A Life: Luna Harriet Ricker ‘was a servant leader’

  • Luna Ricker is photographed for her Hartford High School senior portrait, where she graduated in 1966. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • As athletic trainer at Hartford High School, Luna Ricker takes to the ice with the varsity hockey team in the 1980s. (Family photograph)

  • Luna Ricker plays croquet with her family at her brother and sister-in-law's summer home on Mascoma Lake in 2014. Ricker won most of the competitive games. (Family photograph)

  • Luna Ricker, upper left, is photographed with the Hartford High School girls basketball team in the 1970s. Ricker worked at the school for 46 years as a physical education teacher and athletic trainer. (Family photgoraph) Family photographs

  • Hartford High School Principal Nelson Fogg talks about Luna Ricker during a retirement reception at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on June 4, 2018. Ricker has been at the school for 38 years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photo — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/20/2019 10:26:29 PM
Modified: 10/20/2019 10:26:34 PM

HARTFORD — Doug Heavisides, director of the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center, played football for Hartford High during the 1980s. It was not a decade of wild success for the Hurricanes and they sometimes required the ministrations of longtime de facto trainer and confidant, Luna Ricker.

Short and a bit rumpled, Ricker wore oversized glasses and a no-nonsense exterior that hid a deeply compassionate heart. She was often draped in the tools of her trade, including a nylon belt to which multiple rolls of athletic tape could be attached.

“If she had one roll on there, we were going to win,” Heavisides recalled with humor at Ricker’s recent memorial service. “If she had two rolls, then it was probably a 50-50 chance. But if she had three or more rolls, you knew we were probably going to lose and get hurt.

“My senior year we were 1-8 and it seemed like every game, Luna showed up with at least five rolls of tape.”

That was Ricker, well-prepared and unlikely to sugarcoat the situation. A jack of all trades and a master of many at Hartford for 46 years, the Wilder resident became part of her community’s fabric as a teacher, sports coach, emergency medical technician and church sexton.

“Luna is one of those rare people in this world who have done so much good for so many that she is instantly recognizable by her first name,” said Lebanon High athletic director Mike Stone at his friend’s service.

Stone, a onetime Hurricanes sports standout and football coach, recalled being in elementary school and pestering a young Ricker, who lived up the street from his family, to take him and his brother to Hartford football games. They’d always go for ice cream afterward, Stone said, remembering how the boys’ appetites elicited a smile from their neighbor.

Ricker, who died on Sept. 21 at 71 of complications from lung disease, was reminiscent of the title character in the “Where’s Waldo?” cartoons. She was to be found at almost any Hartford High gathering, from sports to theater productions to graduation. Heavisides entered the teacher’s lounge one day to find the soda machine open and a kneeling Ricker “up to her elbows” inside it, eventually fixing its guts with… athletic tape.

“She always had her ear to the ground and if you had done something you weren’t supposed to, Luna knew,” said 1983 graduate Stephanie Latta, now a Colorado resident. “But she wouldn’t say anything unless she had to.”

Ricker could be blunt, stubborn and grumpy, but she also possessed the skill of passing judgment via suggestion. Generations of students, tucked under her figurative wing, were encouraged, reprimanded and prodded in the right direction.

“I loved Luna and her ability to fix things,” Heavisides said. “Like kids who ask for affection in the most unloving of ways.”

Ricker grew up with brothers Alvin and Rufus, although the latter drowned in the White River in 1955. She lived in the same Wilder house at the intersection of Hartford Avenue and Fern Avenue for almost her entire life. Her father, Allyn, worked in maintenance for Dartmouth College and later as a custodian and bus driver in Hartford. Her mother, Anna Grant Ricker, worked at the Wilder School and Hartford High, preparing and serving lunch to students and staff.

Ricker competed in field hockey, basketball and softball and was Hartford’s first girl to play Little League baseball. She also played trumpet in the band and her early ambition was to become a music teacher.

“Luna was Title IX before Title IX existed,” said her grand-nephew, Adam Ricker, stealing a line from one of his relatives.

Luna Ricker graduated from Hartford High in 1966 and attended the College of Emporia in Kansas, where she played softball. That school was suggested by her guidance counselor, Ken Dyer, who knew of another Hartford student who’d had a good experience there.

Ricker would sometimes hitch rides on military transport planes to return to New England and earned a degree in physical education in 1970. After beginning her teaching career with two years in Milton, Vt., during which she often came home on weekends, she landed a job at her alma mater in 1972.

For the next four decades plus, Ricker was omnipresent on campus. She often took morning attendance and was the go-to substitute for myriad classes outside her own discipline. During theatrical rehearsals, graduation practice and banquets, Ricker was there. Latta recalls skipping the first several weeks of typing class until Ricker took over for its sick teacher and coaxed, goaded and prodded her would-be truant to a passing grade.

Todd Bebeau, a 1987 Hartford graduate and now the school’s longtime boys hockey coach, badly sprained an ankle during the Hurricanes’ 1986 football state semifinal triumph. It seemed certain the linebacker wouldn’t play, but Ricker worked ceaselessly to shrink the swollen joint and restore its mobility.

“Before, during and after school, it was ice baths and range-of-motion exercises,” Bebeau said. “If not for her, I would have missed out on such a great athletic experience.”

