Every year, thousands of Maine children and adults suffer through nighttime fires in their homes or apartments. Nearly 100 percent of them live to tell about it, a far different statistic from that of 30 years ago.

In the spring of 1981, Edith “Edie” Beaulieu, a spunky Portland state representative originally from Aroostook County, finally won approval of the state’s smoke detector law after a hard-fought crusade.

It was Beaulieu’s third attempt in three terms to pass a law mandating smoke detectors in apartments and new homes.

The law, one we now take for granted, was not an easy sell, but Beaulieu persisted against powerful forces among landlord and libertarian interests.

Beaulieu, also the first female House chairman of the Labor Committee, left the Legislature after her fifth term just five years later. Now 74 years old, Beaulieu lives in South Portland.

It’s been a quarter-century since she left office, but neither heart surgeries nor a bout with cancer has blunted either her charm or her opinions.

Beaulieu recalled that one of her earliest instances of citizen activism came in response to a proposed elimination of crossing guards in the Portland school system in the early 1970s.

“How much is a child’s life worth?” the mother of four asked in leading opposition to the proposal.

As part of the nighttime janitorial staff at a local daily newspaper, Beaulieu had been around media types and was not in the least intimidated by them or other authority figures.

“I was the first woman ever on Channel 13 to say, ‘Call ’em all up and give ’em hell!’,” she recalled.

The outcome: Crossing guards were retained.

Beaulieu’s vigorous and successful advocacy of causes in which she believed became a trademark of her career.

About the same time as her bid to save the school crossing guards, Beaulieu noticed that snow removal at parks and cemeteries seemed to get done earlier in the day than plowing at schools.

She became a spokesperson for the school system’s safety committee and prevailed upon the city council to give higher priority to clearing the ice and snow from school yards.

Beaulieu’s first elective office was a term on the Portland School Committee, on which she was the only woman. One of her goals at this time was to advance the cause of vocational education.

Beaulieu “did not seek public office for self aggrandizement but out of a desire to do something she thought would help people,” Bill Johnson, longtime Channel 13 political reporter, said recently.

Beaulieu’s drive to improve city schools stemmed not only from her interest as a parent but also from her personal background. Born Edith Saucier, she was reared in a French-speaking household in Aroostook County. She and her brothers walked 1 1/2 miles to a one-room schoolhouse in the village of Plaisted, which she attended through sixth-grade.

A deaf younger brother had been sent to the Baxter School in Falmouth, and the family moved to Portland. Edith attended Cathedral High, one of the city’s Catholic female secondary schools, and graduated in the mid-1950s. She took a classical or college-bound course but missed out on her aim to become a nurse because of a lack of interest in math.

She married Edgar Beaulieu, an Air Force medic who later went to work as a driver for Deering Ice Cream. The couple, who remained married until Edgar’s death from cancer in 2009, had four children in the space of five years.

Not long after the youngest had learned to walk, Beaulieu was on her way from the family’s Munjoy Hill apartment to a job cleaning offices at the Portland Press Herald. At the same time, she struck off for the battlefields of public service.

This take-on-the-establishment Franco-American was not a shoo-in to win election to the school board in a city dominated by Brahmans of the Yankee, Irish and Jewish communities, but she did just that in 1974, on her second try.

As her three-year term on the committee neared completion, Beaulieu sought and won a seat in the Maine Legislature. There, she would challenge the state’s power structure, and, at the same time, become a key player.

A future column will explore how the “cleaning lady from Munjoy Hill” would leave a big imprint on many pages of Maine law over the ensuing decade.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney. Email to [email protected]

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