County Face: Orpheus Allison of Mapleton
Orpheus Allison of Mapleton has had a fascination with stories of “ordinary life” throughout his professional career. Whether he worked as a news photographer or teacher, Allison realized early on that giving people the tools to tell their own stories was most important. Through his upbringing in Aroostook County, he found the determination and passion that brought him to many exciting work experiences and back home again.
Allison began his career in TV broadcasting as an intern at WAGM-TV in Presque Isle during his senior year at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. In the beginning he mostly answered phone calls and wrote news copy, but in December of that year WAGM hired him and another intern as part-time production assistants. He credits Sue Bernard, the news director at that time, for teaching him that effective news reporting centered on good writing.
“She emphasized that you should always take time to develop story ideas and do your research on a subject before you go out into the field to report,” Allison said. “She hired a lot of very talented writing people and believed that news reporting was about the quality of writing.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in humanities from UMPI, Allison stayed at WAGM as a news photographer for five years. In 1989, he took a job as a news photographer for a local TV station in Arizona. He recalled leaving northern Maine in January when the temperature was 13 degrees below zero and arriving in Arizona to 68-degree weather.
Even though he was far away from The County, Allison took with him the discipline he learned at WAGM. He produced three to four video pieces every day with two interviews and soundbites. He wrote and edited all his stories daily using newswriting elements he learned from Bernard, such as grammar and time limitations.
In the early 90s, Allison was a news photographer for a CBS station in Chattanooga, Tenn. He arrived just in time to follow the building of the Tennessee Aquarium, which served as a major step in the city’s redevelopment efforts. For other stories he interviewed many local people, including a grandmaster tailor who made Elvis’ white sequin suit and operated a shop in the city’s downtown.
“I found that the people I talked to weren’t just telling me about themselves. They also revealed a lot about the local area,” Allison said. “It taught me that all people have stories to tell and what we can do as people is listen to them.”
Allison spent three years in Chattanooga before accepting a position as a news photographer and secondary reporter in Spartanburg, S.C. After leaving the TV news field in search of a greater challenge, he worked as a teaching docent for the Asheville Art Museum in Asheville, N.C., while he earned his master’s degree in liberal arts from the University of North Carolina. He led students on tours of the museum while helping them with language, math and science skills, which motivated him to pursue teaching further.
Later, Allison found himself on a plane to Shanghai, China, and spent the next three years teaching English to Chinese students at the university level. One day he noticed his students acting out a scene from the popular American sitcom “Friends” and realized he could use more creative ways to help them become proficient in spoken English.
“I brought them copies of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ and assigned them characters. Instead of just reading the play like you would a novel they read aloud and their ‘final exam’ was a performance of the play,” Allison said. “They already knew the English grammar structure, but this allowed them to really play with the language and be imaginative.”
After that first stint in China, Allison taught in Korea before returning to China for another four years. He returned to Aroostook County in 2014 due to health reasons and stays in touch with many former students to give advice on their teaching lessons.
“What I learned from living here is that if you want to do something great and go someplace else, do it, but the good thing is that you could always come home,” Allison said.