Bob Harkins, Gould Academy’s new athletic director, takes the boat up stream Submitted photo

Bob Harkins’ life plays out like an old Hollywood movie, when a young man leaves the family farm and makes something of himself.

His love of skiing, just like Roy Hobbs’ passion for baseball in “The Natural,” has taken him around the world. He credits Gould Academy, which has a hold on Harkins’ soul, for those challenging opportunities. The school is where his next opportunity awaits, as its athletic director.

The Edward Little High School graduate and Maine fishing guide — who grew up on the family farm in Poland, coached Olympic skiers, worked at Sunday River and Mt. Abram ski resorts and helped create a potato vodka distillery — was about to retire recently and was looking for a part-time job.

Harkins, 67, turned to his former employer Gould, which opened doors for him in the past, and spoke with an old friend who had returned to work for the school.

After stepping down as general manager for Mt. Abram Ski Resort in March and turning the job over to his assistant Greg Luetje, Harkins hooked up with Chris Sparks, who runs admissions at Gould Academy.

“Sparks was there running the admissions office when I was there during my sons’ time there (at Gould), and at the time I was running the Winter Term Program,” Harkins, a University of Maine graduate, said. “I worked largely out of the admissions office because winter term was all about bringing young kids into Gould. So Chris and I had a great relationship. So I see him walking on campus because I live right on the edge of the campus …”

The pair got to talking and a couple of days later, Harkins reached out to Sparks with an email saying he was looking for a part-time job and would consider doing recruiting for Gould.

“He gets right back to me and says, ‘Well, that’s a great idea, but what I would really like you to do is apply for the AD job that is vacant,’” Harkins, a Maine Ski Hall of Famer, said. “That’s not a part-time job, but I said, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’”

Bob Harkins, back right, his wife Sally, back left, and sons Chase, front left, and Sawyer take in an Army West Point football game. Submitted photo

Harkins’ off-and-on positive experiences with the school and the friends he made there made it an easy sell to apply for the athletic director opening. The academy got back to him and eventually offered him the job.

“It is a special place,” Harkins said. “I will spend the next three to five years most likely there, and if things go well. … I am very excited to go back. It is a great opportunity.

“My sons, and they are pretty good guys, and I just look at the experience they had academically, socially, athletically. I mean it was tremendous. My oldest, Sawyer Harkins, applied to West Point and has graduated. He is a first lieutenant stationed out at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.”

His youngest son, Chase, didn’t get into West Point when he first applied. He attended Valley Forge Military Academy and College before making another attempt to apply to the Point, but despite a 4.0 grade average, he just missed being admitted. But West Point took an interest in him and paid for him to attend one of its several civil prep programs, and eventually he was accepted.

Harkins credits his sons’ perseverance, his wife Sally’s support and Gould for giving his boys a great education.

“They had a great high school experience. They were challenged, they were engaged and they worked hard,” he said.

JOURNEYMAN

Harkins’ encounter with nature while growing up on the farm in Poland might explain his love for the outdoors and skiing.

One of Harkins’ neighbors was a ski racer who introduced him to the winter sport.

“I would go skiing with his family, and my family would go on occasion. So I went to my dad and said, ‘Hey, I want to get into ski racing. He goes, ‘I hear ya, but that’s expensive’ — a lot of travel and this and that. He said if you really want to ski, get a job in the ski business and support your habit that way. Honestly, when I look back on it, those were pretty good words of wisdom.

“I got a job at Poland (Spring) Ski Resort washing dishes and busing tables. I traded free skiing for the work. At high school, I started in on ski patrol at Sunday River. I did that through high school and college. I drove down every weekend from Orono, 40 to 45 days.”

He studied physical education and exercise physiology at the University of Maine at Orono and played football for a couple years for Black Bears coach Walt Abbott. An old shoulder separation on the football field at Edward Little kept Harkins out of the Vietnam War after he flunked the physical in 1970. Harkins eventually graduated from UMaine in 1974 and did his student teaching at Old Town.

“I decided I didn’t know about this teaching thing,” Harkins said. “I went to Sunday River full-time. You did everything. You patrolled, you taught. You coached. You flipped burgers. You loaded lifts. It was kind of that kind mom-and-pop place back then.

