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A Life: Eugene Torrey, 1934 — 2012; ‘He Would Take People as They Were’

Eugene Torrey stands with his wife, Edna Torrey, in a early 2000s photograph at the Canaan Senior Center where Eugene did volunteer work. (Family photograph)

Eugene Torrey stands with his wife, Edna Torrey, in a early 2000s photograph at the Canaan Senior Center where Eugene did volunteer work. (Family photograph)

Lebanon — A fixture at supermarkets throughout the Upper Valley, Eugene Torrey would walk into a grocery store and find himself right at home.

“He really liked being around people, whether they were strangers or friends,” said Edna Torrey of her late husband, who passed away on Sept. 8. “He knew everybody.”

That familiarity with the Valley was on display earlier this month as Edna Torrey and three of her sons sat around a table at the Crossroads Cafe in White River Junction to reflect on Eugene Torrey’s 77 years.

Julie Miller, an employee at the cafe, paused on her way past the table to share her memories of Eugene Torrey. Decades ago, Miller worked as a cashier at what was then the P& C supermarket in Lebanon, where Torrey used to deliver cookies.

“He used to come in and he would tell us girls stories,” said Miller, who looked around at the table at the Torrey family.

“I knew this family before I actually met this family,” she said, describing Eugene Torrey as very proud of his wife and children.

For residents of the Upper Valley, Torrey was a familiar face in grocery stores everywhere.

He worked in the First National Store in West Lebanon and Al’s Super Market in Hanover before graduating from Lebanon High School in 1953. After being drafted to serve in the Army with the 4th Armored Division in the latter stages of the Korean War, he returned home and went back to work at the Super Duper in West Lebanon, before eventually opening and managing the Super Duper in Hanover. He then spent 34 years working for Supreme Cookie Distributors, selling Keebler and Archway cookies to grocers around the Valley.

Edna Torrey said that the job was a perfect fit for Eugene Torrey’s personality.

“Mainly, he was a salesman,” she said. “It didn’t matter if he was working for a living or just selling something for fun, it was the same thing.”

Even after Eugene Torrey retired at the age of 64 because his job delivering cookies had grown too physically demanding, he soon returned to the local grocers after being offered a job to stock shelves for Keebler.

“The pay was lousy, but it got him back into the stores,” said Edna Torrey. “He probably would have done it for nothing. It was good for him, he needed to be out in the public.”

To his family, Eugene Torrey was a devoted husband, father, and an especially enthusiastic grandfather.

David Torrey, Eugene’s 48-year-old son who works as a manager at Thrifty Car Rental in White River Junction, remembered the strong reaction his father had six years ago when hospice workers told him he had only six months left to live.

“He in no uncertain terms threw the hospice people out, told them to go to Hell,” said David Torrey. “He was going to watch his grandson play basketball, and he did. He made it through four years of Conner’s high school basketball, and I couldn’t even tell you how many games.”

Conner Torrey, now a 19- year-old sophomore at Plymouth State University, is the son of Randy Torrey, a 45-year-old postal worker also from White River Junction, where the family grew up.

Randy Torrey remembers his father as a “very loud” fan. At a game at Stevens High School in Claremont, Eugene Torrey couldn’t make it up the bleachers, so he watched from court-side seats instead.

“I’m watching from up on the balcony, and I can hear dad clear as a bell from the other side of the court, on the opposite end and through the crowd, yelling for the boys,” said Randy Torrey.

By all accounts, Eugene Torrey’s favorite part of retirement was being able to devote nearly all of his time and energy to his family.

When working as a cookie delivery-man, Torrey also spent most of his time on the road.

“He would be gone by the time the kids got up, and they’d be in bed by the time he got home,” said Edna Torrey.

Long days were the norm for Eugene Torrey, who worked hard throughout his life. He was seven when his father died, and his mother passed away just before his senior year of high school.

Randy Torrey said he remembers a story his father told about a day at Lebanon High School, when a fellow student put a thumb tack on somebody’s chair and the teacher gave everyone in the class detention as punishment.

According to Randy Torrey, after-school detention was a luxury his father couldn’t afford.

“He said, ‘No, I have to work,’ and he didn’t stay for it,” he said.

But Eugene Torrey, who grew up poor, wanted a better life for his children, which sometimes led to good-natured arguments between him and his wife.

“I’d say, ‘You give these kids too many toys,’ ” said Edna Torrey. “He didn’t have them when he grew up, and he knew what it meant to not have toys.”

According to his sons, dad was also notably generous when it came to grocery shopping, which he enjoyed doing despite spending much of his time in supermarkets.

“As kids, we could always tell who did the shopping,” said David Torrey, who added that there were “a lot more snacks when dad went shopping.”

Aside from his generosity and love of salesmanship, another passion of Eugene Torrey’s, agreed his children, was that “things needed to be fair.”

David Torrey remembered a story his father used to tell about going to get a beer at a local White River Junction bar in the 1970s with his African American friend, Charlie Crumb. The bartender there refused to serve Crumb, for unspoken yet obvious racial reasons.

“My father said, ‘You know what, I don’t want a beer either,’ then they both walked out,” said David Torrey.

According to his sons, Eugene Torrey told that story a lot.

“He would take people as they were, and it had nothing to do with what race you were, how much money you had, or what kind of car you drove,” said David Torrey. “It was just about the kind of person you were. If he thought you were a good person, that was all that mattered.”

Aside from the basketball games, Eugene Torrey loved spending his retirement with his son Mark’s twin granddaughters, and with his friends at the American Legion Post in White River Junction, where he was a post commander at one time and chaired the Senior Citizen’s Bingo for more than 30 years.

He also loved traveling across the country with his wife. Together, they went to every state except for Oregon.

Edna Torrey said Eugene’s favorite places were Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Hawaii. Despite being an Upper Valley Native, he was not a fan of the cold.

For his family, Eugene Torrey leaves behind a big void. His sons visibly teared up as they talked about their dad, and Edna Torrey said people still ask her about him.

“Everybody just misses him a lot,” she said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.