Jerry LeVasseur, 76, Brunswick, Maine
On a hot and sunny July day in 1944, young Jerry LeVasseur and his mother set out from Bristol, Connecticut for an afternoon of fun at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum
& Bailey Circus in nearby Hartford. The Big Top was packed with 7,000 fans. As the show began, the unthinkable happened. A spark, likely from a cigarette, set fire to the circus tent which had been “treated” with a highly flammable coating of paraffin and gasoline. It burned to the ground in just 10 minutes. 168 people died, and more than 700 were injured in one of the worst fire disasters in United States history. Jerry suffered life-threatening burns on his head and arms and lost the tips of his fingers. He wasn’t allowed to get up from his hospital bed for over six months. His mother, who Jerry believes shielded him with her own body, did not survive.
Everyone has hurdles in life to cross. For those who face traumatic challenges at an early age, the scars can last a lifetime. The horrific fire forever altered Jerry LeVasseur, and seven decades later he still bears the physical scars. But Jerry, now 76 and a resident of Brunswick, Maine, refused to allow the emotional scars to take hold. He moved on with recovery and forged his path to a productive, happy life.
After multiple surgeries his hands were repaired enough to function, and in prep school he overcame the teasing and doubts of others about playing sports. He was even named captain of his football and basketball teams. A career as a certified public accountant, selfless community service and a marriage (now in its 54th year) that produced four children and three grandchildren stand as testimony to his perseverance and success.
But if you ask how he defines himself now, Jerry quickly answers, “I love being a senior athlete.” Fitness and sports have been a constant pursuit through college and adulthood. His love of running took hold at age 30, and competition began with road races ten years later. By 56 Jerry was entering every national and international masters track and cross country event he could get to. As a senior athlete Jerry has placed 1st in age group competitions more than 1,000 times. His particular passion is Senior Games, and he is proud to currently serve as a board member with both the Maine Senior Games and the National Senior Games Association.
Did we mention Jerry found time to race sled dogs and win championships for 29 years? Or that for the past decade he has been a volunteer coach in Brunswick with the Bowdoin College track and cross country teams, impacting the lives of hundreds of young athletes? Or that Jerry has overcome prostate cancer, removal of a kidney and other past and current physical challenges…but he just keeps pushing on?
We’ll let Jerry tell you more in his own words. If you ever needed an inspiration to overcome your challenges to pursue your own Personal Best, Jerry LeVasseur is one of the best examples to be found.
Going back to that unfortunate incident, it’s hard to imagine what you went through at the time.
It was July 6 1944. 70 years ago this year. I remember standing on a corner near my father’s store with my mom waiting for a bus to go to the circus. It was really hot and one of us said to the other ‘maybe we shouldn’t go’ and then the bus came so we went.
I really don’t remember much about how it affected me then. I didn’t really feel a lot of pain at first. I do remember being carried out of the area but that’s about it. I was very badly burned and was in the hospital for five months. I just got a copy of the medical reports from then and it said I was very fortunate to survive – my body temperature went up and down, I had blood clots and so on. I do remember being in the oxygen tent at the hospital and hearing someone in the room ask, ‘Who’s in there? Someone else said, “I don’t think he’s going to make it.” I thought to myself, “Yes I am.”
They said I wouldn’t be able to do anything with my hands, the fingers were all fused. Of course that turned out to be nonsense. I was fortunate to get out of that tent alive, and I haven’t allowed those injuries to affect my life.
Do you have any lingering issues from that early experience, like fear of fire?
I really didn’t have any further issues from the trauma. A few months after I got out of the hospital my grandmother took me into a tent and I was fine. The only thing that has ever bothered me goes back to how painful it was to change my dressings. Because it was so bad they would take me to the operating room and put me under using ether. The smell was terrible and I hated having the mask put over my nose. Even today, like when I go snorkeling, I do not like having to put a mask on. I can tolerate it though.
You’ve adapted use of your hands very well.
