BURRILLVILLE — Peter Berthelette heard his cellphone ring as he stood at a table inside Burrillville High's Senior Lounge last Wednesday. He had been conversing with baseball player Zach Lafleur and two classmates as they ate their lunches.
“I typically don't answer my cell in front of students, but when the call showed up as coming from Skee Carter, I did anyway,” Berthelette recalled. “I said, 'Hi, Skee!' and all I heard was a pause. The voice on the other end said, 'Hi, Pete. It's not Skee, it's Chris (his son). I have some bad news,' and he told me what happened.
“He told me his father had died, and I didn't respond,” he added. “I was pretty much in shock. I didn't say anything in front of the kids, at least not right away. There was nothing I could say. It wasn't the kind of news I wanted to hear, or that I was ready to hear.
“When he said 'bad news,' I was thinking that maybe he was in the hospital, that Skee had been in an accident. I never expected that we would've lost him.”
Apparently, after walking his dog Riley on the Burrillville Middle School cross-country path early Wednesday morning, just as he always did, Carter jumped into his car for the short ride home, then suffered a massive heart attack.
Carter, a renowned social studies teacher at the school and consummate fan of all Burrillville athletics, was only 66. This town has lost a legendary coach, teacher, mentor, friend, storyteller and historian; its residents miss him already.
Berthelette and Carter had been as close as any two men could be, especially every spring as they tried to mold the Broncos' varsity and junior-varsity baseball players not only into two solid teams but also stellar young gentlemen. Berthelette joined the head coach Carter back in 1994 as an assistant, and they used to love sharing stories of glory days past, hilarious game or off-the-field antics and the like.
“I can't believe Skee Carter is gone,” Berthelette stated sadly. “He was the most genuine, sincere individual I ever met, and everyone loved him … There's a lot I'm going to miss about him. I don't think he's got a mean bone in his body. He was always very pleasant with everybody he met, and so loyal to family, friends, even strangers.
“The qualities I most admired in him, he knew the sports that he coached so well, understood them so well, but he also had the intangibles – the friendliness, the courtesy and the respect he offered others, and he earned that respect back.
“No matter how close a game was, or whether a bad call was involved, there was no animosity. He just picked up and moved on. He understood baseball and the tremendous traditions and history that are associated with it. He lived for those traditions, and he passed them along to his players, even his students.
“He was an incredible human being, one of whom I don't think I'll ever know the likes of again.”
Wilfred F. Carter III graduated from BHS in 1964, and played baseball for his beloved Broncos. Not surprisingly, he played several positions, doing anything to help his team win.
In fact, according to Berthelette, less than a year after moving on to college, his former teammates captured the 1965 Rhode Island state championship.
He later earned a Master's in Education from Rhode Island College, then began his career as a teacher at his hometown's Callahan Elementary School before moving on to the middle school in 1989. He had been an assistant baseball coach under Scott Moore before taking over the varsity reins in 1990.
Back in 2007, he led his squad to the Division II state title, the only one he gleaned, but did coach his Broncos to several divisional crowns, not to mention winning records. For over 30 years, he taught social studies in town, and constantly volunteered at any sporting event he could.
(Carter, by the way, allegedly got the nickname “Skee” for a character in the old comic strip “Gasoline Alley,” Berthelette noted).
Athletic Director John Abbate said he had received word of Carter's death through Berthelette.
“He came into my office right after Chris had told him, and I was totally shocked; all I could think of was, This is so sad,'” he offered. “Skee had always done so much for us. He ran the shot clock at the basketball games, and also supervised all of our home wrestling matches.
“In the fall, he was an assistant coach under Marty Crowley for the (BHS) boys' and girls' cross-country teams, and the head coach of the middle school cross-country teams. He supervised at all of our home football games, and – obviously – he coached the baseball team for 22 years as the head and way more than that as an assistant.
“Whenever we needed someone to fill in somewhere for whatever reason, if he wasn't coaching himself, he was there. He's easily the most dependable, reliable and trustworthy individual I've ever come across. He'd do anything to help the students, the athletes or the athletic department here at Burrillville. We needed him, and he was right there.”
After Abbate discovered the news, he informed administrators, teachers and other staff members; he and Principal Michael Whaley thought it wise to conduct a meeting in the BHS cafeteria at about 1:30 p.m., Wednesday.
They called together those closest to Carter – his baseball players and harriers – to tell them.
“Mike informed them that Skee had a heart attack and passed away; we had the school psychologist there, our three guidance counselors, coaches and teachers,” he explained. “We had a good conversation with the kids. It was funny, because a lot of them began mimicking Skee, talked the way he talked, said the things he used to say, and I think it helped them. I know it helped me.
“It made me feel good that they were doing it because they had so much love and respect for him,” he continued. “Some of the kids had his voice and sayings down pat, but everyone was also visibly upset, very emotional.
“One of his senior baseball players, Zach Lafleur, started saying what Skee would say, 'Guys, I'm going to make this as easy to understand as possible,' about a certain play or signal. Zach said, 'If I slide my hand across my chest, it means 'take (a pitch)' or 'steal.' It was classic. It was like Skee was there talking.”
Abbate indicated Carter would want his squad to “Play ball!” regardless of the weather.
“I'd see him early in the morning on game day, and he's be, like, 'John, we've got to get this game in! We've got to play!' no matter if it was sprinkling or snowing. I'd tell him, 'OK, Skee, I'll meet you down at Eccleston Field, and we'll see what the conditions are like.'
