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A Life: Keith Page, 1957-2014; ‘The Power of His Spirit’

Lebanon native Keith Page, who died in March, was a longtime member of the Rutland (Vt.) Rugby Club and is shown here in an undated photo while at a tournament with the organization. Page, nicknamed "Moose", was revered throughout the Rutland area for his work in the public schools with special education students, his toil as a multi-sport referee and his volunteer efforts with the Special Olympics. (Photograph courtesy Lucille Page Rogers)

Lebanon native Keith Page, who died in March, was a longtime member of the Rutland (Vt.) Rugby Club and is shown here in an undated photo while at a tournament with the organization. Page, nicknamed "Moose", was revered throughout the Rutland area for his work in the public schools with special education students, his toil as a multi-sport referee and his volunteer efforts with the Special Olympics. (Photograph courtesy Lucille Page Rogers)

Lebanon — Rob Bliss dreaded waking his teenage son, Keegan, on Friday, March 7 in Rutland, Vt.

The family had lost one of its dearest friends, 56-year old Keith Page, a Lebanon native who had succumbed to a head injury after a heart attack and subsequent fall three days earlier.

Bliss’ three children had grown up delighting in the company of their father’s rugby teammate, a bearded, 6-foot-3 lock forward who held his ears back with electrical tape during matches and had a gift for connecting with young people and the world at large.

“The first thing any of my kids would ask when we arrived at a rugby game or practice was ‘Where’s Moose?’” recalled Bliss, using Page’s longstanding nickname. “I had seen him at the hospital with a pulse and because he was such a big, strong guy who ran marathons, we all really believed he was going to make it. When he didn’t, it was devastating.”

Upon being told the news that morning, 14-year old Keegan Bliss cried in his father’s arms.

“My son is this big brute of a kid,” Bliss, Rutland’s assistant superintendent of schools, said fondly of his 6-2 high school freshman. “But he sobbed and I had to hold him like when he was just a little boy and had fallen off his bike. That’s how it hit everyone. I saw big guys who had played rugby for a long time just break down and weep.”

Page is still mourned far and wide, for he was involved in a large number of activities and made an impression in all of them. Whether as a friend, intermediate school educator, summer camp counselor, rugby teammate or multi-sport referee, his involvement was more than surface deep.

Perhaps the clearest example came when the Rutland High boys lacrosse team took the field weeks after Page’s death. The Raiders’ school logo usually features an arrowhead outline around a pair of interlocking Rs, but the team this season changed its helmet decals so the letters were instead a K and a P, a highly unusual tribute.

“Here was a vital, athletic guy and his death really brings home mortality to the rest of us,” said Mary Moran, Rutland’s school superintendent. “You couldn’t bump into anyone who wasn’t talking about Moose. He was so quiet and unassuming, so the power of his spirit and how he loved the children he worked with was an interesting juxtaposition.”

Page’s own childhood was spent in a house near the intersection of Green and Shaw Streets in downtown Lebanon, a few blocks east of Colburn Park. His mother, Eva, was a phone switchboard operator at Mary Hitchcock Hospital for 25 years and his father, Eliot, was a news reporter known as the “Voice of the Valley” who moved between positions at several local radio stations and the Valley News during his career.

Father and son shared a love of baseball, but while Eliot, a native of Newton, Mass., was loyal to the hometown Boston Red Sox, the oldest of his three children somehow became a New York Yankees fan. This led to a noisy soundtrack in the living room when the teams clashed on television.

“They were extremely loud and we could still hear them with the doors closed,’ said Keith’s sister, Lucille Page Rogers.

Keith’s love of the Bronx Bombers also served as the connection for a lifelong friendship with classmate Brian Ordway, who also rooted for the Yankees. A local pal with that allegiance was hard to come by in those days, so the two stuck together against hordes enraptured with the likes of Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Tiant and Carlton Fisk.

“There were maybe only four of us Yankees fans in the whole junior high school,” said Ordway, who later had Page serve as an usher in his wedding. “When we got older, we’d go camping near Boston and stand in line to buy (Fenway Park) bleacher tickets the day of their games against New York.”

