If you’ve been to a basketball game in Lawrence High School’s Folsom Gym, you’ve seen him. The place is loud and crowded on the slowest of nights, so maybe it was just out of the corner of your eye, but you’ve seen him.

Dick McGee sat in the corner of the gym, just beyond the Lawrence bench, near the visiting team’s entrance to the gym. For years, this is where McGee watched the Bulldogs, coached by his son Mike.

This is where Dick McGee chatted with how many well-wishers and old friends over the years? Hundreds? This is one of the places Dick McGee held court.

McGee could be found at Lawrence football games, or the living room of his Maine Street home, where he’d answer questions or solve problems for whomever stopped by. If there’s a municipal office higher than mayor, McGee was its honorary holder in Fairfield.

“In my eyes, Dick McGee has always been a giant. We were fortunate to stand on his shoulders,”Bruce Rodrigue, a lifelong resident of Fairfield, said.

For almost 55 years, McGee made sure the children of Fairfield, Benton, Albion and Clinton had games to play, and a place to play them. For more than half a century, McGee worked to build the PAL program, the youth sports organization for the four towns in SAD 49, into one of the best youth sports programs in the state.

A stroke in 2009 slowed McGee down, but it didn’t stop him. This fall, though, for the first time since 1959, McGee is not actively involved in PAL. His health simply won’t allow it. According to his daughter, Sue McGee Perkins, he has Alzheimer’s disease. McGee, who celebrated his 83rd birthday with family on Aug. 27, is living in an assisted living home, where like us all, he has good days and bad days.

Building something special

If you played youth sports in Farifeld, or any of the neighboring towns of Clinton, Benton and Albion, at any time over the last 55 years and did not at some point thank Dick McGee, then you did yourself a disservice.

McGee would quickly point out he did nothing alone. He’d name names like Fred Gould, Bill Donahue, Jim Pellerin, Lois Cooper, George Taylor, Harold Joseph, Doug Cutchin, and he’d feel horrible that he might leave somebody out.

But you do not stay active in anything for more than 50 years if you are messing things up. With all the contributions from so many people over the years, McGee’s steady hand was on the rudder.

“Not that we did everything right. We made a few mistakes,” said Harold Joseph, whose sporting goods store was a Fairfield landmark for decades, before Joseph retired and sold the name. Joseph’s Sporting Goods is now on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville, and its spot in Fairfield is a vacant lot.

Joseph was involved with PAL at the beginning, giving McGee a place to stock up on equipment, giving the young athletes deals on sneakers and cleats.

“But with Dick, we got it right,” Joseph said.

McGee came to Fairfield via the University of Maine, where he played football and graduated in 1954, via Providence, R.I., where he grew up. After coaching high school football at Winslow and Lawrence, McGee moved on to Colby College, where he coached football and worked as athletic director. Under McGee, Colby added women’s sports.

A problem solver

Dick McGee is respected. There was the time a man, visibly drunk and on the verge of causing trouble, walked into the gym at Lawrence Junior High during a PAL basketball game. He was a big guy, big enough that if things became ugly, McGee and Joseph would have trouble restoring order.

Before the man could settle in, he was approached by McGee. You’ve had a few too many, Joseph recalled McGee saying, you can’t be here.

Dick McGee solved problems. If you could help it, you didn’t give him another one to tackle. You found a moment of clarity and listened. The man turned around and walked out without question.

McGee and Fred Gould, then Fairfield’s chief of police, started PAL in 1959 as a way to give bored kids something to do. Over the years, McGee would deflect the credit for PAL’s formation to Gould.

“He always said it was Gould,” Perkins said. “Gould wanted help getting the kids off the streets, and he came to my father.”

PAL started with the basics. Football and baseball and basketball. It grew to include girls sports, and grew more to include soccer, softball, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse. According to Rocky Buck, the current president of the PAL board, 1,400 children participated in the organization’s activities in 2012.

Buck was quick to point out that the number counts some children more than one time, if they participated in more than one activity.

The bigger point is that the thing McGee and Gould created just to give Fairfield kids something to do evolved into a source of pride for these four towns.

“I think there’s a sense of duty there. I think he understood he had the skills to be a leader and guiding force,” Rodrigue said.

