WATERVILLE — Arlene Comber was a teenager in the 1940s when she learned shorthand at Waterville High School.

She got so proficient, she could take dictation at 140 words a minute.

Shorthand would become an invaluable skill for Comber over her 28-year career as an administrative assistant at the C.F. Hathaway & Co. shirt factory on Water Street.

“I used it a lot at the office,” said Comber, now 82 and celebrating 65 years since her 1948 high school graduation.

Comber lamented the discontinuance of shorthand classes in schools as personal computers started gaining popularity in the 1980s.

However, like many others who love shorthand, Comber has found an outlet for continuing to use it, hone it and keep it alive. It’s the Shorthand Writers of Maine, a group of more than 75 women from central Maine and beyond who meet once a month to discuss, write and practice shorthand skills. They even send each other birthday cards in shorthand.


The women, many of whom are teachers, range in age from 56 to 101 and have more than 425 years of teaching experience among them.

“They all have had a great history of shorthand,” said Kay Grindall, who founded the group in 2005. “Some of their shorthand goes back 80 years.”

Grindall, of Oakland, and a dozen other members met Friday for a working shorthand lunch at the Weathervane Restaurant on Kennedy Memorial Drive.

The group meets alternately in Waterville and Augusta. Grindall, a former Waterville High and adult education shorthand teacher, heads up the meetings.

On Thursday, she wrote in shorthand on a white board, asked questions and got quick responses.

“It’s impossible to stump the group,” she said. “They’re smart.”


The members discuss shorthand theory, take dictation, read stories aloud that are in shorthand and talk about various shorthand specialties, including medical, legal, executive and technical.

“The overall rule of shorthand is, write what you hear,” Grindall said. “If you say it, you write it; if it’s silent, you don’t write it, and that’s what helps you get your speed.”

Those attending Friday were from places including Bangor, Vassalboro, China, Farmingdale, Belgrade and Augusta. The group also has members from as far away as Colorado, Michigan and Florida.

Sandy Carey, of Manchester, said she took four years of shorthand in high school and could take dictation up to 240 words a minute.

“The novelty of shorthand will never wear off,” she said. “I write my kids’ Christmas list without their knowing what it says.”

A nurse for 35 years, Carey always wrote operating and recovery room notes in shorthand, she said. She worked with a man who recognized the shorthand, as his own wife also used shorthand. One day he brought Carey a note from his wife written in shorthand, which invited Carey to the shorthand pen-pal group.


“I wrote back to her and I started coming, and that was five years ago,” Carey said.

Janette Tracy, 90, also learned shorthand in high school and used it when she worked for the chief attorney at the former Veterans Administration, she said. A 1940 graduate of Cony High School in Augusta, Tracy also bowls three times a week.

Joyce Pratt taught shorthand and other business courses for 22 years at Dexter High School, and over time she watched enrollment in shorthand classes decrease.

“I think it’s sad because the students didn’t want to put in the time to learn shorthand,” she said. “I think that’s why the numbers went down.”

The women laughed a lot and chatted throughout the meeting. Rita Lachance-Stevens, 64, of Augusta, said there’s nothing more fun than writing something in shorthand and listening to the whole group read every word aloud. She said she also enjoys the camaraderie.

“I think the ladies here are just magnificent,” she said. “We love to socialize. We love to come here.”


When Lachance Stevens got married for the first time in September, some of the women came to the wedding and gave her cards written in shorthand.

“I have their pictures in my wedding photos. I see their faces, and to me, that meant an awful lot, and it’s something I will never forget.”

Janet Towle, of Belgrade, taught 35 years at Nashua (N.H.) Community College and now teaches online courses in software applications. As people in the early 1980s became more proficient on personal computers and secretaries became administrative assistants and computer operators, bosses took over their own writing and created their own letters and documents, she said.

Margaret Crockett, 73, of Farmingdale, has not used shorthand professionally in years, yet it is still part of her. “It’s still in my brain. I think in shorthand. It’s just there, probably like a foreign language.”

The group last month celebrated the birthday of its oldest member, Clara Sawn, 101, of Hampden, Grindall said. She did not attend Friday’s meeting. Another member who was absent, Catherine Peckenham, 96, taught Comber shorthand at Waterville High in the 1940s.

Judy Daviau, of China, was administrative secretary for Colby College’s English Department and before that taught shorthand at Andover Institute of Business, which now is Kaplan University.


She recalled taking notes in shorthand while at Colby, and staff members were fascinated with her ability to do so.

“They used to watch me, and they just didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.

The group, which will get its first male member next month, welcomes new faces, according to Grindall. Anyone interested may call her at 512-0027 or e-mail her at kay_grindall@yahoo.com.

Amy Calder — 861-9247


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