Fran Purnell throws out a ceremonial first pitch to former Major League Baseball pitcher Lee Smith during the dedication of the Purnell Wrigley Field named in his honor in Waterville on April 29, 2017. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

I never had the chance to meet Fran Purnell.

Sadly, I never will, as the former coach and president of the Waterville Little League — now Waterville Cal Ripken — died on Tuesday. He was 83.

But in listening to the stories of several close friends and family on Wednesday, it didn’t take very long to see why Purnell was so beloved by those who knew him. And how he and his family became an institution in the Elm City — to the point of having a beautiful baseball field (Purnell Wrigley Field) named in their honor — thanks to nearly 50 years of passion and dedication to youth baseball.

In talking with at least seven individuals who knew Purnell best, four qualities consistently stood out for the man affectionately known as “Pep” (as in Pepé Le Pew, the famous Looney Toons character, which was an old CB radio handle, according to son Chris Purnell):

He never turned a kid away from playing baseball.

According to friends and family, Purnell never denied an opportunity for an area child to play baseball in Waterville, regardless if that child’s family was able to pay the league entry fee or not.


On top of that, Purnell made sure that no child went without proper baseball equipment, either.

“He never turned kids away,” said Larry Brown, who has coached baseball at the youth and high school levels in Waterville for more than 20 years. “It didn’t matter their financial situation. I know he went out and bought gloves and bats and cleats for kids who didn’t have it. He didn’t worry about them paying their entry fee into the league.”

“He never lost sight of the kids,” said son Kevin Purnell. “He always had gloves. He bought them, got them, donated them. Every kid being able to participate and play was just a huge thing for him.”

He cared for others, on and off the field.

While Purnell had a deep, abiding love for the game of baseball (the former Waterville High School standout was also an excellent player as a youth and a lifelong fan), he was also invested in the lives of others.

“He wanted to know about your regular life, how you were doing,” Brown said. “Every time I’d see him he was like, ‘How’s your mom doing? How are the boys doing?’ It wasn’t just about baseball with Fran. It was about your overall being, life and family and making sure everyone was good. I can’t imagine the thousands of lives that he touched through baseball. He was just an incredible man.”


“When my dad died in 2016, he came over to me, I was on the ball field,” said Alfond Youth Center CEO Ken Walsh, a close friend and a driving force behind the building of the $1.4 million Purnell Wrigley Field, and its licensing with Major League Baseball. “My dad was all about baseball, too, and there was seven of us in the family. He grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘You lost your dad today. But you gained another. I’m always there for you.’ That shows you what he is.”

And while Purnell was heavily invested in youth baseball, he also made sure he was just as invested in his family, which included his wife of 63 years, Joyce, and their three children, Chris, Kevin and Debbie.

“When I was going after the license agreement with Major League Baseball to get the license name of the Wrigley Field name, there was only one person that needed to have that name up front,” Walsh said. “And you know what he said? He said, ‘You can’t have Fran Purnell Wrigley Field. You need to have Purnell Wrigley Field, because it’s about my family.’ Again, it could have easily had it Fran Purnell Wrigley Field, but he knew what it takes to make this happen. It takes his wife and his kids to make that happen.”

Purnell even went so far as to come out of retirement to help his sons at Granite Corp, their mechanical contractor company in Oakland.

He shied away from the spotlight.

Despite being the face of Waterville youth baseball for nearly five decades (or 10 U.S. presidents, whichever you prefer), he was never a fan of the spotlight. And IF the spotlight was turned his way, he was quick to pass the credit to his family.


“He’s not one to be in the crowd, he just never was,” son Chris Purnell said. “But boy, when it came to those kids, he did whatever it took. He’d shake every kid’s hand on opening day.”

Waterville Little League certainly was a family affair, and each member of the Purnell family had a hand in it.

“(Joyce) doesn’t get that much recognition because of dad, but she played a significant role,” Chris Purnell said. “Taking phone calls, they were always taking phone calls about registration. Joyce was a big part of it, the quiet, behind the scenes (person).”

The Challenger program.

Some may think Purnell’s legacy will be tied to Purnell Wrigley Field, and it will certainly serve as part of Purnell’s legacy, with a monument in his honor at the field and his picture. But the real legacy Purnell leaves behind is the establishment of the Challenger program, an adaptive league for children with disabilities, which was near and dear to Purnell’s heart to the very end. Not only did he make sure that children with disabilities could play within the program, but older ages as well.

“He really felt bad that there was an age limit (with the program), because of the insurance through Little League Baseball,”  Kevin Purnell said. “That had to be waived, because my father felt whether you were 23, 28, whatever, if they want to play ball, come play ball. He didn’t want things to be dictated. He wanted them all to participate.”

A Fran Purnell can be found in small towns across America. A humble servant who dedicates their life to helping others, in this case, giving children the opportunity to play the game he loved so much.

But in this day and age, a person like Fran Purnell is also becoming a rarity. And sadly for the city of Waterville, they lost theirs on Tuesday.

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