A Lifetime of Language

It’s a story as old as time: young man leaves childhood home, finds love, and spends a lifetime chasing it to the ends of the earth.

This is one of those stories, with a twist: the young man is Ray Pelletier, now 74, of Hampden. And the love? It’s a different kind of love—a love of languages and international unity.

Pelletier, the former associate director of the Canadian-American Center and assistant professor of French and Canadian studies at UMaine, retired formally three years ago, but he made a career of providing immersive, effective language instruction. In his eyes, you can’t learn a language unless you understand the culture. The best way to do it, of course, is to experience it at the source.

“I can tell you, over the years I must have dragged a thousand, maybe two thousand people with me to France and Canada [on educational trips],” he said. “You know, just to get them beyond the state line. We had a requirement [at UMaine]…which was that you don’t graduate with a bachelor’s in French without having gone to a Francophone country. I feel that in learning, you have to be there to learn.”

In the 1980s, said Pelletier, a large percentage of students at UMaine were in-state residents. The percentage of those students that went abroad to study was very low. Many, he said, never left the country at all. To counter this, he encouraged students to go abroad any way he could, including the school-sanctioned trips. He also developed a new curriculum based on immersion.

“I try to put [students] in a position where they’re capable of teaching something new to somebody, so that it’s not always coming from the front of class,” he said. “It’s what I call ‘interactive teaching.’ It has to be real. It has to be hands on. And that’s why, for example, I [stressed travel]. It was hands on, culture was right in front of you. Part of that curriculum was all that traveling.”

He also established international institutes for faculty: “That was probably the most successful part of my career,” he said. “I did institutes for teachers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec. I have been doing that since 2000, taking teachers on immersions [for one or two weeks].”

Nowadays, post-retirement, Pelletier stays involved in the community as an emeritus professor of French at UMaine, as a board member at the Chinese Language and Culture Center of Maine, and with the Penobscot Language School in Rockland, to name a few. But he said if it weren’t for a twist of fate and some fortuitous historic events, he might never have gotten into language at all.

As a boy, he grew up in Berlin, New Hampshire, one of seven children. His father was from Eagle Lake in Maine; his mother, from Quebec. At a young age, he was recruited by the former St. Joseph’s Seminary in Bucksport as a promising student. Classes were delivered in French in the morning, and English in the afternoon. It was there, he said, that his interest in languages started to develop.

Following the seminary, Pelletier went off to Providence College in Rhode Island. Because of his cultural and multilingual background, he was placed in advanced French courses: “I was in there with French majors as a freshman.” He said it was difficult, because he was used to his family’s North American French, not the traditional French taught in the classroom. In short order, he switched his major from political science to modern languages.

He said it was the launch of Sputnik in 1957, however, that really gave his career a boost.

“That was the age of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which was trying to revive the study of language nationally,” he said. “You know, Sputnik went up and everybody went, ‘Are you kidding me? They beat us. How could they possibly have done that?’ It shook up Washington to no end, because it was very clear that if we had scientists who spoke or read Russian that they could have known a year in advance that this was coming from the scientific journals.”

After that, opportunities for language teachers increased dramatically. Soon, supply began to outpace demand and competition for jobs became fierce. He came to Maine in 1979 to raise a family, he said, and to take an administrative position at UMaine with Canadian and Franco-American studies. “We were trying to raise the cultural awareness of French in New England, and also French in Canada. So it was really a bilingual type of program—a program that taught about French and English Canada, and Franco-Americans of New England.” Four years later, he moved to the language department of UMaine’s Little Hall to become the assistant professor of French and Canadian studies.

One of Pelletier’s greatest recent achievements, however, has nothing to do with languages. Since his father’s death in 2000, he’s been visiting his parents’ graves in Berlin, N.H. each year to place flowers. He continued to find himself preoccupied by the small, neglected plaque behind the stones, marking the spot where his brother Norman, a POW who died in North Korea in 1950 but was never recovered, should have been resting. He felt frustrated by what he saw as neglect and disrespect.

“I got angrier and angrier, year after year, thinking about my brother who died at 20 years old in a prison camp and had little to no recognition,” he said. “When I retired I said to myself, ‘This is not going to keep going, something’s got to be done here.’”

He undertook a mission to get recognition for his brother and secure his remains. About 15 years ago, Pelletier had given the government his DNA to track kinship in the case, and didn’t think much more of it. Recently, he went to a meeting in Portland, held by the federal government, for survivors of people who had died overseas and had never been found. There, he realized there was more information about Norman than he knew.

“I called Arlington National Cemetery and I said, ‘I want a tombstone for my brother [there],’” he said. “And all that has happened, that happened last September. There was a consecration and the Army…did it beautifully.”

He was doubtful, however, of ever finding his brother’s remains. One of the the connections that Pelletier had made in the Portland meeting was with an adviser from Fort Knox in Kentucky. He helped guide Pelletier through the process of finding Norman. Part of that was having both of his remaining brothers also submit their DNA.

“That may have been the key,” he said. A call from the retrieval center in Fort Knox this past Christmas alerted him that his brother’s remains had been located in North Korea. Now, he says, he must make a decision on his brother’s final resting place. He has a couple places in mind. Mostly, he’s just happy Norman’s finally getting the attention he deserves.

“He waited 60 years to get his due,” he said.

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