NORWAY – Howard Wheeler Cole was remembered by family and friends Tuesday as a leader who helped build two bedrock establishments in Oxford County.

The well-known businessman, who was instrumental in the creation of Sunday River Skiway in Newry and Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, died Saturday night at age 91.

Cole passed away at Stephens Memorial Hospital, and his daughter-in-law, Terry Cole of Paris, said Tuesday, “If he was going to be hospitalized, he wanted to be in Stephens.”

The hospital opened in 1957, and Cole was a board member from the beginning, according to Dr. Harry Harper of Paris, one of the hospital’s first doctors.

“He was in support of any improvements; he was never a negative person,” Harper recalled Tuesday.

Cole also was a hospital trustee and remained on the board for many years. “He was never opposed to any of the general plans. He was a good support of the hospital, not a radical, just a good support of its development and growth.”

Cole’s wife of 63 years, Virginia Cole, who lives in Bethel, said the hospital was merely a wooden building before her husband became involved in its development.

“He just wanted it to be that good, small hospital where everyone would know you, not like a big hospital where you are just a number,” she said.

Today, while still intimate, the hospital is the second-largest employer in the area after the school system, according to Harper.

“We started out with seven doctors, and now there are over 40 physicians,” he said. “We started out with 25 beds, and it is now 50 beds.”

In the 1950s, Cole also dreamed up an idea with a group of local business men to help revitalize Bethel.

“Except for Gould Academy, the town was pretty dead,” Virginia Cole said. After the idea to draw skiers to Bethel was hatched and the plan rolling, she hiked up the mountain with other wives to clear brush with many kids in tow, she recalled.

The ski area opened in 1959. Now Sunday River is one of the biggest ski resorts in New England.

Cole’s son, Curtis Cole of Paris, said, “It took many people to open the mountain and get it going. It was a true community endeavor.”

Howard Cole would never have wanted to be singled out for his community contributions, according to his family.

“He was a member of the team,” his son said, using a football team analogy. “Some people make a big difference. But if I had to characterize my dad’s role in the team, he was just one of the linemen. He didn’t carry the ball so much as he was leading the charge.”

Cole’s daughter, Nancy Newsom Farmer of Norway, said, “I think he made a big impact on these two communities in a modest way, not as a big tycoon intellect. He just did it in a very honest, upright, caring way, whatever he approached.”

Cole was born in Paris, later moving to Needham, Mass., with his family. He attended Colgate University to study history, according to his wife.

Cole partnered with his uncles in the W.J. Wheeler Insurance Co. in Paris, a family firm doing business for more than a century. He was president for many years before retiring in 1981.

He also briefly owned a campground in Norway and the Sudbury Inn in Bethel, according to his son, who said business opportunities were more abundant in those days, but that also people liked Cole and often approached him to be a partner in their plans.

Cole also served as president of Bethel’s Chamber of Commerce, and was a trustee and later chairman of South Paris Savings Bank before it merged with Maine Savings Bank.

Cole’s children said they inherited a dedication to the community from him.

“We have taken on leadership roles in the community as a result of learning from him,” Farmer said.

Moreover, Cole was known as a gentleman who never failed to open the door for his wife, and he had a reputation as a tireless extrovert.

Virginia Cole described going out to Mallard Mart in Bethel with her husband in the last few years and being seated at a special table to see everyone coming in.

Terry Cole said, “They went out to coffee every morning at the Mallard Mart. They would have their decaf coffee together. Howard was like a landmark, he loved visiting with people.”

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