Part 2 in a series
By M.E. Jones
DEVENS -- Before former Nashoba Publishing sports editor Ken Blanchette had a disabling stroke in spring 2012, the work he did for a living was the focus of his days and a defining joy in his life -- nothing short of a labor of love.
"I used to work seven days a week, but it didn't feel like it," he said in a recent interview.
Now, he misses the job and the camaraderie he enjoyed on the playing fields and in the high schools on his beat.
"The schools, parents, athletic directors and coaches, and most of all, the kids" made his job special, he said. "Every day was a good day because of the people I worked with and covered."
And he sorely misses working with Nashoba Publishing editor Kate Walsh King, whose tenure with the newspapers also dates back decades, and like his, bridged the change of ownership when the former family business was sold to MediaNews in 2000.
"Kate ... I don't even know what to say about her," he said, reaching for one of the tissues piled up next to him. "She was always there, doing more than anyone.
"Any team that has a great leader ... I've found that team is invaluable ... and that is Kate, times two," he said. "She never complains, loves the paper ... and knows what she wants."
Blanchette, however, didn't always know what he wanted for a career.
After four years in the Navy, married and with a young son, he and his family moved from Ayer to Hudson, where he worked in a laboratory. The job wasn't bad, he said, but he was on the lookout for something he liked better.
Turns out, he liked sports and had a gift for writing about them.
When he started as a part-time sports writer for Nashoba Publications, then owned by the Hartnett family, Blanchette took on another job with the same outfit to make ends meet, delivering newspapers to local stores.
By then, his wife, Kathy, had a good job in Boston, "making $10 an hour," while Ken worked at the paper. Then, after a dust-up with the publisher, he quit. It was a rash move he soon regretted, and after an 18-month hiatus, he went back to become sports editor.
"It was brutal," Kathy said of that year and a half away from the work he loved, cobbling together temporary jobs in the meantime.
She remembers the day he called to say he'd been offered a full-time job at the newspaper, asking for her advice. Should he go for it?
"I said, go ahead, take the job," she said.
Neither of them recalled the exact date but agreed it was in the 1980s.
Early on, Blanchette covered Lunenburg sports, when Ron Lamothe was the baseball coach. The team had a tough time. "They just couldn't win," Blanchette said.
The next fall, his beat widened to include football. Once, when he showed up at a game, notepad in hand, a coach "charged over" to confront him. Apparently, no newspaper ever covered LHS football games before.
"He thought I was a spy," Blanchette said. "I told him I didn't know enough (about the game) for that."
But he learned on the job.
"We did previews of each school's upcoming sports" lineup, and he liked working with the coaches, Blanchette said. "That's how it got going."
As time went on, he covered high-school sports in Ayer and Groton but not at North Middlesex Regional. Later, another sports writer, Todd Sawyer, would pick up that school, as did Blanchette's son, Derek, Blanchette said. Eventually, Derek went there, too.
Over the years, a couple of other writers came and went, but for the most part, producing Nashoba's sports pages was a one-man show, plus Derek, Blanchette said. During his time away, Bill Gillman filled in but there was no sports editor.
"I was glad to be back," he said, recalling how "ticked" his wife was with him for walking out.
"I did a little bit of everything" during that 18-month hiatus, Blanchette said, including a part-time stint with a cable company in Westford. "It was tough." Back at Nashoba, he was happy again.
The writing life
Blanchette's sports stories were witty as well as accurate, and his style was all his own. But he's no great writer, he said. "I worked hard at it."
The effort showed. At some point, Blanchette realized he could take college courses through the Navy and he took a writing class at Mount Wachusett Community College. It was his only formal training. But he was a natural. The teacher wrote on one of his papers, "You should write a book," calling him "a male version of Erma Bombeck," Kathy said.
"He was so creative ... so funny," she said, noting that he'd make up his own greeting cards for holidays and birthdays.
"The flow came naturally," Blanchette said. "I didn't worry about what everyone else did."
Asked about favorite authors, Blanchette had none to name. "I don't read," he said. Especially not now, with his stroke-damaged brain struggling to recover.
But he denied ever having much of a vocabulary. Maybe so, but he always seemed to find the right words to describe a game or a student-athlete's accomplishments, on the field or off.
"I put the kids first," Blanchette said.
Which brings the conversation around to Sports Night, the Blanchette brainchild that came to be a popular annual event for nearly a decade, with the last hurrah coming shortly after his stroke.
With Derek as substitute speechwriter/emcee, others at the newspaper stepped up to do the legwork Blanchette traditionally did himself, from booking the venue to ensuring that the honorees' invitations had gone out and plaques arrived on time. The event went off without a hitch, albeit without its founder and tireless promoter.