By Don’s Early Light: Army of One Protests Coach’s Departure
Retired Hartford school teacher Paul Keane sits along Route 14 on June, 20, 2014 in White River Junction, Vt., with a sign urging football coach Mike Stone not to leave. Keane is a member of the Hartford School Board. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
Hartford High football coach Mike Stone addresses his team during a break in an Aug. 24 scrimmage at Hanover. Valley News - Tris Wykes
White River Junction — Paul Keane is fed up, and he’s not going to take it any more.
The former Hartford High English teacher and current member of the School Board was so upset over the news of football coach Mike Stone’s resignation earlier this week that he took to the streets Friday to publicly show his displeasure.
First Friday morning and then again later in the afternoon, Keane manned his post on the corner of Hartford Avenue and Maple Street in White River Junction to show his support for Stone, the longtime Hartford football coach who announced earlier this week that he was leaving his post after 28 years.
“I don’t care if I’m allowed to do this or not,” said Keane, alternately waving to people honking their horns in support or waving a sign saying, ‘Coach Stone Please Stay.’
“I feel we were remiss in that we didn’t listen to rumors of Stone’s dissatisfaction.
“I should have asked the board to find out what we needed to do to keep him. I feel it was my inexperience that actually made him feel hung out to dry.”
Keane sounded the alarm in an email earlier this week when news of Stone’s resignation came public.
“I hope the chaos surrounding the rec bond did not push him into this,” wrote Keane.
It was a sentiment shared by many in the Hartford community. And the reason for Keane’s public stand.
The team’s weight room is now disassembled, forcing players to seek other avenues for their workouts — locations that charge for what once was free.
Then there was the problem with the bond that raised $3.25 million for constructing a new track, all-weather turf football field and field house. (A portion of those funds went to completing renovations at the middle school.)
In actuality, the recreation projects, all of which haven’t been completed — or even started — are now projected to cost closer to $4.55 million — the field house $1.55 million, the track and turf field roughly $3 million — a figure the voters couldn’t justify, signified by residents rejecting a $3 million supplemental bond at Town Meeting in March to make up the shortfall in funds needed to complete the projects.
Thus the road forward has been uncertain regarding what projects would be completed, leaving Stone and his football program out in the cold. The School Board, to this day, hasn’t decided how to expend the remaining funds from the original bond, which total $1.5 million.
“Mike would never say anything because he is such a gentleman, but we have heard about this for months ... that the problems with the field funding pushed him out.
“Maybe we can’t come up with the additional money,” Keane said. “But at least we can come up with a way to keep Stone. It’s just irritating to me that we would allow him to go without anyone trying to keep him. After all the thousands of kids he has affected, the way he has handled himself and represented the school ... now we’re going to throw all that away?”
Jessica Rushton felt the same way.
A 1988 Hartford graduate, Rushton was driving up Hartford Hill on Friday morning, when a vision caught her eye. It was Keane, sitting on a hard-backed chair next to his classic 1984 T-top Camaro Z-28. He was a sight that could stop traffic, with a broad-brimmed sun hat shielding his face, holding his large plastic sign.
Rushton had just been talking about Stone when she saw the sign. She immediately turned around and stopped to visit with Keane.
“I think it’s awesome what you are doing,” she told Keane. “He was my teacher,” she said of Stone. “He’s just the best.”
Rushton related a story of how she had left the area following Hartford graduation, returning three years ago. “I ran into Coach Stone at the store, and he remembered me by name — after all that time,” she said.
“My son is going into high school next year, and I’m just so upset he won’t have Mr. Stone as his teacher.”
A lot of people in town are feeling that exact sentiment.
And by the number of horns serenading him as the cars drove by — including Kevin Christie, chairman of the School Board, and Alex DiFelice, co-chairman of the Select Board — people in Hartford are feeling Keane’s pain, too. He hopes the support can start a local groundswell that might change Stone’s mind — or at least bring the matter out into the public eye.
“I just want to raise the issue and see what we can do,” said Keane. “If I can’t (lead the protest), let them fire me. I don’t give a damn. But friendship is more important than politics.”
Don Mahler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3225.