RUMFORD — The five or six dozen people inside the reception hall at 49 Franklin St. went quiet. Just a few clicks and beeps broke the silence.
The only sound inside the converted Methodist church chirped from the Liberator attached to Bob McPhee’s wheelchair. The device gives a voice to a man who hasn’t been able to walk and talk since he suffered brain damage while making a tackle in a football scrimmage against Portland in 1976.
“Today is unbelievable,” McPhee said through the monotoned digital voice. “What a turnout.”
They turned out from all over the River Valley and several corners of the state on Sunday to honor McPhee and give him a proper send-off before Tuesday morning, when he and Larry Gill, his friend and tireless assistant, will fly to Oklahoma. On Thursday the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater will give McPhee its Medal of Courage.
McPhee’s friends swapped stories Sunday, and a stranger would only need to listen to a few of them to understand why he is deserving of the honor, given annually to a wrestler who has overcome insurmountable challenges.
An outstanding wrestler at Rumford High prior to suffering the traumatic injury as a senior, he has dedicated his life to promoting Maine high school wrestling and covering the sport for this newspaper and the Rumford Falls Times.
Just getting out of bed in the morning, let alone covering meets that can sometimes last 10 to 12 hours, is a grind for McPhee. With unyielding determination, he accomplishes things most of us do without giving a second’s thought. Then he accomplishes things (such as writing a book and whitewater rafting) many of us wouldn’t even consider doing.
He never ceases to amaze old friends and new, and they all made sure he knew it Sunday.
“At a time in society where people seem to want more and more while doing less and less for it, you give the world everything you have, and you feel entitled to nothing,” said Steve Nokes, a former wrestler and coach from Rumford. “
“It’s so easy for us to be here because I think a lot of us think of what Bob’s accomplished, what he’s done with his life when it would be so easy to just give up,” said Jerry Perkins, a member of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame who coached McPhee in wrestling and football at Rumford. “And also, I think a lot of us think but for the grace of God, that could be me. That could be my son. That could be my brother. And it was Bob. But look how Bob is an inspiration to each one of us.”
Paying homage to McPhee before he left for Oklahoma was the brainchild of Dean Sciaraffa, who wrestled with him at Rumford. He and a committee consisting of his wife, Jennifer, Nokes and Gill planned the send-off and raised money to cover the trip expenses.
The organizers figured, given these tough economic times, that the donations would be small — $10 here, $20 here — and cover part of the over $1,300 needed. But not only did the small donations come pouring in, some donors stepped forward offering hundreds of dollars. One man gave $500. Jerry Lewis can’t get people to open their wallets and check books on Labor Day as fast as friends and strangers did for McPhee.
“You just say the name Bob McPhee and people know,” Jennifer Sciaraffa said.
Especially in the River Valley. They always know. Whether he needs their help catching a flight or transportation to a meet or getting some quotes after a game, they are there for him. Retired folks will act as his chauffeur when they could be relaxing at home. High school athletes will wait in line to talk to him after a big game when they could be off basking in a victory or stewing over a loss.
They all lined up on Sunday to congratulate him. Many of the faces were the same ones you’ll see accompanying McPhee to games and meets over the years. There is an army of volunteers ready to drive Bob’s van whenever he needs a chauffeur to take him from his home in Dixfield to wherever the next meet or game is, even if it is six hours away.
They all told tales about their adventures with him on those trips. Most of them can’t be printed in a family newspaper, which is fitting since McPhee is a purveyor of pranks and connoisseur of jokes that make sailors blush.
They all do it because McPhee inspires them, gives them hope and perspective. Spending time with such a caring and courageous person is a privilege, they say. They are lucky to know him.
He is lucky to know them, too, and lucky to live in a community that shares his love of high school athletics, his sense of humor, his stubbornness and indomitable optimism.
When you’re in Stillwater on Thursday, Bob, make sure you let the folks at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame know it.