., the obit says, to advance her education and was awarded a doctorate of education by Boston University.

In 1985 she returned to the family farm, which her brother Roy Bessey had run for many years, according to the obit. Having no heirs, Shirley and her brother shared a vision that the farm should be protected as a farm forever. In 2003 the Besseys signed a conservation easement with Maine Farmland Trust to protect the farm’s agricultural values and protect it from development.

In a Maine Farmland Trust interview, Roy Bessey said, “It was the only way to save it. If you put it on the market, it would all be house lots before the dust settled.

The East Knox Schoolhouse, which now stands on Bessey-donated land next to the family barn on Route 220, and served the Knox Historical Society, was moved from Route 137 in 2013. Shown here June 22, the Mount View Complex can be seen in the background. Fran Gonzalez

“I think people are waking up to the fact that land isn’t going to last forever. We’ll need it sometime, I would think. We get more people every year, and less room to raise food.”

Mattos said that in 2003, Shirley also established the Bessey Thor-Nox Farm Trust to maintain the land as a working farm and to be a source of agricultural education. The trust, he said, will be used to help promote the “rich heritage of our land and the fundamental importance of local agriculture for the health and well-being of our community, our economy, and our environment”

Shirley died three years ago within three weeks of her 93rd birthday.  The trust, Mattos said, unfortunately is no longer functioning. The farm was sold off a year or so ago to the Daly brothers, he said, to pay an outstanding debt.

Shirley’s ashes and those of her brother Roy and her father Claude, Mattos said, were spread near one of the places she loved to gaze out at from her window: a rock wall across from the high school to which the cows often walked.

“She was a wonderful person, always very kind, who lived a frugal life,” he said, and noted she was a bit of a hoarder. As a birthday gift, Mattos framed a print of Shirley in her robe, receiving her doctorate at Boston University.

Mattos said his job was to award the trust’s remaining funds to nonprofit organizations with similar missions. In a meeting with Brown, Mattos said, the two discussed current agricultural activities in RSU 3, including the greenhouse program at the Mount View complex. Brown said he will be meeting with alternative education teachers and elementary school greenhouse leaders to discuss how to best use the grant.

Ecology Learning Center junior Anita Oebel-Ferriter receives a $4,000 check from Joe Mattos, Bessey Thor-Nox Fund trustee. Courtesy of Ecology Learning Center

“We are very fortunate,” he said. “We will put this money to good use to support the students of the district.”

Presenting Brown with the grant, Mattos said there are no terms associated with the funds. “You don’t have to file any reports,” he said. “All I ask is when you do use the money, that somehow you talk about the Bessey Trust, and Shirley Bessey’s legacy to the school system.”

In a conversation with The Republican Journal June 23, Mattos said he was superintendent of RSU 3 in 2007 when the present-day Mount View Complex was being erected, and he had a few dealings with Shirley and her brother during that time. 

One time, he remembered, the football players needed a place to practice, and Shirley offered the team the use of the fields near her house. As part of the nutrition program back then, Mattos said, he also purchased cows from Shirley.

“Shirley and I became friends,” he said, noting that they both attended Colby College. The two remained close even after Mattos left the school district three years later. Because she had no family, there was a group of three or four people who would attend to her needs. “I did her shopping and tried to do her checkbook,” he said.  

She loved seafood and Mattos and his wife would take her out to eat in Belfast occasionally. It would take her 20 minutes to get out of the house with her walker, he said. One time, after he had waited patiently for her, she got into the car and said she had forgotten something. Mattos offered to get whatever she was missing from the house to expedite matters. Shirley said she had forgotten her teeth in a jar by the window.

Dr. Shirley Margene Bessey stands in front of the Mount View Elementary School library dedicated to her and her family for their contributions to the district.

She eventually went to live at an assisted living facility in Waterville, where he saw her often, as he lived in nearby Oakland. Shirley appointed Mattos the trustee of the fund and requested the money go to agricultural nonprofits.

Having worked at the Maine Charter Commission, Mattos also interviewed Lēza Packard, head of  Ecology Learning Center charter school in Unity. “The whole program is about ecology and farming,” he said. 

Packard said that during a student feedback session in which Mattos asked students what they would wish for, if the school were to receive money for one thing, one student, Anita Oebel-Ferriter, replied, “money to support our culinary arts program.” Mattos surprised Anita by presenting her with a $4,000 check during an all-school meeting to support the school’s farm-to-table initiative. He also gave the school $75,000 to continue its agricultural education efforts.

Packard said, “I am deeply honored to carry forth Dr. Shirley Bessey’s commitment to agricultural education in Waldo County. Many of our founding team members (parents, board members, faculty) are farmers and gardeners, knowledgeable and passionate about agriculture… .

“Our vision is for students to grow and prepare their own school lunches — not just one harvest celebration lunch, but every school lunch. The extraordinary generosity of the Shirley Bessey Foundation will allow us to realize this dream.”

A choked-up Mattos said at the RSU 3 school board meeting he was pleased to have known Shirley while he was superintendent. “I met her and became friends with her for many, many years,” he added. “She was a wonderful person who never asked for anything — all she ever did was give.”

RSU 3 recognized the Bessey family contributions to the community by dedicating the Mount View Elementary School library in 2010 as the Bessey Family Library in memory of Shirley, her mother, father and brother Roy.

 

 

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