By Ann Caswell
NORTHEAST HARBOR — A small group of friends and supporters gathered at Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor on June 9 to celebrate James L. Clunan, the founder and first president of Acadia Senior College. Jim and his wife Dorothy were also joined by their son John and daughter Anne, who flew in to celebrate with their parents. As part of the celebration, the 130th Maine State Legislature ordered an official expression of sentiment in honor of Jim, which was read at the event.
It all began more than 20 years ago, when Jim Clunan, recently retired from a career in the U.S. Foreign Service, attended a current events class at a fledgling senior college at the University of Southern Maine. Excited about the idea of a college for people in the third half of their lives, Jim mentioned the concept to his then ex-wife, Dorothy, who challenged Jim to start a college on Mount Desert Island, saying she would help him. That was when Jim knew “they were back together again.” Acadia Senior College brought them back to one another, which, in Jim’s words, “was the greatest gift it could bear.”
With Dorothy’s challenge and offer to help, and mentoring by Rabbi Harry Sky, who founded the senior college in Portland, Jim eagerly took up the gauntlet to found a similar organization on MDI. Over 100 residents met that February at Somesville Fire Station to propose ideas for classes and to volunteer to organize the new college. And in March of 2000, Acadia Senior College was named and officially founded.
Jim served as ASC’s first president and led the college for eight years, guiding its growth to attract new members, achieve financial stability and become an independent nonprofit Maine corporation. He and the other early leaders recruited retired academics, artists, scientists and other professionals to volunteer as instructors. Further, they organized the dispersed campus, finding willing partners all over the island, from banks to libraries, to host classes.
Acadia Senior College, with a membership of close to 400, has offered more than 800 courses since its founding in the winter of 2000. Subjects have included geology, birding, literature of numerous cultures, writing, art, music, and various aspects of U.S. and international history and politics. The college also hosts community lunchtime talks, topical breakfast discussions, an annual art show, cultural field trips, social gatherings and a summer speakers’ series.
When, at the age of 19, Jim first came to MDI to deliver horses to his uncle in Seal Harbor, he could never have imagined the impact his initiative and energy would have on the life of this community. Although he prefers the title “Instigator” to that of “Founder,” Jim has truly succeeded in developing an organization that continues to fulfill its mission “to provide Intellectual Stimulation, Practical Knowledge, Social Interaction, and Fun” to MDI seniors.