Rick Scott and Ron Butcher first met in 1972, in a soccer skills class Scott took as a freshman majoring in physical education at Keene State College.
Every class Scott would ask Butcher, the professor, “Need some help setting up?” Every class Butcher would growl, “No, I’m OK.”
“You know Butch,” Scott says, laughing. “Everything has to be perfect for training.”
At a photographer’s request, the pair sat together this week in a booth too small for two at Panera Bread in Keene, pastry for breakfast, before Scott had to hit the road for a recruiting trip to Lynn, Mass. Their moods ranged from somber to slapstick, homespun humor cultivated through decades of friendship and hundreds of car rides to scout high school soccer players throughout the Northeast.
On this morning, though, they were more reflective than rollicking. It’s been a month of mourning for both soccer gurus.
In a startling coincidence, their mothers died within four hours of each other Oct. 8. Hilda Butcher, who would have turned 100 Christmas Day, died at about 2 p.m. and 88-year-old Edna Scott died later that afternoon following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s really unbelievable that it happened like that,” Scott says.
Butcher and Scott have been the faces of the Keene State men’s soccer program for nearly five decades. Butcher, 72, coached for 43 years, retiring in 2013. Scott, his successor, who turns 67 in December, was Butcher’s assistant for 22 years. Moreover, their friendship has pulled each other through many tough times, so maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that they lost their mothers on the same day.
Although their mothers met only a handful of times, the influence they had on their sons’ lives was the undercurrent of the conversation at Panera.
Scott, a Claremont native, wasn’t just another freshman when he enrolled at Keene State under the GI Bill in ’72. He had no intentions of playing soccer.
He was a Vietnam veteran, having spent almost a year there starting in the spring of 1968, at the height of the war. Scott wasn’t in line for a tour of duty, but volunteered so his brother Steve could come home after the swap was approved under the Army’s Sole Survivor Policy.
“Steve was in a bad spot,” Scott says, “and I volunteered to switch with him.”
Both brothers wound up in Vietnam together for three months. Communication to the U.S. was spotty, at best, and Scott says he doesn’t remember if he ever actually talked to his mother from Vietnam.
“It was tough for my mother because he was over there, then we were over there, then I was over there, so it was like 16 or 17 months,” Scott says.
He lost several friends, including one of his closest who stepped on a land mine the day before Scott’s birthday in 1968. “She’s attending these different (funeral) services while she has two kids over there, plus she’s raising five others,” Scott says. “Plus she was working full time. I don’t know how she did it.”
Leader of the owls
Several years older and hardened by the war, Scott enrolled at Keene State as the ultimate non-traditional student.
After three or four classes, Butcher accepted his offer to help set up cones in skills class — “as long as they were perfect,” Scott laughs. With only a five-year age difference, a kinship took root. Butcher recognized Scott’s soccer skills in the indoor sessions and asked him to join his varsity team. He especially took note of his leadership abilities.
“Rick was older and had been through a lot. He also had good, solid stories about character that he passed on to the younger players,” Butcher says. “The reason we were so good is we had older players who could inspire our younger players who hadn’t seen things at that level. Guys like Scotty lent a lot of credence to the team.”
Scott was captain his final two years as the team went 57-12-6 during his career, winning three New England Small College Athletic Conference championships. And Butcher was already taking him on recruiting trips as co-pilot.
“There are so many stories, we could write a book,” Butcher says. “We argued, we agreed.” Oh yes, Scott pipes in, they did disagree sometimes.
Scott went on to coach Keene High School for 11 years, winning two state championships, his younger brother Billy coaching the jayvees for a couple years. Edna Scott was a familiar figure at their games, proud of her sons.
And then everything changed. In 1983, Billy Scott committed suicide.
Billy Scott had also played for Butcher, and was a four-year starter and team captain. It was a Saturday, late afternoon, and Rick Scott had returned to the family home after participating in an indoor tournament at New England College in Henniker. He found his brother’s body in a bedroom upstairs.
“My mother never, ever recovered from that,” Scott says. “Never, ever recovered.”
Both families were led by their mothers: Scott’s dad left his family and Butcher’s father died in 1974. “When he passed away, it took a big chunk out of her,” Butcher says.
Hilda Butcher of Weston, Mass., grew up on a farm and graduated from Brighton High School in 1935. She walked 3½ miles to school every day — uphill, of course, both men joke. She was a faithful reader of the Boston Herald, and when it stopped publishing college soccer scores, she was infuriated and told the paper so.
Scott relates a hilarious story of his brother Billy showing his mother how to tap a keg, which she had never seen before, after she cooked for a team party.
“What about those other nine kegs?” she asked. “Oh, they’ll all be gone,” Scott says in telling the story. “She really loved all that.”
Hilda Butcher would occasionally offer her son coaching advice. “Mom would call and say, ‘Get the boys together and have a chat — give them a kick in the butt if they need it,’ ” Butcher says, adding that she’d sometimes suggest it was he and Scott who needed the kick.
Whereas Alzheimer’s led to a steady decline in Edna Scott, Hilda Butcher broke her shoulder, triggering a downward spiral. But her mind stayed sharp. As her driving skills eroded and the family asked for her car keys, she didn’t argue. She had eight more keys hidden in her bungalow.
Scott and Butcher didn’t find out about the same-day deaths until the day after. Common friend Vic St. Pierre emailed Butcher about Scott, and that’s how they connected. They’re convinced it wasn’t a coincidence, and leaning on each other has benefited both of them.
“A positive attitude keeps you going, memories of the things you did with your mother,” Butcher says. “It’s the stories that help you cope.”
— Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.