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Furths among many

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Furths among many (edge photo by Kevin Bennett)

For local entrepreneurs, UMaine commencement speech an unexpected honor

ORONO – We’ve entered commencement season. Schools everywhere are poised to hold their graduation ceremonies, thousands of students donning robes and mortarboards and preparing to accept their diplomas in advance of whatever might come next for them.

One of the constants of commencement is the commencement speaker. The school in question invites someone - often a noteworthy alum – to come stand on the stage and share stories and thoughts intended as a memorable gateway into their futures.

The University of Maine in Orono has produced plenty of successful graduates over the years. There are scores of potential commencement speakers to choose from, leaders in the realms of politics and science and the arts – the sorts of names you expect to see in the program as you sit in Alfond Arena either in the seats or amidst the sea of soon-to-be graduates.

For this year’s ceremony, however, the powers that be at UMaine have decided to go in a different, less conventional direction, inviting local entrepreneurs Abe and Heather Furth to speak to the Class of 2017 at both graduation sessions.

The Furths, both University of Maine graduates, have been mainstays in the region over the past decade. From their first restaurant - Woodman’s Bar and Grill – to later enterprises such as Verve Burritos and Orono Brewing Company, Abe and Heather have been an integral part of the area business climate, tackling project after project with zeal and entrepreneurial gusto.

They’ve been familiar faces around these parts for over a decade, gradually building their businesses and becoming larger and larger parts of the area’s business community – all while creating numerous jobs and developing longstanding relationships with the people their businesses serve.

But chances are good that you know that already.

Their devotion to the area is palpable and passionate. And they are among the hardest-working people that you’re ever likely to meet. Add to that their alumni status and they would seem to be an excellent choice to address the University’s graduates at commencement.

Still, it wasn’t necessarily something for which they were prepared.

“So I received a phone call from [University of Maine President] Susan Hunter’s office in December sometime before Christmas,” said Heather. “They wanted to take a meeting with us, but they didn’t really say what it was about. They definitely wanted to talk that day.”

However, Abe was at a meeting of the Brewers Guild at Allagash Brewing and so was unable to attend the one at UMaine. A conference call was set up; Heather would go to campus, while Abe would phone in from the road.

“I told them I was expecting a call,” Abe said. “And when the phone rang, I took it.”

That call would result in a request a million miles removed from anything that they might have anticipated.

“I go into this conference room,” Heather said. “Sadly, Susan Hunter got called away, but I was there with the Provost and some people from the President’s office. They get Abe on the phone and they ask us to be the commencement speakers.”

For a pair used to making decisions together, the physical separation was a bit unusual, but they got on the same page fairly quickly.

“I said ‘I can't speak for Heather, but I imagine it’s a yes,’” said Abe. “It was quite a potent moment for me. Yeah, it sounds terrifying, but just because something is terrifying doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We can't stop ourselves because we fear the worst, but yeah – it’s a little scary.”

“Literally anything that else that she would have asked me, I would have been less surprised,” added Heather. “Obviously, we were incredibly flattered and scared and excited and nervous and all of the things that you feel in a situation like that. And obviously, we said yes to it. It was basically like a ‘Of course! I can't believe you're asking!’ sort of thing.

“Abe and I weren’t in the same room, so we couldn’t look at each other,” she continued. “But it was definitely a ‘yes.’”

Of course, agreeing to do it was only the very first step in an extended process. First of all, they had to keep the whole thing under wraps until the University was ready to make the announcement.

“It was obviously incredibly exciting,” said Heather. “But we were sworn to secrecy. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone because the University wanted to be in control of the information. They thought that they might announce it in January, but it kept getting pushed back and pushed back, so we had to sit on the secret for quite some time.”

But just because they weren’t telling anyone didn’t mean they weren’t working on it. The two spent weeks working on pulling their speech together, trying to find a way to put into words just what they wanted to say. Carving out the time to do that without anyone finding out would be tough for a lot of people, but for folks as active as the Furths, it was particularly trying.

Oh, and even after figuring out when and where and why and how, they still had to actually WRITE the darned thing.

“We probably started working on it a little after Christmastime,” Heather said. “And I don’t think we had our final final comments until probably two weeks ago. It has been a lot of editing and really reaching out to people in our network who were willing to help; they gave us a lot of feedback.”

“For me, the hardest part was when we were writing,” Abe added. “I’m a very inefficient writer, so I’m getting up early in the morning or whatever and just trying to tell the honest truth. I’m trying to figure how to compress 35 years of life down to a 10-minute speech. One that’s not about you – although it's supposed to have some of your story – but one that translates to many experiences. It’s been a difficult task. Once we had something that we both liked and that the University liked, they gave us a little feedback here and there. After that, it got a lot less scary.”

“Really, I hope that it's inspiring to the kids,” added Heather. “We really tried to speak to them in the same way that we ourselves would want to be spoken to. And I mean, this speech is not just for the graduates; hopefully, it reaches everyone there.”

While the Furths have a fair amount of experience in the realm of public speaking - both have addressed a crowd or two in their time - this is on a much larger scale than they’re likely used to. But thanks to the support of the UMaine administration – and a kitted-out practice run or two courtesy of some folks at the Collins Center for the Arts – they’re comfortable.

Well, as comfortable as they’re going to get, at any rate.

“In the end, we’re going up there to talk for five minutes apiece,” said Abe. “Suppose I freak out. Worst case, I'm up there and I have to reference the speech once in a while; it’s not a big deal. Sure, we haven't done anything with this much pressure, but we’ve been working on this for a while. So we’re just going to go out there and do it.


“All the advice we’ve been given is just go out there and be ourselves,” he continued. “Go out there with confidence. I think that the energy of the crowd will help us; they're going to be pretty happy when they recognize that it's not going to be some long, boring speech. But we definitely say a lot in just 10 minutes.”


It’s clear that both Abe and Heather are honored to have been asked. And while they’ve never been told specifically just why it was that they were chosen, they have some thoughts on the matter.


“It’s just conjecture on my part, but I think it’s at least partially because we've decided to stay in Maine,” Heather said. “We decided to stay in a smaller community and really try to create some positive change within it, as opposed to moving to Portland after graduation, or to Boston or New York or wherever. We decided ‘Hey - let's change this place.’ Be the revival.


“This is one of the lines in the speech, so spoiler alert – ‘Be the revitalization;’ make the revitalization happen that you want to see in your community. If you don't do it, who else is going to?”


As for the speech itself? Well, Abe and Heather weren’t going to give too much away, but they were willing to share a little bit of what they’d be talking about.


“I think with our speech we're very honest about who we are,” Abe said “We're kind of painting a picture of ourselves, but really, we want the students to know we're talking about us, but also about them. We were where they are.”


“We basically have three main pieces of advice for them,” Heather said. “And then we talk about how we've abided by those pieces of advice and what effect they have had on us in terms of our decision-making processes and that sort of thing. It’s like a kind of shared experience; yes, we tell some anecdotes from our lives, but we're really trying not to be ‘Blah blah blah.’ We want it all to be funny and interesting; hopefully, it will be engaging for them.”


Abe and Heather Furth might not be renowned politicians or notable artists, but they are definitely possessed of their own kind of fame. They have become key components of the area’s community fabric, familiar faces to a decade’s worth of students from Orono and beyond. Theirs is a very real, very relatable success story – one that college graduates would likely benefit from hearing.


Is this a conventional choice for an institution like UMaine? No. Is it a good one? Absolutely.


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