Babe Pier's humor was legend, both near and far

In the pantheon of what has made New London noteworthy - characters, loyalty, eminent domain, the Whalers, bad government, the garlic at Hughie's - nobody else did the 06320 prouder than Babe Pier, the man Rich Little once called "the father of impressions."

It is with profound sorrow that I learned of Babe's recent death. He died July 31 at Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas, where he was the cleanup hitter of comedians for five decades. He was 82.

His wife, Cindy Raft-Pier, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Babe broke an arm and was beset by complications. She told the newspaper her husband "was so committed to staying in shape as a runner, a fighter, a powerhouse person for his age," that he didn't want anyone to know his condition as he tried to recover.

Babe and his brother, Rollie, the state's Godfather of boxing (and still going strong), were part of a New London that had enough small-town metaphorical richness for a Rockwell painting. And Rockwell would have began and ended with The Wall of Pequot Avenue, not far from where Stash's rests today, in front of Butler's Beach.

The Wall was the de facto home of the "Subway Gang," named after a nearby grinder shop the Pier family ran. It was Subway before "Subway," where Babe, Rollie, Ace Parker, Al Sitty and others laughed the days away.

Babe Pier did what so many of us wouldn't mind: leaving for Las Vegas and never coming home. He was a Vegas legend. Let's leave it here: He'd make your jaw drop.

I'd heard the stories. But it was one night in 1995 that left a memory of a lifetime.

It was pre-wife and pre-family, back when summer vacation with the boys meant x-ing days off the calendar until our week in Vegas. I still quote lines and recall the shapes and forms with Jimmy O'Neill, Tony Basilica, Tim Riordan and Gil Shasha, with special guest appearances from Lee Elci, Casey O'Neill, Frank Winkler and Humphrey Scott, among others.

I've never laughed harder than the night around the craps table - all of us - when Elci noticed the pit boss was named Charlie Daniels. Lee broke into "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," made better by this particular Charlie's humorless scowl. By the time he got to "fire on the mountain, run boys run," I couldn't breathe.

What I wouldn't give for one last trip.

One night, we were on the Vegas strip and met Babe at a show. He was what you'd expect from his resume: hilarious, engaging. But it was during a quieter moment that whatever headliner was on stage recognized Pier in the crowd. Babe went to the stage.

He did Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy and Tony Bennett, among others. Spot on. Standing ovation. Among my first thoughts: How did we ever let this guy leave?

I worry sometimes that so many of us walking through the city think a "Babe Pier" is a square pillar over water made exclusively for infants. We're so awash in controversy and distractive noise that we forget the reason so many people cling to such an irrational love for such a dysfunctional place.

The reason is Babe Pier and his peers. They made New London unique. And now time's relentless passage is taking them from us. Ace Parker, a nationally known sportswriter, died over the winter. We just lost Babe. And with them, we lose the city's soul, one wisecrack at a time.

All the years and all the chances to head to Vegas to tell Babe Pier's story. Sad it must be told in death.

Happily, though, we have an opportunity to celebrate a character among the living this week. There's a benefit dinner at Birdseye for Jimmy Dugan, who is recovering from an illness. Tickets are $30. Dugan is a longtime coach and official in the region with a huge sense of humor. I got to know him while he kept the clock at St. Bernard girls' basketball games. He'd always say, "good thing I bet the under."

Jimmy coached Mike Buscetto, Billy Buscetto, Josh Martin, David Videll, Casey O'Neill and Eric Jennings, among others.

So maybe if you go to Birdseye to honor Jimmy Dugan, you can think a happy thought for Babe Pier. He made the most of his 82 years, giving millions of people reason to laugh, lift a glass and have a good time. He was all ours once. He still is. He's part of what makes New London unexplainable.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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