From a physical standpoint, there are good days and bad days for Art Warren, who a year ago was diagnosed with ALS, a disease of the nerve cells that controls voluntary muscle movement.

Warren started noticing symptoms of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, when he was close to retiring in 2008 after a 28-year stint as Gardiner Regional Middle School principal. These days, he’s never sure what to expect.

“You’ll go a period of time when everything is pretty much the same then you’ll lose (feeling) in your leg, your lower leg,” Warren said. “Now it’s my right leg.

“I just started using this three weeks ago,” he said, referring to the wheelchair in which he was sitting. As he has each day this winter and for the past four years, Warren is attending Gardiner Area High School boys basketball practice. He’s an assistant to head coach Jason Cassidy and on game nights, Warren’s usually scouting an opponent.

“I kind of lured him in a little at a time,” said Cassidy, now in his fifth season as head coach. “Next thing I know he was my right-hand man. It kind of gave me a little credibility as a young head coach.”

The irony of the situation is Warren, who is now floor-bound, could practically jump out of the gym in his playing days. At 6-feet, 31/2 inches, he played center for the University of Maine and set a single-season rebounding record that stood for over a decade.

The competitive spirit Warren showed on the basketball court and as a baseball pitcher carried over into every aspect of his life. As a coach, he led Gardiner to its best basketball season ever in 1974. His adult athletic career included a few memorable seasons with the Area All-Stars basketball team, an avid running habit that led him to compete in several marathons and a desire to stay fit that continues through his illness.

As an educator, Warren pushed reading so much that the library at the middle school has been dedicated in his honor. A history buff and a music lover, Warren is also a backyard gardener and an avid fisherman.

“He was a kid-first principal with a passion for the community he lived in,” said Moe McNally, who taught under Warren at the middle school for more than 20 years. “He was embedded in this community.”

He and his wife Cathy, who were high school sweethearts in Brunswick, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month. They raised three boys — Barry, Brian and Brett — all athletes at Gardiner who have gone on to successful careers.

To compound his health problems, Warren, 70, has seen a recurrence of the prostate cancer he was diagnosed with several years ago.

“It’s returning now,” Cathy said. “It was very quiet for about 11 years. As long as he was exercising, he kept it at bay.”

Through it all, Warren wears a smile on his face most of the time and retains the wit and charm that’s made him one of Gardiner’s most admired and respected citizens.

“It’s impossible not to be upbeat around him,” said Erskine Academy athletic director Doran Stout, who played on the 1974 team and has developed a close friendship with his former coach.

Life dedicated to fitness

As an adult, Warren played for the Area All-Stars, a collection of players who made their mark in coaching and teaching. Organized by the late Dick Haskell, the team included former Colby College coach Dick Whitmore, current Cheverus coach Bob Brown, former Cony athletic director Ron Kenoyer as well as former Cony coach Dick Hunt. Tom Maines, who coached Morse to three state championships, played as well.

“We traveled all over the place from Loring (Air Force Base) down to the Portland area,” Warren said.

Warren exhibited the same ferocity for the team on the boards that he did at Maine, often snaring rebounds away from much taller opponents.

“He may well be the most competitive person I’ve ever come across,” Stout said. “All you have to do is see him play one basketball game.”

Cathy said Art always had that extra bounce on the court and “when he lost that he gave up playing basketball.”

That led him into a competitive running career that included the New York City and Casco Bay marathons among others. Warren continued to work out as well. When he retired he retained the key to the middle school gym and went there faithfully until three months ago.

By that time he had given up driving and noticed the workouts were becoming too much.

“I do some at the house but it tires you out so much you can’t do nearly what you’d like to,” Warren said.

Cathy said both Art and his brother Brian have been lifetime fitness devotees in part because two of their uncles and their father died in their 40s.

“He and Brian pushed themselves,” she said. “Now he’s competing with Lou Gehrig.”

Love of the game

Warren grew to love basketball by playing in his backyard and later going to the Topsham Town Hall. “That was the only indoor court where we could play,” he said.

