Local men honor friend and classmate who died in Vietnam

FORT KENT, Maine — Two men’s dream to honor a beloved friend and classmate who was killed in action during the Vietnam War became a reality nearly 50 years later with the presentation on Nov. 1 of the first Percy C. Gagnon Memorial Scholarship at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Melford Pelletier and Norman Fournier, both of Wallagrass, founded the scholarship in memory of Gagnon, a Caribou native who was killed in a firefight while leading his platoon in South Vietnam on March 23, 1970. He was 25 years old.

Percy Gagnon’s mother, Greta Gagnon, sent a letter in 1970 to her late son’s friends, Melford Pelletier and Norman Fournier. On the back of the letter, Greta Gagnon wrote: “It’s nice of you boys to be thinking of a scholarship fund in memory of Percy.” That thought became a reality nearly 50 years later with the inception of the Percy C. Gagnon Memorial Scholarship, which was awarded for the first time on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Jessica Potila | SJVT/FhF)

The three men attended Fort Kent State College (now UMFK) in the mid-1960s during the height of the Vietnam War. The men grew close through their campus interactions and a mutual love for sports. Pelletier and Fournier played basketball for the college, while Gagnon managed the team.

“Percy was a historian,” Pelletier recalled Friday. “He was a very quiet person and he pretty much kept to himself. In a sense he was very philosophical.”

After graduating from Fort Kent State College in 1967, Fournier pursued a master’s degree at the University of Maine in Orono, while Pelletier and Gagnon began teaching high-school — Pelletier in Fort Kent and Gagnon in Grand Isle, where he also coached basketball.

Their burgeoning lives were jarringly interrupted just two years later, however, when in 1969 the draft board came to collect those men who previously had escaped the war under 2-S deferments while in college. Thus, Pelletier, Fournier and Gagnon were sent to basic training, along with other County men aged 18 to 26, whether they wanted to go or not.

“A young fellow from Washburn turned 26 years old five days into basic training,” Pelletier recalled, referring to the age limit under the Selective Service Act. “The draft board got him at 25 years and 360 days. His name was Stuart Woodman. He got killed in Vietnam as well.”

Pelletier and Gagnon were in the same squadron in basic training and shared the same quarters.

“He slept on the top bunk and I slept on the bottom bunk,” Pelletier said. “Him and Norman went to Vietnam together.”

Pelletier ended up stationed at the U.S. Army Chaplain School in Brooklyn. It was there that he learned Gagnon had been killed.

“Percy and Norman were getting ready to go to Japan for their R&R [rest and recuperation] for being one year in Vietnam and Percy was killed three weeks before that trip. Norman went anyway but he was alone and it wasn’t the same thing. He was carrying the memory of Percy with him,” Pelletier said.

“Percy was one of the most compassionate and caring persons I’ve ever had the privilege to be associated with,” Fournier said. “Percy was one of these people you could relate to; his caring his thoughtfulness is something that I will always cherish and remember him by, from my college days to my days in Vietnam with him.”  

A photo of Percy C. Gagnon, who died in Vietnam on March 23, 1970, hangs in the Nadeau Hall Alumni Room at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Gagnon was a member of the Class of 1967. (Contributed photo)

News of Gagnon’s death also was devastating for Pelletier.

“I broke down and stuff you know. I know I cried mostly all night. The feelings you get are just unbelievable,” he said. “We went to college together. We went in the service together. We were both teachers before we were drafted. When you go in the military you meet a person and in ten minutes you become a buddy for life, a brother for life.”

Pelletier and Fournier began corresponding with Gagnon’s family. He was the only son of Willie J. and Greta Gagnon. Pelletier and Fournier told the Gagnons of the tremendous impact Percy had on them and the two men expressed their desire to start a scholarship in honor of their late friend after the war was over.

“Once we got home we started raising our families. That was our priority. The idea of a scholarship wasn’t in the cards, even though we always had it in the backs of our minds,” Pelletier said.

Then on Jan, 13, 2015, Pelletier and Fournier, who have remained close friends throughout the years, began discussing the fact that if Percy had not been killed in Vietnam, it would have been his birthday.

“I said Norm, we had talked about it a long time ago, a scholarship, why don’t we see what it entails?” Pelletier recalled.

Pelletier and Fournier contacted and worked closely with UMFK administrative specialist Susan Tardie who mailed out letters to the surviving members of the Class of 1967, asking if they would like to contribute to a scholarship in Percy’s honor.

“The response was great,” Pelletier said. “The Class of 1967 just poured their hearts out as well as his two sisters and two nephews.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 1, UMFK awarded the first Percy C. Gagnon Memorial Scholarship to Kasey E. Pelletier, a transfer student from the University of Southern Maine-Gorham. Pelletier is a senior at UMFK in the bachelor of science in business management program.

“Every year, this will give us an opportunity to remember the person who had served his country and was a good friend of ours,” Fournier said. “He was the type of person who was always ready to help somebody out. It’s late, but it’s our way of being able to say thank you.”

Melford Pelletier looks back on his own life since the war and says it has been a good one. He taught math at Fort Kent Community High School for 34 years before he retired and he and his wife Betty have three children and six grandchildren.

He said he often thinks about what life might have been like for Percy had he survived the war.

“If Percy was here he would be helping somebody. I think he would have stayed a teacher for life. I’m sure he would have been coaching someone; he loved sports,” Pelletier said. “He gave the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life for our freedom. Too often we take it for granted not to recognize the service commitment.”

While looking at photos of Percy recently, Pelletier smiled and recalled the young man he knew nearly half a century ago when they were still in basic training before Percy was sent to Vietnam.

“He got a quart of ice cream every night. At 6 o’clock we’d sit outside the barracks and the rest of us would have our cones and stuff and he would have a quart every night,” Pelletier said. “I don’t need a picture of Percy or Stuart. I see them.”

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