NORRIDGEWOCK — Nearly an hour before the benefit dinner officially began Saturday afternoon, the Lebanon Masonic Lodge already was packed with hungry diners who came to give their support to the family of Cpl. Eugene Cole, who was killed in the line of duty late last month.

“This has exceeded my expectations,” said the lodge’s senior warden, Robert Smith, who helped spearhead the event with other members in the organization’s community service arm. He said Friday that he hoped the event would be a way to celebrate the slain Somerset County Sheriff’s Office corporal and provide a way for the community to heal.

Smith said that at 10 minutes before 4:30 p.m. — the event’s slated start time — about 50 people were sitting in the downstairs dining area, 20 to 30 were upstairs, and some guests were outside at the picnic tables.

The service group holds a public supper on the second Saturday of every month, Smith said, but for about only 50 people. On Saturday, volunteers cooked up enough hot dogs, baked beans, coleslaw and desserts to feed 400 to 500 guests.

On top of the challenge of extra preparation, Smith said the event was nearly canceled because of a loss of power after high wind brought down power lines in the region. Central Maine Power Co. had told the group that its power probably wouldn’t be restored until 7 p.m. Saturday, prompting a scramble to try to come up with a new venue.

However, power was restored to the lodge around 11 a.m., and after that it was a nonstop sprint to get all of the food cooked, Smith said. The dinner was scheduled to go until 6:30 p.m., but Smith said Friday they would continue to serve as long as food and people to serve it to were still there.

Despite the chaos, Smith said he was proud to see the community coming together this way.

“We’ve had people come in all day and drop off donations,” he said. “It just warms your heart.”

Those donations, as well as the proceeds from the supper — which cost $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 12 — are all going to Cole’s family.

As a way to thank the law enforcement officers who spent days searching for — and eventually apprehending — Cole’s suspected killer, Smith said, police and first responders were welcome to eat for free.

Among those eating in the crowded dining room were Florence and Richard Witham, who came from Smithfield to support the Cole family.

The couple said they did not know Cole personally but were big fans of his band.

“We’ve gone to see his shows,” Florence Witham said. “He played the guitar, and he was really good.”

Richard Witham said they went to shows in Smithfield and Fairfield over the years.

“It’s really sad. It’s a terrible thing,” Florence Witham said of Cole’s death. “I feel bad for his wife and children.”

“It’s something that should never have happened,” Richard Witham said, “but it happens.”

Stephen Locke, a member of the lodge and a Norridgewock resident, had just ended a shift as a patrolman for the Pittsfield Police Department and came to see if there was any way he could help.

“I’m just an errand boy if they need it,” he said.

Locke also knew Cole for more than 25 years, before either of the two men got into law enforcement.

“I met him when he was a (television) repairman,” Locke said. “He had a shop down near Triple D Redemption before he built his own down by his house.”

When Locke began working at Somerset Dispatch and Cole started out at the sheriff’s office, the two got to know one another even better.

“He was a very easygoing, fair person. I don’t think he ever held a grudge against anybody,” he said. “If you made a mistake, as we all make mistakes in life, he let it go as long as you let it go.”

Locke said the mood at the Pittsfield department is still shock and disbelief.

“It’s hard to believe, because I’ve known Gene for so long,” he said. “It could be anybody at any time. ”

He said the turnout for the dinner was “unbelievable” and heartening to see.

“It’s amazing because you hear so much backlash about the police,” he said. “It’s great to see people put it all aside and come to support them.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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