By Liz Gotthelf
When Donna Carrigan was a teenager growing up in the rural town of Plymouth, she didn’t dare to dream big.
“We were very poor. All we ever aspired to do was survive. We just lived through the day and hoped there was food on the table,” said Donna, now 63 and living in South Bristol with a successful career in kitchen and bathroom remodeling. Family vacations were a luxury they couldn’t afford, and Donna didn’t see the ocean until she was an adult.
Donna’s father, a World War II vet, built roads and worked at local mills to support his family. Due to a service-related illness, he would periodically be out of work for weeks and sometimes months at a time. It was a cycle that became familiar to Donna and her family. Despite the frequent visits to Togus Veterans Hospital for care, Donna’s father did not receive, until many years later, the full disability status he deserved.
Donna got a job in the school superintendent’s office right out of high school and married a few years later. After her second child was born, she and her husband separated, and as a single parent, she needed more hours than the school department could give her.
Through an employment agency, she got a job at Bangor television station WKBZ 2. “I floated around,” she said, and worked in reception, sales, and the traffic department. In the course of these different jobs within the station, she gained experience—and she also met her husband, Don Carrigan, a well-known newscaster.
Donna then took a job in the sales and marketing department for Eastern Express Airlines, which initially intrigued her. As a teenager, she thought being a flight attendant was a glamorous profession. She eventually realized she didn’t want to become a flight attendant, but she thrived in the travel and tourism industry, moving on to management positions at hotels.
After taking on a position at a hotel that wasn’t a right fit, Donna found herself unemployed in 1989. Her husband Don was a frequent customer at a local lumberyard, while doing a home remodeling project. He suggested she apply for work at that local business. It was always busy, and it appeared that the business could benefit from an extra staff member.
“I had no idea if I’d be cleaning toilets, driving trucks, or working in the kitchen department,” said Donna. “I just needed a job.” She told her new employer that she wouldn’t be there long because her passion was the tourism and lodging industry. She later ate her words.
The owners took her under their wing, and she found a new passion, which led her to become a National Kitchen and Bath Association certified master kitchen and bath designer.
She recalls nervously sitting at a table at a meeting with the National Kitchen and Bath Association with members from all around the country, thinking that she, who grew up a country girl from Plymouth, Maine, could never compete with the others. Donna sat at the table and listened to the others and had an eye-opening experience. She realized that there were people at the meeting from all backgrounds, and everyone had faced some sort of challenges in their life.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from—people are people,” she said.
In 2002, she founded Dovetail Design. While her business is still active, since 2015 Donna has also worked as a sales representative for Benchmark Sales Group, representing fine cabinetry by Plato Woodwork in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Donna is now an accomplished businesswoman with a successful career and a fantastic husband who immediately welcomed her two boys into his life. They have now been married for nearly 34 years, and they are close with their children and grandchildren. It’s a life she never would have imagined as a young girl growing up.
Looking back on her childhood, she recalled that her family didn’t have a lot of money and struggled to get along. Despite the challenges, her parents did the best they could to support their children and always had their best interests at heart.
“Life was tough, but it didn’t matter if we had just macaroni on the table, because we had love,” said Donna.
It’s taken a lot of determination for that little country girl to become the person she is today. This determination and awareness also gave her the courage, as an adult, to challenge authority and fight for what her father so rightfully deserved. She arranged a meeting with her parents and officials at Togus and didn’t hold back. She was able to get her father the full amount of disability benefits that were long overdue, with retroactive payment.
Donna wants young women starting out in the world as adults today not to let life beat them down.
“If you’re dealt a bad card, you can come up swimmingly. Believe in yourself and never give up,” she said. “Know how to respect yourself and know that you have only one life to live.”
READ MORE OF MAINE WOMEN’S ENTREPRENEUR SPECIAL ARTICLES IN THE MAY 2020 EDITION.
By Liz Gotthelf