Ace

Tuesday morning, sun bright, wind cold, up early to say farewell to an old friend and loyal colleague who lost a valiant battle to a heartless scourge.

Complicating matters on this winter morn was a visit from grandsons Jordan and Arie, prepubescent Vermonters in town for school vacation. I made arrangements to clear space and was expecting Duke of Sports co-host Mike Cadran to arrive with passenger, neighbor and Recorder sports colleague Jason Butynski — ETA 9:15. The only reason I put it in those terms is because Cadran’s a retired military man. I was confident he’s be punctual-plus and, yes, he was just that, pulling his red Jeep Patriot into my driveway 10 minutes early, jovial Big Boiczyk riding shotgun wearing his Sunday best. I was ready to go yet still scrambling after scurrying to stock the stove-side wood cradle and feed and walk the dogs on an abbreviated alternative swing adjacent to our normal daily romp before my ride arrived.

I jumped into the back seat on the passenger side and the fellas were chipper from the start for the half-hour ride to Athol, covering a little of everything, mostly local stuff and lots of Michael “Ace” Kelley, whose funeral was our destination.

We arrived early and people were already milling about on the street, filing into Higgins-O’Connell Funeral Home on brisk, sun-splashed Main Street. What a welcome surprise for three Greenfield men to discover free parking on both sides of the street at the parlor. Imagine that, will you. Not in Greenfield.

Walking into the parlor wearing a stylish knee-length cashmere coat was Kathy Horrigan, a former Athol High School coach and star athlete I often dealt with years ago, mostly on the phone. We chatted briefly inside, reminiscing, and along came another Athol icon, Rocky Stone, proud member and quarterback, no less, of that storied unbeaten 1962 Athol football team, later its coach when I was working the circuit and often found myself covering Friday-night games on the chilly shores of Lake Ellis.

The bright, sunny day was perfect for sending off the man I nicknamed Ace in the 1990s, after he jumped from the Athol Daily News to The Recorder. The man radiated enthusiasm as a sports reporter covering the local beat. Honestly, I think he at times felt a little guilty accepting a paycheck for work he so loved. The coaches and athletes he touched were aware of his commitment and energy and seemed to enjoy working with him, his enthusiasm infectious and highly contagious.

I valued his dedication and his tireless effort to please by scooping the competition, and was thus willing to quietly remove his blemishes whenever they appeared in copy. I rarely if ever had the heart to point out his mistakes in an authoritative way. Ace was a friend, and I’m always willing to help a friend and embellish copy, even if it threatens to plunk me into perilous waters.

It’s been a long time since the Ace worked for The Recorder, but we never lost contact, he more often than not calling at the absolute worst times, just wanting to shoot the breeze when lonely and probably suffering pangs of mortality though stubbornly refusing to admit it. Ace refused to wear his problems on his sleeve, perhaps even did himself harm by living in denial of his merciless disease. His final phone call came to the sports desk last week, two days before his Christmas Day passing at age 48 from complications related to his long, silent struggle with juvenile diabetes. I was home, enjoying my final week of vacation. I wish he had called me there.

That opportunity lost, I said my goodbye Tuesday morning in his hometown, where the funeral parlor was bloated with fellow well-wishers paying their respects during a service officiated by Deacon John Leary, Ace’s longtime pal and confidant. The overflow Tool-Town turnout said it all, and honestly left me with a warm glow that won’t soon cool or dim.

Ace was dealt a horrid hand but went through life cupping his cards snuggly to his chest through good times and bad, which could be very bad, worse than the unaffected could ever imagine. The man hid his pain and fears, grinned and laughed and bore it all with remarkable courage, dignity and grace.

So, rest in peace, good friend, and have a Happy New Year in your new digs. You always stood tall in my eyes. I guess that’s why I called you the Ace, not to mention a few affectionately inappropriate names that can’t be printed.

Ace could take a ribbing like a man and send it right back at you wearing that trademark devilish grin – a genuine smile pulled deep from his humble soul, his kind, courageous heart.

The world was a better place with Ace.

 

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