WATERVILLE — Wherever former teacher Lionel A. “Lee” Cabana travels in the world, people recognize him and want to talk.

During trips to Rome, Paris and Munich, he said, former students called to him across city squares:

“Hello, Mr. Cabana — fancy meeting you here!”

Cabana’s wife, Judy, witnessed those friendly interactions.

“It never failed, and they always had good things to say about him,” she said Monday. “They always thanked him for his hard work in teaching them. It’s been amazing. I’m really proud of him.”

On Monday, his last day on the Waterville Board of Education, Cabana, 78, got many more thanks and accolades at an annual open house at Waterville Senior High School.

Superintendent Eric Haley, school board member Joan Phillips-Sandy, City Manager Michael Roy and state representatives Tom Longstaff and Henry Beck, D-Waterville, recognized Cabana for serving Waterville schools for more than 52 years, including 35 years as a teacher and 17 years on the school board, the last 16 as chairman.

Cabana taught general business courses at Waterville High School, starting in 1959, and was chairman of the business department before retiring in 1995 and being elected to the school board. In an interview earlier Monday, he said he enjoyed all of it.

“It’s just been a good life,” he said. “I’m very pleased I’ve been able to serve the city the number of years I’ve been able to. It’s a pleasure. I love Waterville. It’s special to me. There are a lot of good kids in this town — a lot of good kids. We’re very lucky.”

Haley said Cabana’s professionalism, calm demeanor and the ability to look at situations in an unbiased manner stood out in his years on the school board. He was a consummate board member with qualities any superintendent loves to see.

“He has a lot of experience and he’s willing to offer that expertise, but not try to run your schools,” Haley said. “But he’ll give his opinion if you ask.”

The school board re-elected Cabana as chairman unanimously over 16 years. Haley said Cabana, the only male school board member in recent years, also has a good sense of humor.

“He used to say he was the thorn amongst all the roses,” he said.

Health challenges

Cabana has faced many health challenges and now uses a transfer chair, which is much like a wheelchair except it is lightweight and easy for his wife to move in and out of their car. She has attended every board meeting he has attended over his tenure and is by his side all of the time.

“I think he’s been very conscientious and hardworking toward improving the schools and making sure that the kids had what they needed and deserved,” Judy Cabana said Monday. “And he was always thrilled to give out awards to outstanding students in all fields.”

Cabana is in his fifth year of chemotherapy for multiple myeloma.

“That’s going well,” he said. “I’m getting some good care from the Alfond Center. I’ve had some good, good doctors.”

Last March he had bacterial pneumonia and was very sick.

“My wife tells me that by the time they transferred me to Augusta, I was knocking on the grim reaper’s door,” he said. “I was in rehab. Eleven weeks in the hospital.”

Cabana also has back problems.

“Lucky I’ve got a darned good keeper here,” he said, referring to his wife. “Without her, I wouldn’t be here, I’m sure. Getting old is OK. You just have to accept what you have, and I just look at every day as a gift. I do enjoy every day.”

‘He’s amazing’

Cabana was born in Biddeford, where his father managed an A&P supermarket. The family moved to Waterville when Lee was young and his father tried to run his own grocery store, but it did not work out.

The elder Cabana got a job with Houle’s plumbing and, as part of the job, removed ice from school roofs.

That job led to a tragic, life-changing moment for the Cabana family.

Cabana was seven and at South Grammar School on Gold Street when his father fell off the school roof while clearing it. He died from the fall.

Cabana said his father’s death was devastating for both himself and his older sister.

“Luckily, I had a hardworking mother who saw to it we were fed and clothed,” he said. “It was a tough period. The war was near its end and there were a lot of scarcities.”

Lee graduated from Waterville High School in 1954, attended Thomas College and started teaching on a three-year conditional certificate.

He later earned bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees and is just shy of qualifying for a doctorate.

He spent 17 years in the Naval Reserve, including several years on active duty, working as a hospital corpsman on U.S. Navy destroyers. For his last seven years, he was a radio operator on anti-submarine aircraft.

While a high school student, he worked at Levine’s clothing store on Main Street during the Christmas season, where he met Judy in 1956.

“I first saw Judy in the cellar at Levine’s, and that’s when I decided to marry her,” he said.

The couple has three sons, Christopher, Eric and Stefan, and three grandchildren.

As a high school student, he worked in the composing room at the Morning Sentinel, as well as in the editorial department, where he called funeral homes to verify deaths reported in obituaries.

“Only one time were we caught, when someone had been reported deceased and wasn’t,” he said.

He served as adviser to the Waterville High School yearbook for 36 years.

When Albert S. Hall school fifth-grade teacher Laurie Bushey walked into the open house Monday, Cabana remarked that she was one of the best yearbook editors he ever worked with.

Bushey, 61, recalled being yearbook editor her last two years at Waterville High and working with Cabana. Now teaching her 40th fifth-grade class this year, Bushey reciprocated, saying Cabana is a smart, loving, caring, giving person.

“He’d give anything he ever had,” she said. “He’s amazing. We love each other a lot.”

Cabana was elected to the school board a year after Phillips-Sandy was, and she said it has been an honor serving with him all those years.

“He brought great insight from his 35 years as a teacher, and he always kept the needs of our students at the forefront of discussions and decision-making,” Phillips-Sandy said. “I will miss him so much.”

Cabana serves on the Maine Retired Teachers Association Executive Board. In August, Waterville schools gave him the Outstanding Education Award, the highest honor awarded by the school board.

“I’m going to miss working with the school staff,” Cabana said. “We have a terrific staff in Waterville, terrific teaching. Everyone in the schools has been fantastic. I’ll miss seeing them. I”m going to miss the other board members.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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