What continues to be provide me tremendous joy … and for which I am tremendously grateful, and which I consider to be a tremendous privilege – are the stories and remembrances that people share with me related to that magical February in 1980 in a village in the Adirondacks called Lake Placid.
When I think I have heard all the stories, sure enough … along comes another … another wonderful memory and telling of something special and stirring and soul lifting.
And so it happened again in early October when I was in Rochester, NY to speak to students, faculty, and administrators at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a school within the Rochester Institute of Technology.
After I completed my speech, I was able to talk and mingle with people who had been in the audience. A woman named Tish Purcell, a staff assistant at RIT, introduced herself and related something in which her father played a central role during the hockey competition at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Indeed, it seems, that Tish’s father launched an expression of fan support and throaty patriotism that supported and spurred my teammates and I toward the gold medal.
Tish provided me some background – and then sent me a newspaper article which gave me more.
Here is what I learned.
It was early in the fall of 1979, and the Lake Placid Winter Olympic officials and organizing committee sent letters out to volunteer fire departments in the the state of New York, recruiting volunteer firefighters to be employed as firefighters, and in other roles, at the games the following February.
A letter arrived at the volunteer fire department in Clayton, in the 1000 Lakes region of New York, and about a four hour ride from Lake Placid.
One of the volunteer firefighters in Clayton was Robert Purcell, 51, father of Tish, who was in junior high. Tish was the youngest of the seven children of Robert and his wife Virginia.
Robert Purcell – whose day job was as an engineer for New York Telephone Co., for which he started working as a splicer when he was 17 – was in his 35th year as a volunteer firefighter in Clayton.
Robert and Virginia were an all around civic givers and volunteers in the community, participating on several boards and committees. Robert even served as mayor of Clayton for 10 years.
“My mother and father considered it a civic duty to help and be involved – and to make their community a better and happier place to live,” said Tish.
The Clayton firefighters decided that five of their crew could go to Lake Placid, and still leave a force necessary to protect the village and its residents. All the firefighters in Clayton wanted to go to the Olympics, so straws were drawn, with the winning quintet comprised of Robert Purcell, Dave Bultermann, Justin Taylor, Jim Haight, and Russ Marceau.
In early February 1980, the five arrived in Lake Placid, took up residence in a trailer behind the Holiday Inn, not far from the main barn of the Lake Placid Fire Department, where the crew from Clayton would spend most of their time.
On February 12th, two days before the official opening of the games, the boys from Clayton had just gotten settled in and received their credentials. When they had everything set, it was early evening, and they figured on taking a stroll over to the Olympic Fieldhouse where Team USA was playing its first game of the tournament, against Sweden.
Robert Purcell and his comrades walked into the arena, and while they didn’t have tickets, they wanted to see what they could do about getting into the game. Well, it was their good fortune that one of the attendants taking tickets was a Lake Placid fireman whom they had met earlier in the day. The fireman waved them in, with the instructions that they would need to stand and not take a seat. This, of course, would not be a problem for the Clayton firemen.
The men walked into the arena – at about midway through the third period – and they beheld an environment that was totally alien to the bedlam that would be resident in that arena in 10 days.
The place was half full … only about 4,000 in the stands. We were trailing, 2-1, and the crowd was quiet.
Too quiet – for Robert Purcell.
In the following excerpt from an excellent story that Russ Marceau wrote about the Lake Placid adventure of the volunteer firemen from Clayton – and which was published in February 2003, 25 years after the 1980 Olympics – Marceau relates how Robert Purcell jump started spirit and enthusiasm:
Bob looked at me and stated, “There’s something wrong here.” He immediately turned toward the ice, cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted as loud as he could, “Let’s go USA.” Not wanting to be left out on a good thing, I joined right in, “Let’s go USA.”
It was one of those spontaneous actions that have an immediate reaction. People looked around like we were crazy, but … they picked up the chant too. Pretty soon there were 20-30 of us doing it. It was getting noisier (goose bumps), even some of the hockey players looked up. We were on a roll.
Within a minute or two, the place was rocking (a lot of goose bumps now) ….
Yes, the place was rocking. I remember the transformation – the growing crescendo of chants and cheering – all so very much appreciated by every member of the team.
The crowd continued to holler and chant and stamp, as we battled to score and pull even.
With the all that noise in my ears, and only 41 seconds remaining – and Team USA trailing 2-1 – Coach Herb Brooks pulled me from goal to give us another skater and potential goal scorer.
We made good. With just under a half minute remaining, Buzz Schneider fed defenseman Bill Baker, who unleashed a 55-foot rocket that went in net – and tied the game.
We held on for the tie.
It was a tie that put us in position and qualified us to continue the most improbable of quests.
Robert Purcell passed away June 27, 2006, 16 days after he and Virginia’s 57th wedding anniversary. He was 78. Among his extraordinary record of community giving and involvement were 50 years of service on the Clayton Volunteer Fire Department.
The cheering that Robert Purcell started that night in the Olympic Fieldhouse did not stop – it continued for five more games over 12 more days. It got louder and louder – and generated … more and more … goose bumps.
And, you know, in some way, I think that what Robert Purcell started didn’t end at … was not confined to … Lake Placid in February in 1980.
Because, you see, for so many … so, so many – for those who played in the games, those who watched from the stands …. those who watched the games on TV … who listened to them on radio .. and who learned, and who will learn about what happened … the cheering will always be with us – it will never stop.