Waterford Comes Together In Honor Of Cactus Jack

It is an evening that animates what lies in town hall vaults, personal scrapbooks, historical societies and libraries, an evening dedicated to happy memories and respecting the people who have enhanced the present because of their contributions to the past.

It is an evening that gives life to a town, just by acknowledging its history.

It is an evening that should give us all reason to revere the idea of community.

And the evening for the people of Waterford will be Friday, when the Cactus Jack Foundation honors the next class of the town's sports Hall of Fame.

This year's list: Billy Gardner Sr., the former manager of the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals; former Olympian and world-record holder Jan Merrill-Morin; Joan Van Ness, an All-American softball and basketball player; Gary Swanson, a Parade Magazine soccer All-American; and war hero Arnold Holm.

There would be no Hall of Fame, not yet, anyway, if not for a group of former athletes in town who weren't respectful enough to honor the town's greatest character, the man called “Cactus Jack.”

“Cactus,” otherwise known as Edwin Evento, died of cancer in 1977, after leading a life that took him from Hollywood, as a western movie stunt man, to Waterford, where he lived, and served, for 42 years. In the town's starting lineup of philanthropists, activists and volunteers, Cactus Jack was DiMaggio.

And so in Cactus Jack's memory comes the Cactus Jack Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization to aid individuals, families and other charitable associations in southeastern Connecticut.

Remember this one and write it down: The character of any town is best imparted through its characters and those who are respectful enough to honor their memories. Cactus is to Waterford what Humphrey Scott will always be to New London: its greatest character, advocate, fan and comedian.

And the Cactus Jack Foundation tells the story of a character whose selflessness inspired a few disciples to keep his good name eternal through a charitable organization bearing his name.

The Cactus Jack Foundation has helped immortalize the town's athletic history. Longtime baseball coaches Gerry Rousseau and Howard Christensen, football coach Dick Cipriani and the great Francis X. Sweeney, the man who started the athletic program at the high school, were the first Hall of Fame inductees. They've been called Waterford's “Four Horsemen.”

Think about it: Any discussion of “Waterford” and “history” would normally get a guffaw from the New London people, who would swear, under oath, that not one single Waterford resident was ever born there. They're all transplanted New Londoners, right?

Maybe. But such a foundation and the now 3-year-old Hall of Fame are two small steps toward giving the town an identity. Cactus Jack did that just by being who he was. And now through honoring him, they give the town some cachet.

The dinner will be held at Ocean Beach, where not merely the honorees, but the attendees, too, can relive a happy past. And maybe when the night ends and life begins again on Saturday, people in town can continue to honor the sports programs, especially at the high school.

That means you pick a night to go see Rich Conover coach the boys' basketball team. Not many wiser men exist among us. That means you pick a night to go see the girls' basketball team, which has a chance to end Norwich Free Academy's run of conference championships this season. Or you support Jack O'Keefe and the baseball team, Liz Sutman and the softball team or Merrill-Morin, who has returned to her town to coach cross country and track and field.

It also means you understand the level of coaching quality and integrity athletic director Jim O'Neill has brought to the school. Has the athletic program ever been more productive and proactive?

It's a one-night dinner, sure, that honors the history. It's a one-night dinner that is a history lesson. But it shouldn't be a one-night lesson. The man for whom the dinner is named and the men behind it understand what is required to turn a town into a community.

No other endeavor can unite a town with more success than sports.

And sports will unite Waterford on Friday night.

Maybe they can on Saturday and the days beyond, too.

Cactus would have wanted it that way.

This is the opinion of Day assistant sports editor Mike DiMauro. He may be reached at m.dimauro@theday.com or 701-4391.
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