The Collins brothers in Caribou during the Depression years of the 1930s. Sam Collins Jr., left, Don Collins, back, Doug Collins, right, and David Collins, front.
The Collins brothers in Caribou during the Depression years of the 1930s. Sam Collins Jr., left, Don Collins, back, Doug Collins, right, and David Collins, front.
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Samuel W. Collins Jr., a Rockland lawyer, Maine Senator and Maine Supreme Court Justice, was born on the first day of the potato harvest in Aroostook County in 1923, the oldest of four brothers born to an established family that ran the Pioneer Lumber Yard sawmill in Caribou.

He died on March 24 at his home in Rockland at the age of 88, a passing that was noted locally and nationally because of his exemplary public service and because he was the uncle of Senator Susan Collins.

The influence of the Collins family is larger than just those two people. Its influence runs generations deep.

At five years old Sam was out picking potatoes in the field, with dirt under his fingernails and probably on his chin. His younger brothers joined in as the country sank into the Great Depression, and while picking potatoes may have dug the Collins roots deeper into Maine and instilled a lifelong love of gardening, Collins' destiny in society was not to be a man of the land but a man of service.

His father, also named Samuel W. Collins, not only ran the Caribou lumber business, he, too, served as a state senator. His sons, all four of them, would make their mark in academia, public policy and medicine. Three of them would make substantial contributions to the state of Maine, as would their children. It continues on.

Senator Susan Collins is the daughter of Sam's younger brother, Don, who ended up running the family business. Several members of the generation who are coming of age now have a law degree, or involvement in politics, in their sights.

Sam Collins, Jr. was reserved and deliberative, according to his son, Ed Collins, a Rockland attorney whose practice is in the same building on School Street where his father established his career.

"He thought things through before speaking, and by the time he spoke, people listened. They knew he had something to say," Ed Collins said.

"He had input on so many things that are now taken for granted. He and my uncles, it was the Greatest Generation kind of thing. My father did great things in Rockland, and all over America others did the same and were willing to do so. They were as smart as any guy on Wall Street or K Street and they could have gone anywhere. They came back to Maine and devoted their time and energy to their local communities, instead of making big bucks for their personal aggrandizement."

When Sam Collins, Jr. finished Harvard Law School, he had the opportunity to clerk at the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He turned it down and took a position with Alan Bird's law firm in Rockland in the 1940s and became involved in civic affairs, from local fundraising for the Rotary Club to hosting American Field Service (AFS) students from overseas.

His brother Don got a University of Maine education and took over the family business, which has now expanded to three lumberyards in Aroostook County. Don later was elected to the Maine Senate to represent Aroostook County. Senator Susan Collins, his daughter, sits on three of the most powerful legislative committees in Congress: Appropriations, which holds the purse strings to the budget, Armed Services, which captures 20 percent of the U.S. budget every year, and Homeland Security, where she is a ranking member.

Her brother, another Sam Collins, runs the Pioneer Lumber Yard, which now has three locations and has been run by the family for five generations.

In the 1970s Sam Collins, Jr. was elected to represent Knox County in the state Senate, at the same time his brother Don was there representing Aroostook County. The two brothers shared an apartment in Augusta during the week.

During his years in the Senate, Sam Collins, Jr. chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and, under his leadership, the committee tackled revising probate law and the criminal code to make them consistent with other Maine laws, to simplify them with consumers in mind, and to make them compatible with laws in other states.

It required deliberation and compromise, according to Ed Collins. Members of the committee, many of whom were lawyers, arrived at major changes that are still very much part of the legal code today.

"It is very different today," said Ed Collins, noting that at that time the judiciary committee was stacked with lawyers who were well versed in the law.

"My father worked in the Senate usually during the week and could tend his practice on nights and weekends. It is very difficult to hold down a professional full-time career and serve in the Senate, now. My cousin Sam, Susan's brother, and I would both like to be in politics, but neither of us can afford to do it."
While Don was tending the lumberyard and Sam was working in law, their younger brother Doug got a medical degree from Harvard, then came back to Caribou to practice medicine.

Doug Collins later moved to Augusta to start a medical training group to train family practitioners in the state, an effort that has had long-lived implications for rural medicine in Maine.

The youngest brother, David, went to Yale and became a college professor.

On his way up in rank to legislator and judge, Sam Collins never left his potato-country origins far behind, according to his daughter, Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth was a young child, the family bought a small camp on Megunticook Lake outside of Camden and it became the summer residence for the family, with Collins commuting to work in Rockland. Collins refused to have a television at the camp - he said it made people lazy - and mandated an hour of rest after lunch, which usually meant reading a book.

"We all became avid readers," said Elizabeth, who is a senior fundraiser for a large hospice in northern Massachusetts and, like her siblings, has always been active in community service.

"We still carry on that tradition at the cottage," she said. "My children are readers, too."

As a boy, Ed Collins went down to Rockland Harbor to scrounge for sea junk with his dad. Wearing a work coat over old wool suit pants that were no longer suitable for the office, Collins wandered the shore that, at that time, was ripe with fish gurry and trash jettisoned overboard. They would pick up old tires and rope, grey painted boards and odds and ends to haul up to camp and re-use as a ramp for the boat dock or bumpers for the boats.

And, as comfortable as he was talking to the governor in his suit and tie, Sam Collins was equally comfortable in his old trousers and boots talking to fishermen, loggers and truck drivers. His love for the land played out in other ways:?he was instrumental in the preservation of Beech Hill in Rockport, was a founding member of the Megunticook Lake Association and played a large role in preserving Fernald's Neck in Lincolnville as undeveloped land.

"I think all of Sam and Don's children would be comfortable in political roles," said Ed Collins, who himself looks like he would be as comfortable talking about David McCullough histories as he would be talking to the fishermen at the city pier.

Ed Collins serves on several volunteer boards. Service is in his blood, he says. His sister, Elizabeth, said public service was just part of life when they were growing up. She didn't question it. None of them did.

"We have the background and the personality for public service. Our children are comfortable in these realms, too," said Ed Collins, noting that he expects some more of the Collins family to end up in state and national politics.

The potato doesn't roll far from the field. Emma Collins, Ed's 18-year-old daughter, was a participant in a model U.S. Congress for high school students that was hosted at Harvard University last year. She played Susan Collins.

Emma is considering studying law.