By Hiroko Sato
GROTON — Gordon “Tiny” McWade loved big, straight, fast lanes.
Kicking up snow with his skis, McWade felt alive just like he did back in 1942 while training in Colorado with fellow Army ski troops, wearing rifles on their shoulders.
Last winter, at age 92, he still cruised winding snow-covered trails effortlessly. His wife, Peggy, knows skiing made him feel free; he would have flown like a bird if he could.
McWade, a Groton resident of 40 years, died Feb. 11 at his home after a short struggle with colon cancer. He was 93.
When tender sprouts begin to cover those trails this spring, Peggy will visit with colorful pieces of fabrics. Each piece will carry a message of their friendship.
Frank Scimemi, of Groton, will write how much he misses his honest friend with whom he enjoyed lunch every day. Bob Hoople, McWade’s Army buddy from New London, N.H., will treasure sharing rooms on ski trips with the nimble friend who was tasked to carry messages through Italian mountains during World War II.
Hanging from a rope between trees, hundreds of Tibetan “prayer flags” collected from friends across the country will fly high above those foreign mountains wherever he has been. Peggy knows the wind will spread the spirit that bonded McWade and his friends.
“He was just a good guy,” Hoople said. “He knew everybody, and everybody liked him.”
“It’s got to be a big void out of my life,” Scimemi said.
McWade leaves behind his wife of 60 years, artist Peggy McWade; a sister, Kathleen Robertson of Marcellus, N.Y.; a son, Richard McWade of Middleburg, Va.; a daughter, Harris McWade of New Ipswich, N.H.; and two granddaughters, Ellen McWade of Nederland, Colo., and Emilie Gerber of Brighton.
Born Aug. 5, 1917, in Melrose, a son of Emily and Harry McWade, the nature-loving Melrose High School graduate joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 to work in Vermont.
In 1941, Charles “Minnie” Dole, president of the National Ski Patrol, recruited McWade, who was hooked on the sport in high school after trying once to check out the cool-looking equipment. McWade joined the 10th Mountain Ski Division and trained with top skiers from around the U.S. and Europe, including refugees recruited by the Army.
After deployment in Kiska, Alaska, his division sacrificed many men on Mt. Belvedere in Lizzano, Italy, to fight the Germans in 1945, becoming the most decorated division in the Mediterranean Theater, according to Harris McWade. Gordon McWade earned six medals, including the Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal and the Combat Infantry Man Badge.
But McWade rarely talked about it. After the war, he worked as a salesman for Sager Electric for 46 years, and devoted his free time to hiking and climbing with his family and friends. He expressed his faith through small acts of kindness, Peggy said. He would visit sick people to check on them, collect books at the Senior Center to return them to the library and volunteer for the Meals on Wheels program.
Friends could find McWade every morning at Johnson’s Restaurant and Dairy Bar on Route 119. McWade would have lunch at McDonald’s with his best friend, Scimemi, and accompany him to an auto-repair shop to take care of Scimemi’s antique cars.
On the slopes, McWade loved zipping down a long, straight lane. Peggy said he skied as he was: “Gentle and just brave.”
McWade broke some bones in a ski accident more than 10 years ago, but barely slowed down, Hoople said. Last February, McWade traveled to Colorado, as he did every year, to ski with his Mountain Division comrades. In March, he won the age 90-95 division in the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup at Cranmore Mountain Resort in New Hampshire.
And, this summer, Peggy wants to memorize McWade on those trails by hanging Tibetan prayer flags that he loved. The flags aren’t religious, Peggy said. Tibetans believe the thoughts and mantras of those who make the flags will be blown by the wind to spread good will, she said.
From the mountains of Zermatt, Switzerland, to local trails, Peggy will bring the flags to all the places they once enjoyed hiking.
And she knows McWade will be smiling down on his friends.