Last week I went to a memorial service for Charles Putnam Dethier at the Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club in Blue Hill, Maine. Charlie died in May at the age of ninety-eight. He was one of the greatest unsung coaches in U.S. squash history.
Dethier (pronounced, more or less, DAH-chair; the schoolboy joke was “Dethier under da table”) grew up in New York and learned squash at Princeton, where he was in the class of 1938. He didn’t play on the varsity, perhaps because it was so strong (guys like Cal MacCracken, Bernie Ridder and Walt Pettit led the team—MacCracken and Pettit went on to very distinguished amateur careers and Ridder, well, he lost in the intercollegiate finals two years in a row, both times 18-17 in the fifth).
After graduation, Dethier went straight to work at Haverford School. He stayed there until 1982, a remarkable tenure. He taught French. He was a college counselor. He was the towering, witty and kind head of the lower school when I spent my third grade year there in the late-1970s. He coached the football and baseball teams.
And for over a quarter century, he coached the Haverford squash team. It was a golden age for Haverford and he created one of the best dynasties in American interscholastic squash history.
At the memorial service, we heard that Dethier was an encouraging coach, that he was supportive and helpful. He was keen on the game. I remember what Carter Fergusson told me about Dethier: that on his first day as a new student Haverford in 1938, Fergusson bumped into Dethier on the stairs leading into the school. Dethier, already recruiting for the squash team, asked Fergusson if he might try this new sport called squash. “He was my favorite coach,” Fergusson told me, “very inspirational and always taught us that sportsmanship was as important as winning.”
He got on court with the boys. One former player wrote a note to Dethier’s children that was read out at the service about playing a match with Dethier. The boy had an easy set-up in the front of the court; Dethier, helplessly far away in the back, pounded his feet loudly, as if he was hurtling forward. The boy, instead of hitting a dropshot, smashed a hard drive to the back of the court, where Dethier, having never actually moved, was waiting.
He strongly strove for good sportsmanship, his players recalled. But when playing Navy, a controversial squad that sometimes bent the rules, Dethier would offer any Haverford player ten cents if he won a game 15-0.
He coached dozens of great players, boys who went on to become national champions, leaders, mentors, coaches. He teams won fifteen Inter-Ac league titles (even today, a half century after Dethier stepped down, no coach in Inter-Ac history has captured as many boys’ titles). They won titles in four different decades under his leadership. And his teams regularly beat collegiate varsities.
Even after he retired from coaching, he would come over and watch practice and come to matches. At the service, George Wood, in the class of 1975, recalled how Dethier would be in the gallery and give a few words of advice. In other words, Dethier was a lifetime teacher.
He also knew about the simple pleasures of life. He loved ice cream. After the service ended we all went outside. Alongside the blue-gray waters of Penobscot Bay, we ate bowls of Gifford’s ice cream, which Charlie Dethier, with nearly a century of experience, judged to be the best in the world.