Caribou basketball title stirs memories for renowned Maine broadcaster

5 years ago

Dewey DeWitt has interviewed the likes of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during a broadcasting career in Aroostook County that has spanned nearly seven decades and continues beyond his 97th birthday, which he observed Saturday.

“Kennedy was rather reserved and Nixon was more relaxed,” said DeWitt, who interviewed both men when they visited Presque Isle while running for president in 1960.

But while interviews with future presidents and such other political dignitaries as Ed Muskie, William Hathaway and Sen. Susan Collins — whom DeWitt’s wife used to baby-sit back in the day — would represent a highlight reel for virtually any small-town broadcaster, DeWitt retains a special place in his memory for local sports.

“High school basketball at tournament time is one of the most exciting times of my career,” he said. “I used to go to basketball games out in California [where he once lived], and it couldn’t approach the feeling I had when I went to the games in eastern Maine.”

DeWitt broke into radio broadcasting in 1951 and was the first person seen when WAGM-TV in Presque Isle began operations five years later. He broadcast thousands of games over the years, beginning during an era when The County was thriving, and seven of its high schools — Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Fort Kent, Houlton, Limestone, Madawaska and Presque Isle — all competed in the state’s largest-school division, Class LL.

But one game with which he has become synonymous in Aroostook County and beyond was brought back to the forefront this month when the Caribou High School boys basketball team outlasted Cape Elizabeth 49-47 in double overtime to win the Class B state championship.

The Ricker College product did not attend the game at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland but was a keen observer from his Houlton home.

“They played well together,” DeWitt said. “When they started out the season they didn’t look like they were going to have a great team, but they jelled. Their coach did a great job.”

The state championship was the first for Caribou since 1969, when the Vikings edged Westbrook 65-63 at the Bangor Auditorium on Mike Thurston’s game-winning shot from beyond midcourt as time expired — one of the more iconic moments in state sports history.

DeWitt, along with Del Hodgkins, called that game on the radio for County fans who weren’t able to make the trip to Bangor.

“Fifty years from now, they’ll be marking the point on the floor [where] Mike Thurston shot that shot,” DeWitt said over the airwaves after that victory, which gave Caribou its first gold ball.

DeWitt has vivid memories of that tournament run, during which the Vikings already had been dubbed the “Cardiac Kids” — long before Thurston’s shot — for narrow victories over John Bapst of Bangor (61-58) and Lawrence of Fairfield (66-65) along the way.

“One thing about that 1969 team, it seemed like every game they had went down to the last seconds,” he said. “When they beat John Bapst, Thurston stole the ball in the last few seconds and they scored or they might have lost in the semifinals.

“Then in the Eastern Maine final, Mike Kelley shot a foul shot that hit the front of the rim, but he got his own rebound and put it back in to beat Lawrence.”

Those dramatic calls were merely a warmup for the state final, when Westbrook built an eight-point lead with four minutes left only to have Caribou rally again.

Kelley’s basket and free throw tied the game at 63-63 with 10 seconds left. When Peter Curran rebounded a Westbrook miss at the other end and quickly passed to Thurston, Maine basketball history was just seconds away.

“I’ll never forget as long as I live, and I can still see in my mind today the smoke coming up from the gun because they used a [starter’s] gun to mark the end of the game,” DeWitt said. “Charlie Katsificas was officiating, and I could see him signalling that it’s good if it goes, it’s good if it goes.

“The Caribou crowd was across the way, everyone on their feet. It’s a picture I’ll never forget.”

Fifty years later, the modern-day Vikings gave their fans another “cardiac” moment before edging Cape Elizabeth for a second state championship.

Caribou inbounded the ball from near midcourt in the final seconds of regulation, only to have it deflected into the backcourt. Caribou’s Parker Deprey gained possession and dribbled back toward the midcourt stripe, much like Thurston had done a half-century earlier.

Deprey had time to dribble into the frontcourt before launching a last-second 40-footer. And while this one didn’t go in, Caribou persevered in double overtime.

“I know there were a lot of comparisons, but every game has its unique moments,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt’s career as the voice of County sports has been recognized by the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame’s Legends of the Game and the Maine Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

He still broadcasts today. DeWitt’s weekend show, “Around Town” on WHOU-FM, features interviews with local celebrities and others who visit the Shiretown.

Add that to regular card games and a continuing passion for golf — he routinely shoots his age at the Houlton Country Club where he plays nine holes with friend Dick York five days a week and participates in a Monday twilight league — and life remains active for DeWitt, who was born March 23, 1922.

Though with this winter’s heavy snow in northern Maine, trips to the golf course may have to wait awhile.

“It will go fast,” he said. “All we need is a little warm rain.”

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