By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette
---- — Handicap?
Talk to Fletcher Carter about his bad hip or hobbled knee, and he’d pass it off with a smile. Then he’d go off to a handball court and beat your brains out.
Just when you thought the ping pong table would catch up to him, wham! He’d slam the ball down your throat. The limp he carried was no excuse for indulgence, unless you begged for it.
As a fitness director, Fletch was to the Haverhill YMCA what Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed were to American lore — larger than life. His name was synonymous with everything good about society.
If you had a dollar for every life he touched at the Y during the 1960s, ‘70s and beyond, you could have taken out a lifetime membership and still had money to spare. Nothing was never a problem with Fletch.
I saw him reach into his pocket when a kid needed some help with a membership. Another time, he sat a teenager down in his office and talked to him about the evils of bullying.
“It’s not doing you or the other kid any good to poke fun,” he warned the child. “Someday the shoe could be on the other foot.’’
So he appointed the child an “assistant counselor’’ and gave him some responsibility in the gym. The “bully” mended his ways, went on to play basketball at Haverhill High and never forgot the encouragement he received from his mentor.
Fletcher came along during the Dick Stearns era at the Y, when the Rudy’s Tigers group was growling inside these walls. There were no strangers here — only friends waiting to meet. One day Fletch came up to me with a proposal.
“Some other YMCAs want to challenge us in ping pong,’’ he said. “You think we can get a few guys together and give them a match?’’
Fletch set up a couple tables and Monday became ping pong night. On came guys like Ron Prue, Stu Hopkins, myself and a ringer named Don Veltsos, who happened to be a New England champion. Fletch was our coach, except when we needed a spare player. He owned a backhand slam that would make you gasp.
We traveled the circuit, playing other Ys along the North Shore. I don’t ever remember losing, except to one another during practice.
Fletch could also play a mean game of racquetball, even squash. He could shoot hoops with the best of them and never let the color of his skin serve as a barrier. He promoted integration at every level.
When the YMCA started a boxing club, Fletch took over the coaching reins and turned out Golden Gloves champions like Mickey Belmer. Few ever knew that he also had a quality mentor in Ray Davenport, a night clerk behind the YMCA desk. Ray was an imposing fighter in his day before leaving the ring, and you wouldn’t want to mess with the guy. He was a man of color like Fletch.
In a day when playing three sports was more the rule than the exception, Fletch lettered in basketball, football and track at both Newburyport High and Brewster Academy in Maine. He served his country with the Air Force during the Korean Conflict.
After leaving the YMCA, he became a recreational officer for the Massachusetts Correctional Facility in Shirley, guiding inmates toward a positive lifestyle. Limp and all, he never distanced himself from a punching bag or a convicted felon.
He often talked about the goodness in man, no matter how rotten to the core he seemed. Fletch always looked for that rainbow after a storm.
Nobody meant more to him than his beautiful wife of 56 years, Janet, and his two boys, Keith and Bruce, who were also raised the “Y” way.
As the years passed and illness began taking its toll, Fletch seldom left the house, except when there was a breakfast invite on the line from buddies like Joe Muldowney. Fletch’s home became a stomping ground for old friends and associates, those he helped along the way.
The walls of his Bradford home were covered with mementos of his boxing days and an impeccable career of community service, which included service with the AmVets, Haverhill Touchdown Club and Elks.
A boxing show one night at DiBurro’s function hall honored Fletch for creating a vision for youth. When he walked through the door, everyone applauded, even those who never saw the man play or coach. Had it been Rocky Marciano, the reception would not have been greater.
A redwood inside a forest of sequoias, Fletch was the proverbial tree of life. He never wavered in a storm.
Fletcher Carter died earlier this month, but he will always remain among us in spirit.
People like him never die in the eyes of a grateful community.
Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.