When I was 12 I had one of the best plastic surgeons in the world work with me. The right hand had webbing and I lost half of my index finger and the tips of my others. My left hand was all fused together and bent back. I couldn’t use it at all. Over three years I had procedures that cut the webbing on the left so I could use my fingers and thumb , and then shaped and reset the left hand where I could use it. Some of the operations were very long, like ten hours. Then all of the physical therapy. But now I can do most everything with them.
What was the first sporting activity you did after you recovered?
While I was rehabbing I played a little tennis with the nurses. But baseball was the first sport for me. I learned to wear the glove on my right hand, then take it off to throw. I played softball for almost 40 years. When I went to prep school they required you to play sports so I went for football and basketball and became captain of my teams. (Pauses) There’s no such thing as an obstacle. If you have an obstacle it’s self-inflicted. You can do things if you take the chance.
Kids can be mean spirited. It must have been tough in school.
And they were. I was considered different because of the bald spot on my head and my hands. I can remember getting in fights once in awhile. I also found that adults could be just as bad. I remember playing in an all star softball event after I graduated and a guy in the stands saw me shifting my glove to throw and started yelling “Get him outta there!” My team sponsor told him to be quiet or get out. It was nice to get that support. You know nobody ever does things alone, and I’ve always had support along the way.
At first people generally didn’t know me and I was the last to be taken in a pickup game. Once I proved myself it wasn’t a problem.
And you were made team captain in prep school. Was it because they saw you as a special inspiration?
I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but it could be that. Over the years I have heard people tell me a lot that I’m an inspiration. I’ve been a volunteer coach the cross country teams and track and field teams at Bowdoin College near where I live and I hear it from the students constantly, both for my physical fitness and for what I can do generally.
So you kept playing sports?
After college I played softball, touch football and basketball and cut back to just softball when I turned 30. I wanted to do something else to stay in shape and started jogging. I didn’t start running competitively until I was 41. A friend of mine asked me to join him in a 5K. I didn’t place and worried about my time but someone told me to keep at it and wait for five years. At five years my mile times came down to just over a five minute pace and I started winning races. At 48 I had my fastest times and I was doing the Boston Marathon. I ran a 17:07 5K and a 35:27 10K. Those are good times but it’s not world class. I do a lot of world events but I consider myself a good regional runner and competitive in my age class at masters and Senior Games.
By the way, when I was 35 I picked up a Siberian husky and it evolved into dogsled racing. I won my first race. Three of my kids and my wife got involved in it too. I did it for 29 years and won 11 championships.
Wow, that sounds like fun. Does dog sledding have similarities to your other sport pursuits?
Yes, training dogs is like training yourself to run. You have nutrition, hydration and you have fitness preparation to be able to run a distance. You start off with less speed and building strength until you get to the point you are racing full speed. We started training in September and try to peak in January for races.
So what’s it like to coach a dog team?
You are the lead dog to them. You teach them commands and have a lead dog, usually the two up front. I ran mostly six and eight, and the largest team I had was ten dogs. The dogs just love doing it. They send teams out in intervals and for awhile you are alone out there. All you hear is the panting of the dogs and the runners of the sled. It’s a rush. My wife did timing and she would see if I had a good run coming in because she could see the great big smile even through all of the cover on me.
Sometimes you go around a corner and lose some balance and have to lock your arm and hold the sled back. You can’t let them go and they’re dragging you. The dogs look back at you like they’re saying “Dummy, get up. You’re slowing us down!” (Laughs)
Back to running: How did you get into national and world championships?
It was through my involvement in the Connecticut USATF club. I was always involved in putting together teams that won state championships a few times. I ran a national cross country championship when I was 56 or 57 and I really caught the bug then. The next race was an international race in Bermuda.
I started local Senior Games when I got to age which was 55 back then. I have been to every National Senior Games since I first qualified for the 1995 games in San Antonio, except the 2011 games in Houston. I was recovering from prostate surgery and was concerned about the Texas heat, so I didn’t go.