Ricker imprinted values on those around her, not just at school but through her work with the Greater Hartford United Church of Christ. She once took the field hockey team overseas on a trip dubbed “Gales to Wales” and made similar excursions with church youth groups.

“She was a servant leader and it’s eye-opening how much of the ethos here is tied to her,” said Jeff Moreno, a 1996 graduate and three-sport athlete and now the Hurricanes’ athletic director. “While she taped your ankle, she talked about how to interact with teammates and opponents and coaches. She did it in such a gentle way that you didn’t even know you were learning.”

Hartford teams on the road knew it must be a big game if they stepped off the bus and saw Ricker’s blue Ford Taurus in the parking lot. She was a daily reader of not only the Valley News but the Rutland Herald and Burlington Free Press, perusing the latter two papers so as to stay up on the Hurricanes’ opponents.

Ricker rode around Hartford’s athletic fields on an old golf cart Heavisides nicknamed the “Luna Module.” This meant, he said, that when it halted and its driver stiffly disembarked, that a “Luna landing” had just occurred.

“We used to ask each other on bus rides how old Luna was,” Moreno said. “What year did she graduate? Did she have kids? She never talked about herself, so there was this mystique around her.”

Bebeau returned to Hartford in 1993 as a rookie P.E. teacher. He was flummoxed as to why his classes continually ran out of balls during the tennis unit. It was Ricker who finally let him know that every time he turned his back, students were walloping the fuzzy orbs onto the roofs of the adjacent high school and middle school.

“I needed advice or just someone to vent to, and Luna’s greatest gift was her ability to listen,” Bebeau said.

That gift was perhaps put to no better use than when a Hartford youngster wound up injured and/or in trouble and chose to call Ricker rather than his or her parents, sometimes from a hospital emergency room.

“She often knew before anyone else in this town that you needed help and she was often the first one there,” Stone said at Ricker’s service. “She didn’t leave until she knew you were going to be OK.”

Ricker was certified as an emergency medical technician, not as an athletic trainer, so Hartford eventually brought on certified athletic trainer Jeni Frechette to handle football, ice hockey and lacrosse. It could have been awkward, but the two women treated each other with mutual respect and shared knowledge.

“She had a mind like a steel trap and filled me in on who all the old-timers in town were,” said Frechette, who lives in Ricker’s neighborhood. The pair worked together for four years and Frechette discovered what her colleague rarely discussed: that she had battled a chronic lung disease for more than a decade.

“People would laugh that she was so slow to get out on the field to treat a player, but she couldn’t go any faster,” Frechette said, recalling that Ricker endured regular medical procedures to lubricate her lungs and struggled with related heart and kidney issues.

Ricker fainted at the high school early in 2018 and her doctor ordered her to retire. This only slightly reduced her attendance at Hartford events and as recently as last spring, she could be found watching lacrosse from the window of her car, parked tightly alongside the field’s chain-link fence on Highland Avenue. Tubing from an oxygen tank snaked under her nose, but her wits hadn’t diminished.

“We’d better start playing defense,” she said testily.

A month or so later, Ricker needed her oxygen tank fulltime and a wheelchair to boot. Frechette often took her to lunch and did her friend’s grocery shopping until she entered the hospital around Sept. 1. Despite that move, Ricker’s death caught those close to her off-guard.

Frechette said Ricker had been trying to convince her doctor to let her attend Hartford’s Sept. 20 football game, when her brother was honored along with other military veterans. That didn’t pan out, but Ricker watched a video of the contest the next morning.

“She had a heart episode at noon and died that Saturday night,” Frechette said.

Online condolence messages quickly accumulated.

Jayne Lewis, of Newton, Mass., recalled a “fun-loving P.E. teacher… who never got mad at those of us who couldn’t swing a baseball bat to save our lives. She wanted her students to have fun and feel good about themselves at the same time.”

Wrote Kate (Symancyk) Murphy of Essex Junction, Vt.: “She was there to help not just the athletes… She cared about the students of Hartford more than we ever realized or appreciated at the time.”

From Sue Griggs of Williston, Vt.: “She taught me to play tennis after swimming lessons and was my basketball coach during a great J.V. year. Mostly, she taught me how to persevere, to foster teamwork and love, especially those close to you.”

Adam Ricker said early excavations of his great aunt’s vast collection of town and school documents, publications and mementos revealed copies of almost every Hartford High yearbook dating back to the 1940s. In many of them, alongside photos of her former classmates and students, Luna Ricker had tucked newspaper clippings that noted weddings, funerals and accomplishments.

The house also holds an enormous collections of items related to the Peanuts comic strip and its characters. The family is hoping to find a fellow collector who would like to acquire them.

Ricker’s well-attended memorial service was held in the Hartford High gym, some attendees passing through what’s long been known as the “Luna Door” at the room’s rear, near where its namesake kept her office. Stone concluded the 80-minute gathering with a simple yet poignant message.

“If you can’t find words to describe what Luna meant to you, then choose actions instead and work to do what she did best,” he said. “We can all try to live our lives in a way that honors Luna’s legacy if we exhibit a little of her humility and compassion for others.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.

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