“One time, I jumped into my car and head down there, and I saw some guy at shortstop with knee-high, fisherman-like boots squeegying water into a pool cover pump,” he added with a chuckle. “I looked at him and said, 'What do you think this is going to do?' And he just responded, 'I'll stay here all day if I have to. We've gotta get this game in!'”
Abbate also mentioned how Carter would respond when he asked him, at the start of baseball season, how he thought his club would fare.
“He'd say, 'We're rebuilding, Coach. We're rebuilding. It's gonna be a tough year,'” the AD laughed again. “And, every late spring, it seemed his teams were always right there in the thick of it. He did a tremendous job of getting the kids ready. I know his guys loved playing for him.”
There may have been one exception.
Berthelette recalled one spring in the 1990s, as the Broncos were preparing to travel to Lincoln for a contest that would determine the divisional baseball champion.
“The day before was Senior Bunk Day, and a good majority of seniors didn't go to school,” he remembered. “Skee had set up a practice that afternoon, and the seniors showed up for it, but he wasn't happy. He told them to go home, that they couldn't practice because of our school rule. It states that if an athlete isn't in school (unless they receive permission), they can't practice that day, and he or she wouldn't be eligible to play the following day.
“Despite the importance of that game, Skee benched almost the entire starting lineup, and brought up a lot of JV players,” he continued. “Those guys played great, but we lost. We also lost the divisional title. He knew that would probably be the result, but that showed he was certainly a man of integrity.
“That tells you the value of doing the right thing was more important to him than winning a game, even a championship.
“Secondly, it also shows he understood that kids are kids, and they're going to make mistakes along the way. He knew he needed to do what was good for the kids in the long run, but he also never gave up on them. Once the issue was resolved, those kids were right back to being on the team, and all was forgotten. He never carried a grudge. He understood that kids will make mistakes, that it was a part of growing up and learning.”
Susan Burgess, the Broncos' field hockey head coach, remembers Carter as not just a fan of her team but all Burrillville athletic teams, regardless of age.
“When we worked the basketball games together, he'd always ask me about our team, how the kids were doing and what my forecast for the team was,” she said. “He'd ask, 'What do things look like for your girls this year?' He went to a lot of our home games to cheer us on.
“My fondest memory of him is easy,” she continued. “I hadn't seen Skee since we won the Division II state title in November; John Abbate thought it would be nice to honor the team at our last home football game on Thanksgiving.
“As I was walking onto Alumni Field with the girls, I heard a voice from the side, 'Hey, Susan!' and it was Skee. He had his arms wide open, and he was smiling. He gave me the biggest bear hug. He kept saying, 'Congratulations! That's great! That's great! You deserve this.' He was such a sweetheart of a guy.”
She hesitated, then – with emotion – stated, “This news is so sad. I had a knot in my stomach when I heard. Everybody adored him.”
Marty Crowley, a Cumberland High teacher's assistant and BHS cross-country mentor, admitted his assistant's sudden death hit him like four tons of bricks.
“I think that's an understatement, that he was the kindest gentlemen anyone ever met; they just don't make them like Skee Carter anymore,” he stated. “He never had a bad word to say about anybody, always found a positive in anything that was happening. He knew what to say and how to say it. This is a tragedy, there's no other way to say it.
“We just finished our 11th year together (in cross-country), but I've known him since the late '80s, when I coached Tolman baseball with Bill Britt,” he added. “That's why this is such a shock. I had just spoken with him New Year's Day. He had left me a message New Year's Eve, and I didn't get back to him until the next morning.
“We talked for about 15 minutes about the normal stuff, 'How was your holiday?' He asked me about my basketball team (Crowley coaches the Cranston West girls in the winter), and we talked about cross-country. It was a normal conversation between two good friends.
“I'm really glad I talked to him,” he added. “Most of our conversations were early in the morning because I knew he'd be on the trails with his dog. I didn't know it would be the last time I'd ever talk to him. I know the next few days, weeks, will be tough on me and the (cross-country) kids.
“One of our girls sent me a text, she's a sophomore. It read, 'Whenever I walk into the (middle school) gym (where they met prior to each practice), I'll hear his voice. I'll hear him singing. Or, when I run a race, I'll hear him cheering for me. He was the nicest man I ever met. I love him and miss him so much already.' That was Ruby Perry.
“A lot of these kids he coached in middle school, so the runners who are 16 or 17, they've known him as a major part of their lives for most of their lives. He had such a positive impact on all of them, so it's not surprising they feel this intense affection for him. He meant so much to them all.
“At our meeting with them, Peter Berthelette put it best: 'Outside of his own children and grandchildren, you were the most important people in his life. He cared so much about each of you, and I think you know it.' He treated them like kids, but also his own. He wanted all of them to succeed.”
Crowley's voice broke a bit.
“It's surreal what's happened,” he said. “I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. It's tough to handle because it's life-changing, and not just from a coach's standpoint. Good friends are few and far between, and he was all that and more to a lot of people.
“You know what? Even in spring, when I'm coaching softball at Cumberland and he's coaching baseball, we'd go five or six weeks without talking. But then he'd call, or I would, and we'd just pick up where we left off. He was a genuinely caring guy, and such a good friend. Not a day will go by where I don't think of him.
“I'm a better man for having someone like him touch my life.”
Skee Carter's wake has been slated for 3-7 p.m. today at the Boucher Funeral Home in Pascoag. His funeral will take place at 10:30 a.m., Monday at St. Joseph’s Church in the same town.