“I did that two years seasonally and worked construction in the summer, and then I got into Gould Academy. I was coaching their ski team through Sunday River, and Gould hired me in 1976 to run the ski program, to be their athletic director, to live in a dorm, teach a couple of classes, and that is what I did.”

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN

Harkins convinced Gould to send him out West to Mt. Hood in Oregon on a recruiting mission. He said Tom Reynolds, who ran the ski program at the University of Maine at Farmington, was coaching at a summer camp at Mt. Hood called Timberline Summer Race Camp, which was owned by Hank Tauber, who was also the Alpine director of the U.S. Ski Team.

“Through Reynolds’ influence, they hired me on to Hank’s summer camp staff. I started spending time out there for a month in the summer,” Harkins said. “I recruited a kid who came back to Gould for four years, though. I stayed true to my word.”

Ski resort owners from Alpental in Washington visited Mt. Hood to look for a program director around 1978. They were eyeing Reynolds, who was content at UMF and Mt. Hood. Reynolds convinced Harkins to speak with the owners of Alpental.

“So I meet with these guys from Alpental. The meeting went well and they invited me to come up, meet some families,” Harkins said. “I said, ‘What the heck.’”

He met a talented skier, Debbie Armstrong, in the Alpental program. Armstrong’s athleticism impressed Harkins. He began coaching Armstrong, who was leaving the regional scene to make her way into the national competitions. Armstrong won two medals at the junior nationals at Squaw Valley and qualified to compete in Europe, and Harkins was asked to coach the women’s group.

“That was my connection to the U.S. Ski Team,” he said. “I really went on Debbie’s coattails. We went to Europe. We had a great trip.”

Harkins went to the first national coaches school that the ski team sponsored and met Bill Marolt, who was coming in as the Alpine director of the national team.

“I asked him for a job,” Harkins said, “and he hired me as the development coach in the West.”

Harkins became assistant Alpine director and director of athlete development and later went to Sarajevo, but did not attend the Winter Olympics in 1984.

Besides being a former Olympic Alpine ski coach, Bob Harkins is also a Maine guide. Submitted photo

“For those Olympics, Marolt decided not to fill the Alpine quota, which was very controversial and he almost lost his job over it,” Harkins said. “His attitude was, ‘We are going to the Olympics to win medals. This is not for experience. This is not a training ground. This is to win medals.’ So we go with 18 athletes instead of 21.

“Half-a-dozen kids that were right on the cusp qualified and didn’t go. I took those kids and flew back to the states with them. It was a tough, tough trip.”

Four years later, Harkins did go to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and was the team captain.

“My primary job was to make it all work for the coaches and athletes that were there,” he said. “It was a great experience.

“In Sarajevo, we got five medals — the best showing ever by the Alpine team. At Calgary, we earned only one medal. I left the ski team right after the Calgary Olympics. Eight of us got the boot.”

RETURN TRIP

He returned to Sunday River and worked for Les Otten and spent the next 15 years there. When American Skiing Company, which operated Sunday River, began to unravel in 2002, Harkins’ time at the resort was up.

“Anybody associated with Les got the boot when ASC went down,” he said. “Here I go! What am I going to do next?

“A buddy of mine called. He is a potato farmer in Fryeburg and said, ‘What do you know about putting potatoes into vodka?’ The potato market was not good. He said, ‘I’m thinking about starting up a potato vodka distillery.'”

A group of guys banded together to form Cold River Vodka out of Freeport, which still thrives today.

He was with Maine Distilleries and Cold River Vodka for a little less than a decade when his sons decided they wanted to ski at Gould Academy.

“I went to the head of the school, got on my hands and knees and said, ‘You’ve got to hire me, man,'” Harkins said. “‘This is what I can do for you.’ I put together a recruiting program for them … and that grew into running their Winter Term Program, which was for seventh- and eighth-graders from September to April with full-time boarding, full-time training, full-time school, and it ended up being a greater feeder to the high school.”

Harkins, a dedicated father, left Cold River because he wanted to be at Gould for his sons for the next seven years before leaving to work at Mt. Abram.

“It is kind of bookends where I started, back in 1976, at Gould,” Harkins said. “I was their AD and hopefully this will be my last real job before I do retire.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.