In the Crease: A fond farewell after nearly two decades

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Spoiler alert: If you are reading this, I have already worked my last day at the Sun Journal.

With my not-so-secret impending move to Boston fast approaching, I recently rifled through three filing cabinets overflowing with yellowed newsprint, out-of-date scorebooks and decade-old media guides.

One drawer was stacked high with some of the best work we’d done in the sports department in the past 15-plus years, from which we’d culled submissions to state, regional and national contests.

Another had materials I’d used to help a handful of aspiring local journalists — still in high school at the time — learn about the business. I’d called it “Journo-101.” All four of those young adults are now college graduates, and two are working in journalism — something of which I am very proud.

Yet another cabinet held recently issued paychecks, some personal health insurance information and our employee handbook and code of conduct — all important things.

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But nothing — not in any drawer, on any shelf nor on any hard drive — was as jarring, or as important, as a pair of items buried at the bottom of the second drawer on the right.

There, in a clear, beaded folder that revealed its contents as though you were looking through a windshield riddled with rain drops, were three sheets of delicate, yellowed paper — one so brittle it was torn nearly in two. There, two faces smiled back at me as I folded back the beaded cover.

I’d forgotten they were there. But they were still smiling.

*****

I’ll never forget where I was on August 14, 1996.

I’d just finished my second of what I thought would be a half-dozen donuts for breakfast while sitting on the end of a full-size bed at the Town and Country Motor Inn in Shelburne, New Hampshire, near the Gorham line. The telephone had rung — an oddity at the time, since there were no cell phones and only a few people knew where my parents and I were — and my mother had answered. She spoke in a low, deliberate voice, and she spoke in French, which gave away the caller’s identity — her mother, my grandmother. She wouldn’t have tracked us down for anything other than an emergency.

“Sit down,” my mother said after returning the phone to its cradle. It was as though she was on auto-pilot, since I was already sitting.

“Mark Blanchette died,” she continued.

Wait, what?

Mark couldn’t have died. He was less than a month shy of starting school at Boston University. He was going to play golf there, study journalism and take over the sports media world.

What on God’s green earth was my mother talking about?

After cutting our college scouting trip (we’d been to Syracuse, New York and back) short by a day, I saw the Sun Journal with my own eyes. Mark, who I’d been lucky to call a friend and teammate on the links, was struck by a habitual offender who was operating a rented car while his license was suspended. He was traveling 48 miles per hour in a 30 mile-per-hour zone. Mark had been walking home from work and stopped to take a ride from a friend.

Senior year of golf was a blur. Senior year was a blur. But crystal clear was my decision the following spring to attend school at Boston University, where I studied journalism, and played golf.

Upon graduation, after a year off, I started working at the Sun Journal, where Mark had cut his teeth — where his photo still hung on the bulletin board. Every day, I walked into the newsroom, and everyday he smiled at me — at us. It reminded me every day that no matter how hard I worked to get better at my job, there was always more to give. I penned a column a short time into my tenure about Mark. At the time, I kept the clippings from the incident and its aftermath nearby, as motivation. I had the chance to do something he never got the chance to do, and I never wanted to forget it.

I haven’t.

As I move along in my career, Mark is still by my side. That photo will find a new home in — of course — Boston. I can only wonder what Mark’s career trajectory might have been. He would have been in Boston sooner, I think, or maybe he’d never have left. Either way, whenever I see that photo, I can only guess. And I can only hope that when I am done, whenever that may be, I’ve done his legacy justice.

He’s still smiling, so I guess that’s a good sign.

*****

So, too, is my father, Dan.

His image is on the other sheet of paper, this one folded in two like a leaflet.

Except it’s not a leaflet. It’s his memoriam.

I will never forget where I was on the evening of October 5, 2003.

Jonathan Paiement had just scored to put the Lewiston Maineiacs ahead of the Quebec Remparts 5-1 fewer than 10 minutes into the second period of their Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston. It was only the team’s fifth home game in its inaugural season, and the place was going berserk.

Despite the din, I heard the knock on the press box door behind me, and saw old friend Mike McGonagle of the Lewiston Police Department walk through.

He didn’t smile.

I had to go, he said. My father wasn’t well.

By the time I reached my parents’ house, he was gone.

He’d been in failing health for some time after retiring from the police force in January of that year, but only recently had it come to a critical mass. I found out later that he’d tried to walk across the den that evening, and collapsed into my mother’s arms. There was nothing I could have done.

Only two years earlier, upon my graduation from Boston University, my father had given me a peculiar graduation gift — a bright red Craftsman toolbox, complete with starter sets of typical tools: screwdrivers, wrenches, a hammer and a saw. But deeper in the box was an old, gray hand drill with a little note attached.

“This was Pepere’s,” the note read. “When I need to think, sometimes, it just helps to pull this out and use it on an old block of wood.”

I still have that toolbox — and I still have that hand drill.

And he wasn’t wrong.

As I further my career in Boston, the only thing I can hear my father talking about is how much he hated the city — not Boston in particular, of course, but any city. He hated crowds, he hated busy highways and he hated erratic driving. Lewiston got too busy for him, sometimes.

I know, looking down, he thinks I’m a little bit crazy. But I also know he’s proud. I only hope that I’ve done his legacy justice.

He’s still smiling, so I guess that’s a good sign.

*****

The memory of Mark and my father will always be an important part of what I do, and those memories are part of what makes me tick professionally. But they are not the only things.

I have been blessed with a phenomenal family. My wife, Alicia, and I have been married for more than 10 years, and went on our first date this week in 2004.

And yes, we even met at the Sun Journal.

We have two amazing twin daughters, Emma and Erin, who are now four years old (going on 14), and the three of them are the real reason I continue to strive for greater things, professionally and personally. My family has made it possible for me to do what I have done for so many years, and is a big reason why I am leaving Lewiston for Boston.

And speaking of family … my mother, Maggie, a former Kindergarten teacher and the rock against which I have always been able to lean, is going to have to adjust for the first time since I was in college to living more than five minutes from my front door.

So am I.

It won’t be easy, but I am comforted by the fact that she is surrounded by so many good friends here. And she can rest assured that I will continue to surround myself likewise. For my friends and family from Lewiston-Auburn and beyond — many of whom have scattered across the world — I will always be grateful.

And then, of course, there is my second family, those with whom I shared office and desk space for the better part of two decades. Bob Aube took a chance on me when he started sending me money for stories in the late 1990s, while I was still in school. And Kalle Oakes did likewise when he hired me full time in 2002. For those opportunities, I am forever in debt.

There are far too many more to mention individually.

And last but certainly not least, our raison d’être at the SJ … you, our readers. It is for you we continue to work so diligently, patrolling the sidelines with pen, recorder and camera in hand. Thank you all for caring enough to peruse our pages every day, regardless of your motivation. I hope that in the past two decades, you’ve found what I’ve tried to do here interesting, informative and/or inspiring. That is, at the heart of it, what this is all about.

Though Boston will be where I work and rest my head for the foreseeable future, Lewiston — and central and western Maine — will always be home.

From the bottom of my heart … Thank you!

Justin Pelletier is the former Managing Editor Nights/Sports. His last day was Friday, May 25, after more than 16 full-time years and 20 years altogether at the Sun Journal. You can keep in touch with him via email at [email protected]

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