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Keene International Festival showcases an evolving Elm City

Milling about between Finnish, Jamaican, Greek and other flags from around the world, hundreds of people descended on the Elm City’s Fuller Park under a clear sky for the second annual Keene International Festival.

Cultural cuisine was served in tents around the perimeter of the park, with a stage set in the back by the intersection of Gilsum Street and Washington Street for dance performances and other entertainment.

Some attendees wore cultural attire to honor their heritage, while others broke out shorts and sundresses for one of the last warm, clear blue summer afternoons.

However, attendees said the nascent festival had much more to offer than just tasty food and sunshine.

For state Rep. Joe Schapiro, D-Keene, the second go-round for the festival marked an evolving Elm City.

“I’ve lived here for over 30 years, and, you know, this is a relatively homogeneous community,” said Schapiro, who was there raising awareness for the Keene Immigration and Refugee Partnership. “It is so much different than two or three years ago. You know, you walk down the street, and you see lots of different kinds of people. And it’s really good.”

Others, like Keene State College junior Jedidiah Crook of Nashua, were there to tell the stories of those who are often forgotten about in modern-day Keene: the Abenaki Tribe of Native Americans.

Crook worked a table with Kya Roumimper, an Elm City resident and coordinator of the college’s Office of Multicultural Student Support and Success.

Crook and Roumimper were advocating for the Keene City Council to pass a resolution to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 14 — Columbus Day. They hope to gain the support of outgoing Keene Mayor Kendall Lane, as well as that his successor, to make a proclamation in support of indigenous communities.

Another reminder Crook wanted to share with attendees was an appreciation of place — past, present and future.

“The biggest thing — in terms of the Green New Deal, the Climate Strike [the worldwide protest held Friday] — a lot of what we’re talking about is the land,” Crook said. “So first, I think personally, we have to talk about the land in which we live on, and if that doesn’t include acknowledging the people who have lived here since before colonialism, then the environmental movement has to acknowledge that.

“The land is the most intersectional thing in existence.”

Across from Crook and Roumimper’s table, a relative newcomer was serving a long line of neighbors at one of the most in-demand tents at the festival.

Avye Andonellis, who was running a tent serving baklava and other treats for the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, described how she chose to move to Keene after living in Greece for 20 years partially because it had such a church.

During that time, she ran a feta cheese and olive oil factory with her husband, Peter, on the island of Lesvos.

At Fuller Park Saturday, Andonellis reflected on how the church grounds her within the community.

“Being that we didn’t have any family here, our church is our family,” she said.

The festival had an intimate feel to it as customers chatted with vendors waiting in line. Face-to-face conversation and new encounters washed over the more solitary stresses of modern life.

Most of the day, there was not a cellphone in sight.

It was also a chance for local businesses to strut their stuff.

Noulieng Keopras, owner of the Taste of Thai restaurant in Brattleboro, brought his menu along in a food truck, which normally camps out by the Mobil gas station by Interstate 91’s Exit 3.

Keopras said the festival was a great chance to introduce his restaurant and a way to pay homage to his father, Khampha, by serving some of his favorites, like drunken noodles.

“Thai food is a little spicy, here and there,” Keopras warned new customers.

By the entrance to the festivities, Finnish flags greeted everyone who walked in as Adrianna Stefanko of Fitzwilliam sold an array of Suomi pastries.

After just baking for friends and family as a school teacher in Royalston, Mass., Stefanko went pro three years ago with her home bakery, Finnish Mama.

“My great-grandmother [Esther Holman] baked, but I never got to see her bake or have her nisu ... so about 10 years ago I taught myself,” Stefanko said before an interruption from a customer.

“This is coffee bread?” Jean Jearrecht of Keene asked.

“Nisu, yes!” Steanko replied. “Finnish coffee bread.”

“Oh, alright, I love it!” Jearrecht said. “I’m not Finnish. I’m Swedish, but my grandmother used to bake [a similar pastry] ... And this was just a favorite.”

The two had a chuckle over the Scandinavian unity.

Although cities like Nashua and Manchester have formal refugee re-settlement programs making their communities more diverse, Schapiro and others said the Keene festival should show those in the Monadnock Region how a welcoming climate for immigrants can be a strength.

“People in the Legislature are constantly talking about how New Hampshire is getting older and older, and the difficulties with workforce — and also the difficulties keeping young people in New Hampshire,” Schapiro said before underscoring the untapped potential immigrants could bring to the Elm City.

“It’s also about a real opportunity to bring new people and hard working people and people who have ideas about how to start businesses to communities like Keene.”

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Soccer community turns out to honor Keene State coach

Ron Butcher laments that he never won the big one; a national championship, that is.

Saturday, in front of fans, colleagues and decades of former players, his voice cracked with emotion when he spoke of that regret, the only void — if one can call it that — in a long, distinguished, record-filled career.

Such is the competitive makeup of the self-made soccer coach who amassed 596 wins and a .679 winning percentage over more than four decades.

It’s an asterisk, as he sees it. There is nothing he wanted more to deliver to the college community of which he was so much a part.

It was telling that he mentioned it on this resplendent, sun-dripped September day meant to honor his remarkable legacy and to celebrate the naming of the college’s soccer complex Dr. Ron Butcher Field.

But it was quintessential Butcher. He left the sideline five years ago, but not the game. His world is, to some extent still, colored in shades of X’s and O’s, formations, matchups, and this intrinsic want to evaluate talent.

