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Small Towns, Big Stories

Small Towns, Big Stories
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I talked, too, about Ralph Thomas. We extol our multi-millionaire athletes, and sportswriters casually call them heroic. Consider this: In October 1977, Ralph Thomas, a Penobscot Indian from Gardiner, Maine, set off to run a marathon in Niagara Falls. He worked his shift in a broiler house hauling live chickens from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. He showered and was on the road by 11. After driving alone to Rochester, New York, for 12 hours, he stopped and napped for about five hours, then set off for the race, arriving at 11 A.M. half an hour before his start. His time was 2:32, placing him 19th out of 2200 runners.
I told the story of Connie Small, one of the last of the wives of a lighthouse keeper. She died a few years back in Kittery, Maine. She told me about the time she blistered the skin off her hands when her husband, Elson, was away and the bell broke down during a storm. “I untied the ropes we used to ring the bell by hand when we saluted the lighthouse tender. I pulled for an hour and a half — I knew Elson was out there.”

She lived on Avery’s Rock — the most desolate lighthouse three miles out in Machias Bay. There was no earth, only a half-acre of boulders and a wooden plank leading from the house to the boat slip. She was 21. There was no phone, no electricity. Rain washed off the roof into cisterns stored beneath the pantry. She saw only Elson, and at night while she knit socks or sewed quilts or bedding or clothes, she’d twist the radio dial hoping to hear another voice, however faint.

Once, winching the boat onto the slip, she caught her arm under the clamper, crushing it beneath the cogs. “I walked the floor all night,” she told me. “Next day, Elson got me to shore. I had to take the mail team nine miles to Machias, while Elson returned to the light.


And I told the good people of Hillsborough the amazing saga of Will Smith. When I met him he was 31-year-old Gulf War veteran. He was a student at Bowdoin College, captain of the basketball team, surrounded by 20-year-olds, and a single dad to his infant daughter, Olivia. Will couldn’t afford daycare, so Olivia accompanied him to class and basketball practice. Soon, the physical and financial strain began to take its toll on Will.

Will woke at 4 a.m. to squeeze in studying time. His Navy funds and financial aid didn’t cover the cost of living or caring for Olivia’s asthma. Will began skipping meals so his daughter could eat. He lost 17 pounds and nearly gave up hope. “My body was wearing down, my mind was wearing down, but Olivia never lost faith in me.”

The memory of his own mother, a single parent who had raised 10 children, and his love for Olivia inspired Will to reach out for help. “It wasn’t until I was able to accept the help I was given that things turned around.” Will and Olivia moved into the dorms, eating in the school’s cafeteria. The gym became her playground, his teammates her favorite babysitters.

He told me about the time when his car broke down. “She let me know then that the car, my grades, money didn’t matter. She was glad the car was broken because we could walk together. That kept things in perspective. The most important thing in my life is her.”

I was at his graduation, when Will became the first single father to graduate from Bowdoin College. And there was one special person on stage with him as he received his diploma, his roommate, Olivia.

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