He starred at Brunswick before moving on to Maine where he played for Brian McCall. He was also a pitcher on the baseball team for a couple of years for legendary coach Jack Butterfield. Warren roomed with Skip Chappelle, who would later coach the Black Bears basketball team, and recalled a couple of excellent teams at Maine his first two seasons. He didn’t start until his junior year when McCall asked him to play center on an undersized team.

“I had never played center,” Warren said. “I just wanted to play. You didn’t argue with Brian McCall. He was tough but I loved playing for him.”

After graduating from Maine in the early 1960s, Warren took a job at Winthrop High School where he taught and coached freshman and junior varsity basketball. He was there when Dennis Clark led the Ramblers to the state championship under coach Roy Chipman, who would go on to head coaching jobs at Lafayette College and the University of Pittsburgh.

“He could really manage a game,” Warren said of Chipman. “But what helped me most was how he organized his practices.”

Warren arrived in Gardiner in 1967, essentially switching places with Tom Rudder, who coached the basketball team before moving on to Winthrop. He inherited some good athletes that first season, including Mike Donovan, Jim Whalen, Mike Keliher and Glen Prescott.

During the summer, Warren worked with Celtics legend Sam Jones at his camp in Massachusetts known as Camp Columbus. Warren recalled how there would be at least one Celtic each day at the camp “demonstrating something.” And one day in the early ’70s he lured Jones to the Gardiner gym for a clinic. The famed Celtics guard put on a shooting exhibition, starting close to the basket and gradually moving to the perimeter.

“He ended up in the corner, went all the way around to the top of the key and all the way back and he did not miss a shot,” Warren said.

Warren had his best team in 1974, a group that included Stout, Steve Ulmer, Tracy Trott, Doug Brunelle, Rob Somerville, Joe Henry and Mike Mansir among others. The team went 17-1 in the regular season, splitting with Lawrence, who eventually beat them in the tournament. Better than the won-loss record was the friendships he formed with his players later on.

“I hear from all of them,” Warren said. “I think the world of that group. They’ve all been successful in their different careers. It was one of the best group of folks I’ve been around.”

Warren has formed a close friendship with Stout. The two fish regularly at Art’s brother Brian’s camp in Rangeley, or on Schoodic Lake.

“We have spent a lot of time together in the last five years, in the boat and the ice fishing shack,” Stout said. “You don’t realize what you learned from him until much later in life.”

Stout called Warren an old school coach who expected his players to play with the same intensity that he had.

“We tried to live up to it,” he said. Warren ended his coaching career in 1975 to pursue a career in school administration, but the game has never been far from his heart. “I don’t think anything can keep him away from the gym as long as they let him in,” Cathy said.

Warren admits he always preferred practice to games and the thing he likes most about basketball is its team aspect.

“You’re only as good as the other four players you’re with,” he said. “It’s a team sport and I always liked the atmosphere.”

Legacy as an educator

As principal at the middle school, Warren continued to push sports and encourage participation but he was just as passionate about music concerts and plays.

“What I’ve really learned is what a passion the man had for education,” Stout said. “Regardless of what the conversation began as it ended up with Art talking about great things that kids had done.”

Cathy Warren believes her husband’s legacy is the leadership he showed and McNally agrees.

“He was fair but firm,” she said. “He modeled all the things he wanted us to display in our classrooms — accountability, passion for teaching. And he was approachable. He always made time to sit down and talk with us.”

McNally recalled how every parent night at the beginning of the school year, Warren would give them his home phone number and said “call me any time, day or night, right up until the last year he was here.”

McNally said Warren spent a lot of time reading to kids in the library that bears his name. He remains an avid reader — he’s currently reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln as well as a book on leadership required of West Point students — and often recommended books for the staff.

“I always believed if you can instill in kids, even before they get into school, a love of reading that will take you through your academic work and beyond,” Warren said.

McNally said Warren rarely missed a day of school, even when he was undergoing cancer treatments, and he didn’t let on what he was going through.

“You always saw the upbeat side of Art,” she said. “He’s always been a glass-half-full kind of guy.”

Cathy drives Art to practices while friends like Bruce Bell or his brother Brian take him on scouting missions out of town. He and Cassidy often watch games on film or TV, formulate game plans and compare notes.

“He hasn’t lost his sense of humor, he hasn’t lost his passion for coaching,” McNally said. “He’s just so well respected in the community.”