A Full but all too brief life

Now expired itself, the year 2016 saw the death of Muhammad Ali, arguably the most recognizable human face on Earth a few decades ago. Astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn died last year, as did literary giants Harper Lee, Elie Wiesel, W. P. Kinsella, and Pat Conroy; sports legends Gordie Howe, Pat Summitt, and Arnold Palmer; journalists Morley Safer and Gwen Ifill; and noted entertainers David Bowie, Prince, Florence Henderson, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher and Merle Haggard.

Baseball-obsessed folks of a certain age (okay; my age) took wistful note of the 2016 losses of less widely known baseball players, childhood and/or early adulthood heroes including Dick McAuliffe, Walt “No-neck” Wiliams, Monte Irvin, Choo-Choo Coleman, Jim Davenport, Jim Ray Hart, Sammy Ellis, Chico Fernandez, Jim Hickman, Phil Hennigan, Phil Gagliano, Steve Arlin, Steve Kraly, Russ Nixon, John Orsino, Milt Pappas, Clyde Mashore, Vern Handrahan, Kevin Collins, Doug Griffin, Jay Ritchie, and Charlie Sands. Another athlete whose passing shouldn’t go unnoticed: basketball’s Nate Thurmond, the best NBA center of his era not named Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain.

But annually noting the passing of famed individuals is nothing compared to the sort of painful and personal loss everyone, save for those destined to die young themselves, will experience as their own lifetimes extend.

Will Fulford began his Kennebunk High School career in September 2002 inside the now- demolished room 17 of what had previously been part of the town’s middle school. He was one of just three freshman members of an advisory assigned to a first-year teacher precisely three times the slender, quiet 9th grader’s age. Advisories (“Homeroom” in earlier generations) meet four times per week at KHS. Students have the same advisor for four years, an arrangement designed to give them an opportunity to build a relationship with one somewhat random adult that, with luck, can have a positive impact down the road.

Will’s advisor was by utter coincidence fortunate enough to have the earnest and hardworking young man as a freshman English student. Two years later Fulford took an 11th grade writing course, one that his advisor was teaching for the first time. The dogged determination that made him one of the top harriers on Coach Mike Dinehart’s KHS cross- country team helped make Will a success in the classroom as well. Unlike others who would show up for “extra help” in a less-than-subtle effort to boost their grade, Fulford sought assistance from his teacher because he truly wanted to get better at writing. As a senior he took a speech course taught by that same advisor. It was a major challenge; public oration wasn’t Will’s thing. But to no one’s surprise (save for possibly his own), Fulford conquered that challenge as well.

Will Fulford’s post-high school career involved more hard work, more success, and more leadership by example. That the soft-spoken but dynamic young man became a successful college athlete and subsequently a highly esteemed coach and educator merely confirmed the legitimacy of all he valued and modeled. Listen, watch, learn, apply that learning, and give the absolute best you had to give, every day, every time. Do all that and you’d ultimately reach whatever goal(s) you’d set. Once he’d learned those lessons Will Fulford didn’t just preach them; he lived them.

Will and his soulmate Ashley Potvin, a fellow educator/coach possessed of limitless energy and dedication, were married this past July 9th. Their charmed life together was just beginning. Then on December 11th Will Fulford died after working out on a treadmill at the University of New England. The seemingly tireless, universally cherished coach, teacher, husband, brother, son and friend was just 29 years old. Newspaper and TV news accounts of his life and all-too-early death accurately portrayed him as beloved, respected and admired by all who knew him, a quiet, determined, dedicated leader and role model who had given much to many, but had a great deal more to give. In his all-too-brief time coaching at Kennebunk High School, Biddeford High School, and the University of New England he impacted countless young people in ways that will undoubtedly reverberate for generations.

Will’s KHS advisor still teaches at Kennebunk High. He had his classes read Will Fulford’s obituary the day it came out, and asked them to try to write what lesson(s) they could learn from it.

“Always do your best,” was a common theme. Ditto, “Live for today.” But sadly, so was, “Life isn’t always fair.”

There’s abundant evidence that whoever decided to assign students to the same advisor for four years at KHS knew what they were doing. A teacher really can have a life-changing impact on a student. But it can work the other way around as well.

Andy Young is in his 15th year of teaching at Kennebunk High School. He has been advisor to approximately 60 students, one of whom was Will Fulford.

Andy Young
January 1, 2017

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