When John Jenkins ’74 arrived in Lewiston from Newark, N.J., to attend Bates, the Androscoggin River was polluted and stinky.
No one would ever — ever! — imagine spending time along the river to bike, kayak, walk, jog, or just hang out. And it definitely wasn’t a place to celebrate someone with imagination and hope. But things change, sometimes for the better.
John Jenkins Biography
The biography John Jenkins: The Mayor of Maine, by Chuck Radis ’75 will be published by Down East Books in April 2023. For information about the John Jenkins Scholarship Fund, contact email@example.com.
Fifty years later, on a former railroad trestle turned walking bridge over the Androscoggin, a big gathering of friends, family, colleagues, and admirers came together to remember Jenkins, who died in September 2020, and to dedicate the span as the John T. Jenkins Memorial Bridge.
Everyone misses Jenkins, but every message at the June 10 gathering was upbeat, positive, and hopeful. Because that’s who Jenkins was. “He had the ability to make people feel good just by showing up,” said Maine Gov. Janet Mills, who spoke fondly and respectfully about Jenkins, an unprecedented figure in Lewiston, Auburn, and Maine history.
The naming ceremony was one of two events during Reunion weekend honoring Jenkins. A day later, a long-postponed memorial service for Jenkins was held in the Lewiston Armory.
Bates friends were close by throughout the weekend, and a committee of alumni has been raising funds to endow the John Jenkins Scholarship Fund. There are enough memories of Jenkins to fill a book, and that was another task of the committee: supporting a biography, John Jenkins: The Mayor of Maine, written by Chuck Radis ’75.
Jenkins was also known as the “mayor of Bates.” He was genuine and kind and everywhere; he acted in early modern dance productions for Marcy Plavin, and ran track for Walt Slovenski. He would keep everyone laughing on bus rides until the legendary coach stood up and yelled, “No belly laughing!” — he didn’t want someone pulling a stomach muscle by laughing too hard.
Jenkins taught John Emerson ’73 how to be easier on himself as a student. “I felt pressure to succeed and to perform,” Emerson recalled. “It can overwhelm you. John would help you put all of that in perspective. He helped me believe that friendships and relationships and how you handled winning and losing is what really mattered.”
After Bates, Jenkins’ talent as a competitive martial artist earned him international recognition — he’s a member of multiple halls of fame. He was a community organizer and motivational speaker.
He was the first Black citizen elected as mayor of Lewiston, as a Maine state senator, and as mayor of Auburn, the latter as a write-in candidate, becoming the only person to serve as mayor of both Auburn and Lewiston. Last year, both city councils voted unanimously to name the footbridge, across which immigrants from Canada once traveled by train to Lewiston when the span was a railroad trestle, in memory of Jenkins.
He was a role model, said Mills. Physically fit and mentally fit, Jenkins “had an attitude toward life that inspired everyone,” including the many children who heard his talks.
Both mayors also spoke at the event, as did Ann Parker, Jenkins’ companion. She said that anyone walking across the Jenkins bridge will never walk alone.
“I really hope that when you walk across that bridge, you feel the spirit of John,” she said. “If someone’s having a difficult day, walk across John’s bridge. I guarantee it’s going to lift you up. If you’re having a wonderful, awesome day, walk across the bridge, because John’s gonna be there with you in all his awesomeness.”