‘Cut from a different cloth’

0
1736

By Paul Singley, Citizen’s News

Peter J. Foley volunteers left lasting legacy

Rich Neary, left, and Mike Falcha, shown about 20 years ago, left a lasting legacy at Peter J. Foley Little League in Naugatuck. –CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — A large red and blue sign that greets visitors to Peter J. Foley field on the borough’s west side proclaims it the “oldest Little League Stadium in New England.”

And while that sounds impressive, in the end, those are just words. And frankly, they don’t tell half the story.

They don’t tell of the countless hours that have been poured into the league by dozens of dedicated volunteers, day after day, year after year, since 1949. They don’t tell the story about parents of players, and those of former players, who spend so much time at “Foley” that they become as recognizable as a welcome sign or the smell of hot dogs that waft through the air on a weeknight in early June.

One of those immediately recognizable volunteers was Mike Falcha, who was not only largely responsible for the lights under which hundreds of children play on those crisp spring nights, but was also probably responsible for the smell of those hot dogs, too. That’s because Falcha was not only making decisions about exterior lighting, he was also manning the grill night-after-night in a kitchen that has become known affectionately in recent years as “Mike’s Place” and is now adorned with a caricature of his unmistakable face.

Falcha, a league volunteer for 36 years, died Dec. 5 after a brief illness, taking with him a legacy of dedication to the league that included stints as board president, head chef, assistant and head coach, chief custodian, master French fry maker and onion cutter, CEO of foul line painting and even umpire, among countless other roles. He was 72.

“He loved to give back to the community, and he never wanted a penny,” said Brian Falcha, one of Mike’s two adult sons. “He never wanted recognition. He just loved making the kids happy.”

The loss of Mike Falcha has rocked the Foley community not only because he was such a presence at the field on Scott Street, but also because it comes on the heels of another Foley legend’s passing. Rich Neary, Falcha’s longtime friend and another volunteer at Foley for more than 30 years, died unexpectedly on July 27 at age 66.

The Foley community has placed a Christmas tree on the field that is intended to honor all of the volunteers who died this past year, including former Burgess Robert Burns Sr., and Brian Knowles, brother of longtime former state representative Kevin Knowles, who himself worked closely with Falcha and others to secure state grant funding for the lights around the field in the late 1990s.

“He was tremendously proud of those lights,” Brian Falcha said of his father. “And he had a heart of gold; he would do anything to make the kids happy.”

Brian Falcha and others say that if a child didn’t have enough money for food, Mike Falcha would pick up their tab. He was also known to give rides home to children whose parents couldn’t pick them up, perform any maintenance role necessary and take shifts at umpire even though he knew it was a thankless job. In fact, umpiring may be one of major pieces of his legacy: his ear-splitting “streee-rike threeeeee!” was so loud that friend and former fellow league volunteer Dave Dunn claims he could hear it from his house, nearly three-quarters of a mile away.

Dunn, co-owner of Connecticut Signcraft on Cherry Street, said it was Falcha who got him involved in volunteering during the 1990s and 2000s. Dunn went on to serve as a league officer with both Falcha and Neary.

Dunn tells many stories that showcase the dedication Falcha and Neary had for the league.

In the 1990s, Dunn coached a softball team from Foley that won the district title and played for the state championship in Darien.

“Falcha was so excited that he would pick me up at work every day at 4 and drive an hour or so in his old black pickup truck to the games while he ate a grinder and drove with one hand on the wheel,” Dunn said. “He would talk the whole way about the team for like six or seven games over the course of two weeks. … He loved it.”

Falcha also used that truck to bring bottles and cans to nearby stores to get five cents apiece. One day, another board member saw Falcha on the side of Route 8 picking up cans because he had loaded so many into his truck that they fell out. He wasn’t going to lose a few bucks if it was for the league, Dunn said.

To that end, he would cut dozens of onions regularly because they could generate an extra quarter or two when people requested them on hot dogs or hamburgers, Dunn said.

“He and Rich Neary were two guys who were always there,” Dunn said. “Those two guys got the most out of their lives. They didn’t sit around at all; they were always doing something and usually it was for the league.”

Neary’s oldest of two sons, Joe Neary, said his father and Mike Falcha took pride in “getting the job done.”

He said Rich Neary and his wife, Margie, became close through the league and that they recently bought a house next door to Mike Falcha and his wife, Rosemary.

“They were both committed and they liked the camaraderie of it all,” Joe Neary said.

He said both men were pleased with the current league officers and wanted to do all they could to help them carry on the legacy.

League Vice President Ken Stone said fellowship is part of what keeps volunteers coming down year after year. Many of the volunteers, he said, try their best to fit work and vacation schedules around the season. Neary retired as a warehouse supervisor and Falcha retired as a postmaster from the U.S. Postal Service. They put in so many hours at the league, though, that it could have been a second job for either of them, Stone said.

“These guys kind of led the way for me and many of the other younger board members,” Stone said. “Plenty of volunteers come and go, and that’s fine, but then there are guys who kind of latch on … and you need guys like that.”

League President Rob Didato summarized Falcha’s and Neary’s dedication succinctly: “They are the league. We don’t have a league without guys like them.”

He said people don’t truly realize the amount of work that goes into operating an organization like a youth baseball league until they get involved. What Falcha did in the kitchen, Didato said, was nothing short of operating his own small restaurant: he purchased the food, created the menu, cooked the food, cleaned the kitchen. He did this day after day, night after night from spring to fall, Didato said.

“There was nothing he didn’t do, and to top it off, he made sure we had lights, and we’re one of the few Little Leagues around that does,” Didato said. “What those guys did is they took a Little League and they built it into a family. Those guys were cut from a different cloth.”