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A Life: James ‘Coach’ Marrion, 1935-2014: ‘He Was an Unfailingly Positive, Optimistic and Supportive Person’

James N. "Coach" Marrion in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

James N. "Coach" Marrion in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

Canaan — Jim Marrion’s voice carried far and wide across the athletic fields at Cardigan Mountain School. Yet the longtime football coach’s ability to listen and counsel resonated most within the lives he touched.

A patriarch at Cardigan Mountain School for 40 years as teacher, coach and athletic director, Marrion died Feb. 2, 2014 following a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 79.

Marrion, a West Dover, Vt., native and Keene State College graduate, arrived at the boarding and day school for boys in grades 6-9 in 1967 to teach math and coach multiple sports. The following year, he became athletic director.

First living on campus and later on the other side of Canaan Lake, Marrion was a reliable, friendly and compassionate presence at CMS for decades. Though his responsibilities were extensive, Marrion was never too busy for a student or colleague in need of advice. His small office abutting the campus locker room was always open — and always full.

“He had a red folding chair for visitors to come in and sit down, and the door was literally always open,” recalled friend Bob Low, who taught English and coached three sports at CMS before moving on to become athletic director at the Groton School in Massachusetts. “He was a mentor of mine and showed me the ropes about teaching, work ethic, how to run a dormitory, things like that, but he was so much more for so long. If you needed some advice or you were down about something, you could always go see Jim. No matter how pressing your issue or problem might have been, you always left his office feeling like a million bucks.”

It wasn’t only one-on-one that Marrion shared encouragement and support. He addressed every student as “Tiger” or “Handsome” and famously ended most every conversation with “What can I do to help?” His motto as a football coach, “Hit ‘em hard and help ‘em up,” summarized his sportsmanship-oriented philosophy as a coach.

CMS headmaster Dave McCusker, who played for Marrion as an eighth and ninth grader from 1978-80, called Marrion the “heart and soul” of the school.

“He was and is the absolute embodiment of what we strive to practice here,” said McCusker, a Dartmouth College graduate. “There wasn’t a bad bone in his body. Never in a private moment, or in public, did he ever utter a harsh word or a negative comment about someone. He was an unfailingly positive, optimistic and supportive person. It’s not hyperbole, it’s the way this man lived his life every single day.”

Marrion was also active in Canaan, where he was a volunteer firefighter and helped established the town’s F.A.S.T Squad first responder service in the late 1970s. Yet even on weekends, he was busy with CMS-related duties, whether coaching or occupied with managerial duties.

With no mechanical ice resurfacer on campus through much of his tenure, Marrion maintained the ice skating rink with a fire hose throughout the winter. Stephanie Marrion Spaulding, the youngest of his three daughters, remembers fondly helping to drag the hose out for fresh layer after fresh layer.

“In ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t any artificial ice, and the rink had to be resurfaced every four or five hours,” said Marrion Spaulding, one of four children Jim Marrion had with his wife of 53 years, Constance. “As a kid, a typical (weekend) day would be to help dad pull the fire hose out, flood the ice, go play hide-and-seek for a little while — growing up at the school was a great place for hide-and-seek — or help dad with the hose again. Go have dinner, or shoot hoops in the gym, then go back and do it again. It was a lot of fun.”

While generous with his time and possessions, Marrion was frugal and resourceful with his own things. A pair of shoes might last him 20 years — after all, his feet weren’t getting any bigger.

“He’d just say, ‘they’re comfortable, and they look fine to me,’ ” Marrion Spaulding recalled. “He wasn’t simple-minded by any means, but he liked to keep things simple. His philosophy was to use something until it breaks down and not to throw things away that could still be used. I can’t tell you how much Duct tape he used.”

An avid cribbage player, Marrion most looked forward to spirited games with his son-in-law, Bob Jangro, spouse to his second-eldest daughter, Jennifer. While Jangro was quick to boast whenever he’d won their best-of-three contests, Marrion was his typical humble self when he won.

“He was a much better cribbage player than me, but I was the one who always gloated,” Jangro said. “This past Christmas, I had to shuffle the deck because of his Parkinson’s, but he still played his own hands and he beat me two straight times.

“As usual, he just said, ‘Great game.’ That day, I was happy to lose.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.