Rodrigue’s relationship with McGee is not uncommon, and goes back more than 40 years, to Rodrigue’s days as an athlete in PAL programs. Now active in running PAL’s football league, Rodrigue was 9 or 10 years old when he learned of McGee’s patience.

At the time, the PAL athletes would sell tags. These were ordinary tags you could use if you had a lawn sale, or wanted to label the stuff in your garage. Kids would stand outside Keyes Fiber, now Hutamaki, selling handfuls of tags to the mill workers as they came and went. Many Fairfield households ended up with desk drawers full of tags. You bought them less to use and more to support the teams.

Rodrigue sold enough tags to earn a baseball bat. For two weeks, Rodrigue went to McGee’s house every day, hoping the bat had arrived. Each day he was greeted in the same friendly way.

“It’s not here yet, Bruce. I’ll call you and let you know,” McGee said, over and over to the anxious Rodrigue.

Rodrigue remembered that patience, that kindness, and when it was his turn to coach and run the league, he emulated McGee.

“He provided an incredible example,” Rodrigue said. “With Dick, it’s always been about the kids.”

The McGee home was the town square of Fairfield sports. Mike, McGee’s son, said the home was known as the Black Hole because of its tendency to draw everybody in. It’s where coaches and umpires went to get equipment or ask questions. It’s where athletes and parents dropped off tag money.

The home was McGee’s PAL office, and he shared it with his wife, Shirley, who ran the town’s summer programs. Mike remembers his parents rolling coin after coin, tallying all the tag money.
Shirley died seven years ago this December.

“It was something they did together,” Perkins said.

Family affair

PAL wasn’t just Dick and Shirley’s thing, it was something that drew in the entire McGee family. The children played on teams and took part in the summer program. Mike McGee ran the girls basketball program and was the baseball commissioner before his three decade career as a basketball coach at Lawrence High.

“I wouldn’t be where I am if not for the PAL program,” Mike McGee said.

The highlight of the summer program was the free bus to the public swimming pool in Waterville. Kids with last names that began with the letters A through M went to the pool on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Kids whose last names began with N through Z took the bus on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Danny Bolduc was Danny Bolduc. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, he was Danny Zewinski. Bolduc’s childhood alias still rolls off his tongue.

“He did it so my brother and I could go to the pool. It was all with a wink and a nod,” Bolduc said.

Before taking over as PAL President, Buck ran the baseball program for 22 years. He’s served on the board for 30. Before that, Buck was a kid riding the bus to the pool, occasionally helping McGee pour water into the radiator to keep the bus from overheating before it could get to Waterville.

Even then, Buck realized the work McGee put in. That kind of effort inspires one to help. Before you know it, three decades have passed and you’re still lending a hand. Respect built from admiration lasts.

“Bruce, Rocky, they’re kind of turning into him,” Marcia McGee Goodhue, McGee’s daughter, said.

A place to play

If not for the respect McGee commanded in Fairfield, PAL may not have its wonderful athletic complex just off Fairfield’s Western Avenue. For years, PAL used fields where they could find them. In the mid-1990s, the board was looking for land with space enough for football, soccer, baseball and softball fields. McGee approached Doug Cutchin, who owned land that was perfect for PAL’s needs.

Had anybody but McGee approached Cutchin, the landowner may have hemmed and hawed, or simply said no.

“I wouldn’t have done it for anybody else. With Dick, there was no hesitation,” Cutchin said.

As he spoke, Cutchin searched for a baseball he was given to commemorate the new facility’s opening. The date is written on the ball, April 27, 1996.

“I am very fond of Dick. He’s done so much for this town,” Cutchin said.

In 2000, PAL named the fields in the facility after some of the people who helped build and shape the sports programs. The football field is Bill Donahue Field. The baseball field is George Taylor Field.

The complex is named after Dick McGee, the architect of it all.

“PAL is a source of great pride in this town,” Mike McGee said.

Added Buck: “I’ve been fortunate to know Dick. He’s affected a lot of lives in Fairfield.”

Sometimes, Perkins takes walks in the early evening. When she sees a child wearing a PAL t-shirt, a site she sees often, she sees her father’s influence.

“That always brings a smile to my face,” Perkins said.

Travis Lazarczyk – 861-9242
tlazarczyk@mainetoday.com