CARIBOU, Maine – No one at Caribou High School could teach history like Ken Atcheson.
Atcheson spent more than 30 years at the school and gained a reputation for tackling complicated and traumatic subjects, most notably the Holocaust, through the stories of those who lived through them. That approach not only gained him the title of Maine Holocaust Educator of the Year in 1995 but created lasting connections with students.
He died Feb. 4 at age 65 after five years with colon cancer.
Atcheson retired from a nearly 40-year teaching career in 2017, shortly after his initial diagnosis.
He lived in Presque Isle with his wife, Judy, also an educator. His family includes two daughters, Amanda Atcheson of Portland and Abigail and husband Derek Clair of Chapman, and grandchildren Lillian and Otis of Chapman, his obituary stated.
His death inspired former students and colleagues to remember how he went beyond simply teaching historic facts.
After Atcheson joined Caribou High School’s social studies department in 1986, fellow teacher Ron Willey knew the school had found someone special, someone who could enliven history lessons with his enthusiasm and a passion for helping students understand the mistakes of the past.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the way Atcheson spoke to students about the Holocaust, Willey said.
Atcheson earned his master’s degree in history from the University of Maine in 1993, with a focus on Holocaust studies. To learn beyond the textbooks, he traveled to former concentration camp sites in Germany and Poland, including Auschwitz, one of the most widely-known places where more than 1 million people died during the Holocaust.
Over many decades, Atcheson brought Holocaust survivors to Caribou High School, many of whom had become friends. The survivors’ talks drew in students from across Aroostook and drove home the emotional weight of the Holocaust.
“The students were speechless. They were changed forever,” Willey said.
The impact of Atcheson’s personal teaching style and love of history went beyond his famous Holocaust lessons, said 2001 graduate Tristan Noyes.
Noyes was part of Caribou High School’s French Club when he and other students accompanied Atcheson on a trip to Quebec, Canada. Though Atcheson did not teach French, he was determined to keep the club alive and help students understand the province’s history and culture.
The experience was one of many that inspired Noyes’ own love of traveling. He majored in history and archaeology at Bowdoin College, during which he studied abroad in Galway, Ireland.
“[Atcheson] taught history in a way that was engaging and brought different worlds to life,” said Noyes, who lives in South Portland.
For students who knew Atcheson, he became more than just a great teacher. He was a mentor and friend who stayed in touch with hundreds of students and cheered on their successes long after they graduated.
Alana Margeson of Westmanland, a 1994 graduate, is one of a handful of former students who experienced Atcheson’s friendship as a fellow colleague.
Margeson taught English for 11 years at Caribou High School, leaving in 2016 to direct the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s education program. Atcheson’s advice to Margeson forever shaped the way she taught students.
“He had high expectations for students, but it was OK to make mistakes and deal with the stumbling blocks of learning,” Margeson said. “He’d always say to be kind and laugh so that students see you as a person.”
Atcheson was there for some of Margeson’s best moments, which included being named Maine Teacher of the Year in 2012. But most importantly, he served as a friendly reminder of life’s most important people.
“If I was working late some nights, he would come to my door and say, ‘Don’t forget, you have a family at home,'” Margeson said. “Ken was very nurturing as a colleague and he cared about me and my family.”
Class of 1995 graduate Channa Jackson also considered Atcheson a dear friend for more than 30 years. After earning her law degree and moving to Presque Isle, Jackson became one of Atcheson’s neighbors.
Atcheson and Jackson remained friends through both the good and bad times, she said. They celebrated when Atcheson gained back strength during remission from cancer and she brought over baked goods as he recovered from surgeries.
In his better days, Atcheson was always up for a lively banter on U.S. politics, especially during election season. And when he knew the end was close, Jackson said, he made sure to have her stop by.
“Thirty-one years wasn’t enough. I would have happily accepted decades more,” Jackson said. “Love was here and love still is.”