County Face: Theresa Madigan of Caribou
CARIBOU, Maine — Theresa Madigan was only 12 years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, an event she said inspired a wave of patriotism in the United States that has not been seen before or since.
Born to Napoleon and Rose Levasseur in Caribou, Madigan is the youngest of seven children. Her three brothers enlisted after the attack, and her sisters worked in Washington, D.C., the Navy Department and the Presque Isle Air Force Base. Only 14 at the time, Madigan wanted nothing more than to help her country.
It wasn’t long until inspiration struck. Her father worked as an assistant postmaster and learned that a co-worker, Joe Habeeb, was captured in a German prison camp.
“Joe’s parents were so happy,” she said. “They’d gotten a letter from someone who’d heard on a shortwave radio that he was captured as a prisoner in Germany. They were thrilled that he was alive and would be home someday.”
For the rest of the war, Madigan would sit next to her Philco radio, tune in to the shortwave station, and listen to a German woman who spoke perfect English announce the names of captured American soldiers.
“I’d take down all the names of the boys who were taken prisoner,” she said, “and I would write to the parents to let them know their son was captured and alive and well.”
Those parents were overwhelmingly relieved.
“Oh, they were so happy,” she said. “Hearing that gave [soldiers’ families] hope.”
Throughout the war, Madigan said she wrote “hundreds” of families in America and even Canada. In return, she’s received 271 letters thanking her for her kindness.
She met her husband, Bill Madigan of Houlton, while working a summer job at the Birdseye food processing plant in Caribou in 1946. Bill also served during World War II as coxswain of a 56-foot landing craft with a crew of four men.
They lived in Caribou for decades, and Theresa spent many years working for M.D. McGrath Insurance Agency (now known as United Insurance) while Bill spent 14 years as a volunteer at Cary Medical Center. When Bill died of a heart attack 10 years ago at age 84, Theresa began searching for a way to occupy her time.
While visiting one of her daughters in Portland, she found that creating jewelry was a “fad with younger people” and was fascinated while watching her daughter create necklaces.
“I started doing it, too,” she said. “I thought I’d do that for a hobby to take up my time.
Since then she’s made hundreds, first for herself and her daughters, and then she began giving them away to people at nursing homes.
“My daughter, Mary Umphrey, used to teach at Teague Park and had a friend with a little girl in first grade,” Madigan said. “Her name was Bella Albert, and she went nuts over my necklaces.”
The young girl brought several of Madigan’s necklaces to show and tell one day, and her classmates asked for some. Madigan made some for the entire class as a Christmas gift for their mothers.
“When I did that, they made a big ‘thank you’ poster,” she said, “It said ‘Dear Mrs. Madigan, thank you for the necklaces. We can not wait to give them to our moms for Christmas.”
Touched by their gratitude, Madigan decided to go one step further. She called the principal and learned how many students attended Teague Park, then made 400 necklaces.
“That’s when I got this,” she said, indicating a massive poster displayed in her living room, adorned with hundreds of student signatures and “Thank you, Mrs. Madigan!” in giant letters.
Recently, Madigan began making necklaces for her neighbor’s daughter, who is in special care for an autoimmune disease.
“She screams with joy when I give her necklaces,” she said.
Madigan said she has no plans to stop creating jewelry. Whether through letters to soldiers’ parents or gifts of necklaces, all she wants is to know she’s made a positive impact on another person’s life.
“I do it because I enjoy making people happy,” she said, “because that makes me happy. I get so much back from them; their appreciation is all I want.”