PAWTUCKET — Perhaps the best way to describe the fun and frivolity folks experienced at McCoy Stadium on Tuesday night is this: Mayor Donald Grebien's description of his throwing out the first pitch before the PawSox' tilt against the Syracuse Chiefs.
“I reached the plate, that wasn't a problem, but it wasn't a strike,” laughed Grebien afterward. “The good news is Mike (Tamburro, PawSox President) did call it one. Congressman (David) Cicilline had said beforehand that he'd give the city a million-dollar grant if it was, so I'll be calling him tomorrow for the check.”
The event — call it one heckuva party to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the city's incorporation — saw young and old chowing on hot dogs and potato salad under the first base-side hospitality tent, dignitaries welcoming each other with handshakes and dancers showing off their talents on the diamond.
More than that, though, were Pawtucket Hall of Famers reminiscing about the good ol' days.
“I thought it was older than that,” grinned legendary Pawtucketer George Patrick Duffy, who will turn 91 in September but explained he had just signed a contract to coach the St. Raphael Academy junior-varsity baseball team next spring.
“This is my 71st year of coaching youth sports in this city, so I've seen a lot.
“I think it's important to let people know we're still here, Pawtucket is still here and we love living here,” he added. “I've lived my whole life here, and it's important for the city to get some positive publicity in these troubled times. Pawtucket's come a long way, and there are still a lot of things in which to be proud.”
Duffy wasn't alone singing the praises of the city, which was incorporated in 1886, about a year after the Pawtucket Times had been founded.
“I've been in Pawtucket since I was two years old, and it's always been very good to me,” said Theresa Landry, another city Hall of Famer who at age 89 (90 come Thanksgiving Day) watched her dancers perform “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” before the tilt. “I remember, at 10 years old, I would walk from door to door and ask folks if I could teach their children dancing lessons. A lot of them accepted.
“They'd give me 10 cents per lesson, and I think it was because they believed in me,” she added. “When I performed at shows, people would throw pennies at my feet, and five cents would pay for a loaf of bread. I went to an undertaker to get a top hat so I could do a hat-and-cane routine, and then I'd pass the hat around.
“I did that because it was kind of humiliating to have the pennies on the ground or floor … Pawtucket has always been my favorite spot because I've had so many kids come up to me and say, 'Will you teach me?' At one time, I had almost 300 students, and I also had a TV show on WNET, WPRO and WJAR. I was even on The Johnny Carson Show, I think it was in 1968. To think it all started in Pawtucket!”
The festivities included dancers from, naturally, Theresa Landry's School of Dancing, the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts and Dancin' Spirit Performing Arts; an introduction of the all-new Pawtucket-Central Falls After-School Coalition; and recognition of officials of the city's annual festivals and organizations.
Among them: Winter Wonderland, Gatchell Post 306 Ladies Auxiliary, Pawtucket Dog Park, Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and the Grecian Festival.
The fete also recognized those who have meant so much to the city's history, including other Pawtucket Hall of Fame members former Mayor Bob Metivier, Philip Ayoub, Cheryl Babiec, Bob Billington, Mike Cassidy, Bill Catelli, Michael Corrente, Ray Dalton, Charles Dolan, Thomas Duffy, Ann Hogan, Armand Lamontagne, John McBurney, Bruce McCrae, William Nesbitt, Mike Pappas, “Pie Man” Joe Sadlier and Chuck Sczuroski.
Dignitaries included assorted Ocean State mayors, Attorney General and city native Peter Kilmartin, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, state senators and representatives and City Council members.
Before the game started, a film of Pawtucket's history – created via old film clips, post cards and photos – was shown on the mammoth right-center field videoboard. The producers of “125 Years: Past, Present & Future” were Pawtucket Foundation President Thomas Mann and Project Director Aaron Hertzberg, with Vincent Ceglie providing the narration.
“It was a lot of fun doing this; it took about two weeks to put together,” smiled the 30-year-old Hertzberg, a Wisconsin native who graduated from the University of Minnesota and has worked for the foundation for three years now. “We went to The Times to go through archives for historic photos, and it was fun to look at them and see what old times were like.
“It's always enjoyable to see what has come before you,” he continued. “I've always heard some of the old-time Pawtucketers talk about the sidewalks on Main Street being jammed with people shopping. Seeing those old pictures really made it come to life.”
Some folks didn't need to watch the video to glean information about Pawtucket, the reason being they lived it.
“I remember the 75th anniversary celebration,” chuckled Charlie Kelley, who works for the city's Parks & Recreation Department and one of the key cogs on the 125th Anniversary Committee. “They had an event here at McCoy every night of the week, like shows and fireworks.
“I was about 14, and I remember everyone knew each other back then; it was like a mammoth family reunion,” he added. “I remember there was a huge parade downtown, and all the Mom and Pop stores had a competition. The men grew beards, and I think they were called the 'Brothers of the Brush.' They wanted, I guess, to look like their grandfathers 75 years before.”
Stated Donna Houle, the Tourism Council's Special Projects Manager for 23 years: “I remember the 75th, too. I was 10 and living here, and I recall coming here to the park to audition for a whole story about William Blackstone and Samuel Slater. It was a big production called 'Panorama of Pawtucket,' and a man from New York City came up to produce and direct it.
“It was very exciting; they had dancers doing the Charleston and other dances, and it took Pawtucket through the years,” she continued. “It covered every decade, so it was a blast.”
Dawn Goff, another anniversary committee member and Winter Wonderland's Vice-President, stated the event's planning began in March, and Kelley had been instrumental in the idea taking shape. Then again, so were the PawSox' Tamburro; The Times' General Manager Richard Blockson; and a boatload of others.
“Our goal was to honor our great city, and I believe it really is great,” Goff offered. “We have a mayor who is doing his best to hold us together during such tough economic times, and we have diverse groups of people – our citizens – who work hard and make Pawtucket what it is.
“This turnout is marvelous,” she added. “I don't know if it's better than expected, but we have to thank the Pawtucket Times, who really got the word out; Mike and his (PawSox) staff; and the committee. Every person on it was in charge of one aspect, like the Hall of Famers, the dancers, the festival representatives.
“We had a deal with those organizations that, for each game ticket they sold for $7, they would get $3.50 back to help out their groups, and most jumped at the chance.”
Pat Murray, who graduated from Pawtucket West High in 1969 and taught at Goff Junior High and Shea for 35 years, also is a member of the Pawtucket Fireworks Committee. She reveled at the scene she experienced Tuesday evening.
“I can't believe it's been 125 years, but I'm so glad I'm a part of it,” said Murray, who now works for the School Department's Diploma Plus program, which facilitates older students in receiving their high school diplomas. “I mean, I was born here, grew up and went to school here, taught here, and I'm very proud of the fact this is happening.
“No matter what anybody says about Pawtucket, it's still a jewel in my eyes; so are the Pawtucket Red Sox and this stadium. A lot of these guys playing here will go on to Boston and play at Fenway, and Charlie and I love going up there to see them succeed, take the next steps in their careers.
“This is a great time. I know so many people. I'm really active on so many committees, and in politics. I can't tell you how much I love everything about Pawtucket.