By Carol McCracken (Post # 412)
Two years ago Mary McKeough Karatsanos and three friends climbed to the top of the Portland Observatory on the Fourth of July and watched the fireworks explode all over the night sky on the Eastern Promenade. “I was so excited,” she said recently at her large and comfortable home off Ocean Avenue where she has lived since 1950. Mary won the tickets in a yearly contest sponsored by the Greater Portland Landmarks.
Climbing those 106 steps at the Observatory gave Mary, 87, a chance to view the fireworks and the islands from a different perspective. It also gave her a chance to reflect on her memories of the HIll where she grew up. Her father was a pastry chef at the fromer Lafayette Hotel in downtown Portland. “I was taught by my father I could do anything I wanted,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling. She admits that as his only daughter, she was special to him and received preferential treatment. Mary was born at home at 18 Sheridan Street, her family moved to Monument Street and then to a large home at 67 Congress Street.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but no one else did either. It didn’t matter,” she said. She never visited the Observatory as a child, as her four older brothers probably did. Mary kept busy – playing hop scotch, jumping rope and roller skating. There were always lots of other children around to play with. “My house was always full of people. Mom never knew how many people would be there for dinner. Everyone congregated at our house,” Mary said. (Her mother was from New Brunswick and her father from Nova Scotia.) “Kids today don’t know how to be young. They have so much to learn about protecting themselves and keeping up with the neighbors,” she added.
In 1940, Mary graduated Cathedral High School at the bottom of the Hill. “Discipline was not a problem. If you got into trouble at school, you were in trouble at home. We would have been sent home if we dressed like the kids today. There was no feel good stuff,” she said. Following high school, Mary attended the Maine Businss College. She worked in the insurance field for 50 years with her late husband, Lee Karatsonos. (Professionally Mary was known simply as — Mary K.) The couple had three children; see photo of Mary above with son, Michael.
Thirteen years ago, Mary was responsible for setting up the then Senior College (now Osher Lifelong Learning Institdute,) “OLLI” office on the campus of the University of Southern Maine here in Portland. The program for adults over 50 years old has since evolved into a highly successful and “academically stimulating” program in the Wishcamper Building on the USM campus. Some of that success is no doubt due to the founding principles and organization established by Mary and her friends. Recently, she was asked to coordinate her classes’ 70th anniversary reunion. “Of course I’ll do it,” she said, laughing with no regard to her serious back problems which are inoperable. “I might not climb those 106 steps again at the Observatory, though,” she said laughing.
That “can do” spirit instilled by her father up here on the Hill as well as her boundless enthusiasim for life and all it brings her way is still alive and well in Mary today. It has served her well for 87 plus years!