The National Senior Games is larger than most other events, and there’s more color and pageantry going on with the athlete’s village and special events, and there’s more opportunity to spend time visiting with others. Plus, my wife Arden is a swimming competitor so these multi-sport events let us both compete and make it like a vacation trip. The camaraderie and seeing a lot of the same people going every two years is a happening for Arden and me. It’s special seeing that staying fit is beneficial to everybody. Maintaining fitness through competition and sports is something I highly believe in.
It appears that you just keep getting better the more you do it.
This is the one sport where you’re looking forward to getting older to get into the next five year age level. When you first go into your age group you do very well. Then as you move up younger and faster guys start coming in. You have to accept it and do the best you can. Win or lose, there’s a lot of satisfaction when somebody says to me “you make me work harder.”
For anyone going to these events, I say you are a winner for doing it. When I come back from competitions people ask me “Did you win?” and I always say “Yes, I finished the race.”
Last summer I did 17 events in 30 days including the World Masters Games, National Masters and National Senior Games. I thought back to the 5K in Cleveland where there were three guys my age ahead of me and I was normally able to pick it up and go get them. But I was too tired to do it. However, when I looked back over the entire year I saw I placed in every event but three and won eight medals. That’s not so bad! You just have to keep trying to do your best.
You’ve had your share of medical hurdles to jump over too.
When I was 71 I was taking medication to treat my prostate cancer and it was slowing me down, but I accepted that. Then I had the prostate removed. I recover pretty quick and was back running a bit in three weeks and worked my way back up. In fact, my first race after that I saw there was another 70 plus guy entered and I told my running buddy “Don’t let me go after him!” (Laughs) I actually got to be good friends with that fellow.
After that, my PSA stayed up and I needed radiation. They found a new cancer in my kidney and I had to have it removed. Again, I was back out after three weeks. I wasn’t racing, I was listening to my body and went from walking to jogging and eventually back to running.
Then, two years ago, with my PSA still rising, I went on hormone therapy and it really slowed me down and affected my energy. But I eventually got my times back up and even got a “Comeback of the Year” award from the Maine track club in 2013. Then another thing came up. I’ve always had problems with acid reflux, and it flared up. When I had it checked they found a pre cancerous polyp on my esophagus which had to be removed. Two days after that, I ran in the Close to The Coast 10K in Freeport. Actually, I just jogged it and I wasn’t really trying to prove anything. They have pies at the end of the race and I wanted a pie. (Smiles)
You have devoted countless hours to community service, including helping organize races and getting others involved. What has motivated you to give so much of your time and talent to help others?
I’m grateful for surviving what I went through and to just be here. Also, running has been very good for me. I’ve won more than my share of medals, trophies and awards, and I really feel like giving something back.
Senior Games is my passion over the past 20 years. I’ve gotten a lot of people involved in competing and served on state boards in Connecticut and Maine. And I’m enjoying being an NSGA board member. My goal is to represent the athlete. Senior Games is about the athletes, and if we forget that we are not serving the best interests of the organization. So I try to bring that to the board.
There is so much satisfaction in helping others to do their best…their personal best lifestyle as we now say. When I’m running in races I will help coach someone I know or even a stranger to do better. Helping others is a better feeling than winning a medal.
How do you apply your unique experiences in overcoming adversity when giving advice to others, especially younger people like the college runners you coach?
A lot of the younger folks don’t know what adversity is. So I share my experiences and I work out with them. I tell them I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t keep fit and that they can do whatever they want to do in if they put their mind to it. And I think they see this 76 year old guy who’s kind of unique and inspiring. Their studies are very hard and they give that same effort to their athletics. It’s just great and I admire them very much for that.
What are your thoughts when you look back over your life and see what you have been able to do?
I feel blessed. I’ve had a lot of help along the way and have a wonderful wife and family and it’s helped me keep positive. I don’t give up on anything and always try to finish what I do. I hope it gives others a good example for what they can do.
There will always be difficulties, and it really helps to be prepared by keeping fit. You know, Senior games is not just for the elite. It’s for people who want to accomplish something and be happy with their fitness. Many people start even in their 60’s and 70’s. It’s great to be able to look in the mirror and feel good about what you see.