AYER -- When veteran Nashoba Publishing sports editor and Shirley resident Ken Blanchette was suddenly felled by a series of strokes a couple of months ago, his health was everyone's main concern, but his absence left a galactic gap.
Dedicated, a ubiquitous presence at high school sports events throughout the region for 26 years, Blanchette cares about the athletes, their coaches and teachers. Going beyond "all star" banners, he explores the core values behind their success, including hard work, integrity and grit. His consistent, professionally reported coverage is a labor of love.
It didn't take long for the realization to set in. Nobody else could do his job like he did.
First off, there was Sports Night, an annual celebration of high school athletes' achievements on and off the playing fields and courts. Just days away when he was disabled, the event was Blanchette's brainchild that he orchestrated for the past decade. Editor Kate King had considered canceling. But Ken's son, Derek, stepped in and, assisted by a great many friends in the community, it was held as planned.
Saturday night, Derek and others supportive of Blanchette's struggle to recover and appreciative of his contributions to high school sports in Nashoba's six-town coverage area put on a celebration of their own at the Billiards Café in Ayer.
The recent event was held to raise funds and show support for the unassuming man who has made a difference for so many.
Estimated turnout was between 200 and 300 people. The room was filled with people who came and went over the course of the evening, enjoying live music, refreshments, auctions and raffles, with an array of donated items that included autographed sports memorabilia and gift certificates from local businesses. All to benefit Blanchette and his wife, Kathy.
Proceeds will help offset mounting medical bills generated by Ken's illness.
When Blanchette, who has been slowly, steadily recovering, showed up at about 8 p.m., he was greeted by an enthusiastic parade of friends, including colleagues, coaches and others whose lives he has touched.
Rob Cornwell said he's known Ken Blanchette for 30 years. A graduate of Ayer High School (Ken's alma mater) class of 1955, Cornwell's father was a coach in the softball league sponsored by the Times Free Press (one of Nashoba Publishing's six newspapers.)
Cornwell, who said he's participated in a fantasy baseball group with the sportswriter for 10 years, couldn't say enough about Blanchette's contributions to high school sports in Ayer and the other five communities covered by the company he works for.
Noting that Blanchette had expressed determination to be back on the job for the fall sports season, Cornwell eagerly anticipates his return. "I'll be on the lookout for him!" he said.
Assistant Ayer-Shirley Girls' Basketball Coach John Megan was equally enthusiastic. "He walks on water," he said of Blanchette. "He gives so much..."
Derek Blanchette steeped up to the mic midway through the evening, speaking over the increasing din in the crowded room. "The last seven weeks have been an incredible challenge," he said, underscoring the "major" role his dad plays in the family that was suddenly interrupted.
As a sometime co-worker of his father's, Derek knows first hand what the job entails and the gravitas Ken's savvy but empathetic coverage lends to high school sports in the area. "He's all about giving back" to the communities he covers, the younger Blanchette said.
The event was more than a fundraiser; it was a show of gratitude and solidarity that he was glad his dad had the opportunity to see for himself. "Everybody chipped in," he said. "They showed him what he means to them."
And he means the world to his son. "He's the greatest man I know!" Derek Blanchette said.