He’s retired, ostensibly, but he never did hear that final scoreboard horn. He remains one of Keene State’s most visible — and heard — on-campus figures.

“I wish I could have brought Keene State a national title,” he told a crowd of a few hundred during a ceremony following the Owls’ 3-1 win over Rhode Island College that moved Rick Scott’s team to 5-1-0.

No one was surprised. The man with enough accolades to fill dozens of rungs on the tallest ladder was showing his competitive nature still, his toughness, his drive, his still-steely edges.

“This is a man who refused to lose, who had a take-no-prisoners mentality,” Tod Silegy, a former Keene State player in the 1970s, said of Butcher. “In those first years, soccer was very new. His dedication and desire to be the best coach he could be is what would define him.”

The beautiful field and surrounding complex Butcher helped to raise now bears his name: a simple but bold marker that will stand for posterity.

Saturday, players, former players, coaches and friends showed their love and shared stories … so many stories, and the kind that almost always end with a good laugh.

“I didn’t know what it would look like,” Butcher said of the sign, looking at it closely for the first time, “but I knew it would probably say that. This has brought back so many memories. The stories people have remembered and shared with me have made this special.”

“I owe everything to Butch … everything,” Mickey Rooney, arguably one of Keene State’s greatest players, said. “He changed my life.”

Keith Brown is a former Owl goaltender from the 1980s, keeper of seven college records.

“I don’t know how many former players are here today,” Brown said, “but just look around. Butch sticks with his players; he remembers them when they’re gone. It’s not a four-year relationship with him. It’s not just a coach-player relationship that just ends at that.”

Chris Pangalos drove to Keene from Charlotte, N.C., to be part of the weekend. Pangalos is a part of two Keene State Hall of Fame teams. He was a nervous 18-year-old from New York when he took the field for his first practice with the Owls in 1981.

“He was tough, sure,” Pangalos said. “But Butch was not just a tough coach he was a tough dad for a lot of players who didn’t have a strong father figure in their life. You were afraid to do the wrong thing.”

There was no room for devilment on a Butcher team, he said. Practices were intense, competitive. Playing time was always on the line, Pangalos said.

“Butch was intense, no doubt, but underneath it all, that tough exterior, he was a caring guy,” Brown added.

Athletic Director Phil Racicot, like Silegy, talked about Butcher’s “uncommon commitment.” College President Melinda Treadwell, a former Keene State student-athlete, recalled how “terrifying” it was to practice and play in his presence, but, at the end of the day, how he “always modeled excellence, high expectations and success.”

“He was a unique personality,” Graham Jones, another former player from Butcher’s earliest Keene State days said. Jones and Rooney came to Keene from England. “Butch was always open, that’s what I liked. ‘Well, Jonesey, what do you think … what do you see on the field?’ I think that helped his understanding of the game. He always had the final say, but what we thought mattered.”

Butcher’s teams made 31 postseason appearances, as he guided the program to national tournaments and through three division transitions. He was seven times tabbed a coach of the year and he belongs to four halls of fame.

In his remarks Saturday, he talked about his simple but time-tested philosophy.

“Every year started at the bottom and then you try to find a way to climb to the top. I was nothing more than a facilitator of learning. These guys did all the work.

“Our program was built on special people who do things together to make things happen.”

John McCully was a three-time All-America player for Keene State in the 1980s. He now coaches the nation’s No. 6 ranked high school team, Nauset Regional. His son James, a sophomore, scored the game-winning goal for the Owls Saturday, a scorching, tough-angle shot across the face of the goal that found the far corner.

The older McCully said it was no accident that Keene State teams over the years were known for their grit and work ethic as much as anything.

“Be the best that you can be, that was his message,” John McCully said Saturday. “The (Keene State) teams I played for were the hardest working groups I’ve ever been a part of. Butch’s real strength was recruiting, and connections he made and kept. And that helped him bring other players in.

“Butch would go anywhere to recruit; you had to do a lot of road work. He probably saw a hundred high school games a year. It’s different now; you can go to one club showcase tournament and see 100 players in one place.”

Butcher’s trail of players that followed him into coaching at varying levels is considerable.

McCully is in his 27th season as a highly respected soccer coach; Rooney still coaches high school soccer in Rhode Island and Silegy had his own remarkable 22-plus year coaching stint at nearby Franklin Pierce University.

And then there is Scott, who has worked alongside Butcher for more than two decades. Butcher called the two “a dynamic duo,” great friends with a shared passion.

A tough, skilled defender, Scott starred for the Owls in the 1970s. The Owls went 57-12-6 during the years Scott played. Scott coached Keene High for 11 years and then became an associate head coach for the Owls up until Butcher retired.

Scott said Saturday’s event, part of the college’s Reunion Weekend, could not have gone better.

“Our alumni are active; our soccer alumni have kept our tradition strong,” he said. “Everyone knows each other, they respect each other and they love an opportunity like this to get together with everyone. It helps to have a coach who stayed here 43 years.

“We love seeing our alumni. You go anywhere, and we see them, all over the world, at airports, on vacation. It’s a great friendship.”

Scott helped to spearhead the field dedication project, the planning for which took more than a year, and included not only having to round up one rather large guest list, but having to overcome a particularly vexing hurdle.

It is an edict of the University System of New Hampshire that any field renaming occur only in situations where the honoree has passed, Scott told the crowd to start Saturday’s ceremony, joking that that left him with but two options.

Fortunately, the hurdle was cleared.

Butcher said he was particularly glad about that.

“It’s good to be alive for this,” he joked.