Although he loved sports and was a historical and statistical repository on the subject, Page wasn’t much of an athlete as a youngster. Roger Carroll, a veteran radio and newspaper reporter in the Upper Valley who now works in Nashua, recalled being two grades behind Page in school, but playing on the same Little League baseball team. One triumphant moment, however, stood out from when the boys were 10 and 12, respectively.

Their team, with one victory all season, was playing its summer finale and was miraculously tied with the bases loaded and two outs in the final inning. However, Page was up to bat and optimism was not running high.

“Keith had no hand-eye coordination and we were all realists about the situation, because we’d seen him hit before,” Carroll said. “He has two strikes on him and he smacks one right off the front of the pitching rubber and straight up into the air. Everybody on the bases starts running, but Keith is incredibly slow and we all know that when the ball comes down, the pitcher will throw him out.

“But he chucks the ball into right field and we win and we all mobbed Keith.”

By the time Page reached Lebanon High in the early 1970s, he had transitioned to being a team manager. However, he still enjoyed competing with a bunch of fellow students and teachers in games of softball and touch football after school hours or on weekends. Sometimes the contests would take place on the school fields, other times in Dartmouth’s Leverone Field House or on the frozen surface of Canaan Lake.

“He was just the most inept player, but no matter how many times he’d strike out or drop a ball or get shuffled off to the position where he would do the least damage, he maintained such a great spirit and kept coming back,” said Dan Riley, a teacher now living in California who was less than a decade older than many of his students at the time.

“When I found out later that Keith was playing rugby and running all the time, I at first thought he would have been the last one I would have picked to do that. But then I realized he should have been the first one I picked, because he was so dedicated to the game and put himself out there every time.”

Page eventually headed to Keene State College, where he discovered rugby and joined Phi Mu Delta fraternity, where he picked up his nickname, before earning a sports journalism degree. That field didn’t pan out and his sister recalled him working as a bouncer at the Elbo Room bar in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., before winding up in Rutland, commuting to a job making rice cakes in southern Vermont.

It was at this stage that Bliss and Page, former Keene State fraternity brothers, reconnected through their membership in the Rutland Rugby Club. With Bliss’ guidance and encouragement, Page became a paraeducator in the city’s schools, working with children in grades three through eight. Sometimes he was assigned to a 1-on-1 role and sometimes to an entire class. Regardless, his patience, warmth and encouragement made special needs children glow.

“He was a big, tall rail of a guy and watching him bend over a boy in a wheelchair and how the little guy beamed up at him just warmed your heart,” Moran said. “If I had a child, I would want them in Keith’s care.” Moran also noted that Page was a co-founder of Rutland’s Special Olympics program and he co-coordinated the school district’s unified sports program with Carolyn Ravenna. That program brings athletes with and without intellectual disabilities together to compete in sports such as soccer, basketball and bowling. Page also led a group that learned to snowshoe.

His connection with Ravenna led to seven years of summer work at Silver Towers, an overnight camp for the disabled in Ripton, Vt., where she’s been the director for 12 years. In addition, Page refereed soccer, basketball, lacrosse and rugby games and found time to take regular vacations to Jamaica with his wife, Janet.

During his later years, he became a dedicated, long-distance runner and Bliss recalled that he never knew anyone who practiced and played more rugby.

It was a nasty shock, then, when news spread on March 4 that Page had taken ill after jogging to vote at a polling station in Rutland’s Calvary Bible Church. The fall caused by a heart attack led to the head injury that eventually killed him, but some of his organs were harvested through a donor program.

“He had found his niche, working with kids,” said Diane Page O’Hara, his oldest sister. “He accepted people for who they were and he was so encouraging.”

Despite being held during a severe snowstorm, Keith Page’s memorial service drew hundreds of mourners and the sting of his absence remains fresh. Ravenna recently returned to her house to find a small, framed picture tucked inside the storm door. It was an image of Keith and one of his school students, their faces covered in whipped cream, their smiles beaming through the sticky sweetness. There was no accompanying note.

“My birthday had been that Saturday and it was such a nice gift,” Ravenna said.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.