Thanks to my family, I have always loved sports. Whenever it has been possible, my schedule has as much sporting activity in it as is logically feasible.
My mother was my biggest guiding light through my formative years, but she was by no means alone in my upbringing direction. She was not a dedicated sports fan. Her fabric made sure to keep me balanced because my father and his brother and one of his sisters made sure I developed a big sized interest in the sporting world.
When I grew up, the world was very different than today. Television sporting events were few and far between. In fact, television didn’t even come to Bellows Falls until the late ’50s. There may have been a few television sets in town before then, but they could only receive one or two channels. If you watched regularly, you would have sworn it snowed all year. Before TV was perfected, interference – often referred to as snow – appeared on a certain percentage of your picture, making it often difficult to really see what you may have been watching.
A man named George Story brought cable television to Bellows Falls, and you initially purchased five stations. The most important thing was you were able to see the three major networks. Sports on TV as the calendar turned to the 1960s included 50 Red Sox games a season, an NFL and an AFL game of the week, a college football game of the week, an NBA game of the week, an NHL game of the week, and one college basketball game of the week. Weekends may have had three or four games a week, but there was only a half-dozen weekday games televised during the entire year.
Thus, local sports were king. Back then, local high school sports were often the center of community life. Between sports fans’ interest and community pride, high school contests were well attended throughout the school year. Crowds were regularly four or five times what they are today, and in some communities fans looked at the athletes as people do professional athletes and teams today. I believe it was more probable than not that many sports enthusiasts saw their local heroes as the role models and leaders who filled up their cheering interests.
As a little boy growing up in Bellows Falls, I couldn’t wait to go to the next game. Back then, every game was within walking distance. I felt fortunate to know the Terrier coaches because I had met them all in school. Most of them were gym teachers. I looked up to them all. I wanted to be a teacher someday. I even took special interest in the opposing coaches. And then one day, I felt like I was on top of the world when I was lucky enough to meet one of them. I can still see that moment clearly from 60 years ago.
On a March Friday night, following the completion of the high school basketball season, Bellows Falls was playing arch-rival Springfield in a faculty basketball game in the old high school gym on School Street. I kept the same seat for every game all winter. My aunt brought me, and I sat in the front row straight across from the visitors’ bench. We always arrived 20 minutes early to watch warm-ups. On this night, the Cosmo contingent was warming up right in front of me. I was just trying to figure out if their varsity basketball coach was playing, as a stray warm-up ball came in my direction. I made a play on the ball and handed the ball back to a gentleman, blurting out, “Which one is Richie Wyman?”
Things still sometimes happen to me quickly in life today, but this was one of the first times this type of experience hit me. In the quick five seconds when I caught the ball and handed it over, I was quite sure the man headed towards me was Richie Wyman, but I still popped the question. The man answered, “I am.” And I think I smiled.
Over the next 60 years, I was lucky enough to not only meet the man again and again, but I was also able to talk basketball with him for hours and hours, debate the merits of the fabric of the game, and relive the moments we both experienced within the sport. We became close enough to even exchange health tips later in life, which hopefully gave him some comfort as it did me. Just like my exchange of the basketball moment, I remember where I was standing when he relieved many of my fears about gall bladder surgery in a phone call just before Thanksgiving in 2013.
On Saturday evening, June 27, I received a phone call which hit me in the gut hard. I found myself feeling like I had lost a part of my family. Wyman had passed away after a hard fight against cancer. This moment is nowhere near as clear as the moment I met Richie Wyman. I’m not sure what I said on the phone, but I know what I heard and it led to a very long night.
Greg Birsky was one of the best players Wyman ever coached. Birsky came from a legendary Springfield family himself. His dad Bo had coached Wyman in both basketball and baseball with Richie then taking his talents on the diamond to Springfield College to further his playing days. I spoke to Greg Birsky a few days after Wyman’s death and he told me, “I was in tears all morning after I heard about it. He was the best coach I ever played for. He dedicated his life to one town with such incredible enthusiasm. He is, was, and forever will be a legend in Springfield.”
Birsky remembers how Wyman treated him while growing up and will never forget it. “I used to enjoy talking with him. He followed all the sports at Springfield, not just the ones he coached,” Birsky said. “He somehow figured out the difference between being friendly to his students and knowing exactly when and where to draw the line. I remember losing a one-sided game in football at Brattleboro and him speaking to me after, pointing out that I played well. That compliment was timed and delivered just right.”
Wyman was a three-sport athlete for the Cosmos, graduating in 1952. He came back to coach in Springfield in 1960. During Wyman’s Cosmo days, his coach for basketball and baseball was another Cosmo hometown legend, Bo Birsky. Both of those special leaders were inducted together into the first-ever class of the Springfield High School Hall of Fame last fall. The two longtime coaches also share their names together on the school’s baseball field, dedicated to their coaching exploits over the years.
Bob Hingston, longtime Windsor athletic director, who stood out as an athlete at Fall Mountain in the late ’60s, also remembers Wyman from way back. He said, “Richie was a genuine quality guy. His former players always said when things went well, Richie would deflect any credit from himself. To me, it seemed he was a renaissance man. So many coaches of that era would say ‘you do it my way or hit the highway.’ His former players have said Richie accepted who you were, including your quirks, and worked with you to bring out your best.”
Greg Birsky expounded on this theme in an open letter to the community about his beloved coach printed in this paper a week ago, offering, “He did that for every athlete that played for him. The coaching style of the times was to treat everyone the same with no favorites, to be tough on the kids, etc. Instead, Richie treated everyone the way they needed to be treated. He adapted his style to fit the kid’s needs. He had rules and demanded adherence but without intimidation or humiliation. He was a modern coach before it was cool to be a modern coach. I loved him for it.”
Mount Anthony’s Dave Fredrickson was the most successful boys’ basketball coach surrounding the era when Wyman coached. They squared off numerous times. Fredrickson didn’t hesitate a second when asked what he remembered about the legendary Springfield coach. He said, “You knew when you met Springfield you would play a team that was well prepared and well behaved. The players on his team were always gentlemen.”
Richie was a gentleman himself through and through. In fact, in recent years he was a gentleman about town. He loved the people in his community and could regularly be found about town having conversations with people of all walks of life. Springfield Rec Director Andy Bladyka tells me Richie’s tributes have come from everywhere, saying, “It isn’t just sports fans who miss Richie being out and about. Everyone knew he loved Springfield, and Springfield loved him back. I used to joke Richie patrolled Riverside Park. He would drive through, sometimes even twice a day, speaking with friends. It was his home away from home or maybe his home was his home away from home and Riverside was his home.”
The last time I saw Richie was at a Springfield football game last fall at Brown Field, part of Riverside Park. He was surrounded by several friends. Unfortunately, that final face-to-face conversation was rushed because work called. We did, however, have many phone conversations over the next eight months. We covered a lot of ground during that time.
Five days before he left us all, I had called, asking him about some trivial information I needed. The phone call was well timed because he had just received some good news about his recent blood work. He was feeling a little upbeat and hopeful. That’s why when I received the call a few days later it was so difficult to take.
You have heard people say, “You don’t know what you had, until it is taken away from you,” right?
Well, in this case, I knew what we all had, but legends aren’t supposed to die. Richie Wyman isn’t with us any longer, but his legend will never die.