County Faces: John Cancelarich of Presque Isle

5 years ago

When John Cancelarich and his family moved to Presque Isle in 1962, he had never lived in Maine, but had been looking for a way to start over both personally and professionally.

“I came here with $200, no car and a federal indictment on my back,” Cancelarich said.

Fifty-seven years later, he and his wife Johnnie still live in the seven-bedroom house in Presque Isle where they raised four children and now tend to a large yard with flower gardens and an apple orchard.

Cancelarich’s life has taken him from the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City to faraway countries, but always back to the northern Maine land he calls home.

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in 1947, he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from New York University. He spent two years in the U.S. Army as a shift supervisor in a biological warfare plant in Europe.

“This was a highly secretive plant. Nobody knew anything about what went on there and we were all sworn to secrecy. I never told anybody about my job,” he said.

In 1956, he returned to New York with his wife and infant son to work in the pharmaceutical industry. But he stole secrets from the company with which he was employed and the family fled to Europe, where he established himself in the industry there, he said. The FBI eventually caught up with him and he was sentenced to six months in a U.S. prison. He served only three months of that sentence due to pressure that the U.S. government faced from the pharmaceutical industry to release him.

“It taught me how to handle situations that I may not have been able to handle had that not happened to me,” Cancelarich said about his time in prison.

After moving to Presque Isle, he spent most of his career helping to start or reinvent now defunct companies such as Maine Sugar Industries of Easton and the Presque Isle and Caribou-based Potato Services. He helped a local Colby Starch plant revise itself after bankruptcy, and became an investor for Northland Frozen Foods in Fort Kent, which produced specialty potato products.

In his later career, Cancelarich traveled overseas to teach about potato processing at universities, and to conduct planning and evaluation studies for new agricultural-based companies. He has visited countries including Russia, Uganda, Italy, Israel, the West Indies, Japan and China.

“I’ve traveled overseas 38 times during the last 25 years. I don’t travel as much now that I’ve retired, but I used to make every effort to meet the people in those places and learn about them,” Cancelarich said.

He credits his parents — Dominic and Mary Cancelarich — for instilling in him the importance of working hard and a love of education. Though his parents were from the same island off the coast of the Adriatic Sea near Austria and Hungary, they did not meet until they were adults living in New York City during the 1920s. Dominic Cancelarich was an illegal immigrant who spoke only Italian and Croaitian when he arrived in the United States and secured work at a soap factory.

Though Dominic only had a third-grade education, he learned English and later became a U.S. citizen. Cancelarich said his father took pride in being able to vote in every presidential election.

“My father worked 50 hours a week, even during his vacation time. He taught me how to work hard,” Cancelarich said. “My mother had only a fifth-grade education but she could speak four languages — Italian, English, Serbian and Croaitian.”

Today Cancelarich belongs to the Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library board of trustees and is involved with Seniors Achieving Greater Education, a program of the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

He is grateful that he and Johnnie have been able to make their home in Aroostook County.

“One word: People,” he said. “Sure, we’ve had some tough winters, but the people have kept us here. They’ve been helpful and friendly from the beginning.”