First in a 4-part series
By M.E. Jones
DEVENS -- When former Nashoba Publishing sports editor Ken Blanchette occupied his corner cubicle on any given day, most drop-in visitors could expect a smile, a witty take on what he was up to and his trademark sendoff on the way out.
"You have the best day ever," he'd say.
If he doesn't say that any more, it's mostly because it's not one of the familiar phrases he reaches for in conversation, which is a struggle for him now. It's been 15 months since a series of strokes damaged his brain, leaving him with short-circuited communication skills he's working with a speech therapist to re-wire.
It's slow going, but he's getting there, Blanchette's wife, Kathy, said.
Physically, he's doing well, despite a couple of setbacks that landed him in the hospital. But speech is hard and the words he once selected so deftly for his sports stories seem to escape him now.
"If it is over, I have no regrets," Blanchette said during a recent interview at the newspaper office in Devens, referring to the long held and much loved job he had to leave suddenly last May. "I never had a hard time going to work."
He can't work now, not yet anyway, but his wife hopes he'll get some of his old groove back when he starts attending high school athletic games again, which he plans to do when the season starts. Kathy says she'll go, too, and they both look forward to it.
Over the next couple of hours, Blanchette, with some help from Kathy, recalled highlights of his 25-year sportswriting career. They shared some personal history and tried to pinpoint how he got into this line of work, covering local high school sports for Nashoba's six weekly newspapers and manning the sports desk, where he was sitting when he was stricken one morning last May.
Basically, it was the only thing he really, truly wanted to do, but it took some time to figure that out, and years for the right opportunity to come along.
"I only knew what I didn't want to do," Blanchette said. And when the newspaper job opened up, "I wanted it."
Asked if he was into sports when he was a student at Ayer High School, where he graduated in 1967, Blanchette said he played varsity basketball his senior year for Coach Joe Hickey.
"I was lousy," he said, describing himself as "the slowest kid on earth," weighing just 155 pounds and wearing "cement shoes." Actually, he wasn't that bad, but others set a high benchmark. "Kids there were good ... I made it hard," he said. "I was good too, but so slow."
His skills improved in the Navy. He joined at 19, while working at Digital, a former computer manufacturer with a worldwide workforce that was once a giant in the industry and a major employer in the area. When he got out of the service, his job -- setting up silk-screening operations -- was waiting for him, but he didn't go back.
"The draft was in effect then," Blanchette explained, with call-up by lottery and most Army privates being sent to Vietnam in their first year. After he signed up, he found out he wouldn't have been drafted anyway because of the number he was assigned. But he'd joined the Navy for four years and it turned out to be a good thing.
"It was hard to get in," he said. He stayed in the states, first going to communications technical school, then to Midway "ADAK," Winter Harbor, ME, and Alexandria, VA. "It was the best thing," he said of his assignments. "We didn't even have to wear uniforms."
After he got out of the Navy, Blanchette found work as a Boston Globe newspaper route collector in Littleton and Hudson while living with his mother in Shirley, where he grew up and has lived most of his adult life, although he and Kathy lived in Ayer for a while. He was born in Fitchburg.
His next job was at Thomas Taylor & Sons, a textile mill where his mom worked until she retired. It was located where Bemis Associates is now. Kathy worked there, too. That's where they met.
Blanchette said he was as "big into baseball" then, as he is now and played with the company-sponsored softball team. "We played Ayer," he said. This time, he was good.
"It was his passion," said Kathy, who went to all Ken's games and played in a few herself.
"She wasn't great," Blanchette said wryly.
Ken and Kathy Blanchette were married in 1980, in the front yard of their home in Ayer. "We were poor," Kathy recalled. She made sandwiches; her mom made ziti and a friend made them a cake. "It wasn't perfect, but it was a great wedding," she said, and guests called it "fantastic!" Their son Derek, just six weeks old at the time, cried after the JP pronounced them husband and wife and Ken played two ball games later that day.
Her mother asked where Ken was, Kathy said, but he wasn't a reluctant groom.
"I just liked to play softball," he said.
In lieu of a honeymoon, the couple spent a night alone while her mom took care of the baby. "We watched a Red Sox game," Kathy recalled, and her new husband got up early the next day for a game he was playing in.
"That was the life," he said, smiling mischievously.