Bristol pillar, Hector Massa, turns 90
Everybody loves Hector.
Hector Massa is a name that has been synonymous with children and athletics for as long as anyone can remember. To show their love and admiration for a man who has touched hundreds of lives in Bristol and beyond, a gala 90th birthday celebration and roast will be held in Hector’s honor on Sunday, Dec. 30, at the Venus de Milo Restaurant, in Swansea, starting at noon. More than 300 family members and guests are expected to attend this invitation-only event.
Actually, Hector’s birthday falls on Dec. 28, but to accommodate the many people his adoring wife, Shirley, has invited to this celebration roast, she decided to hold it on a weekend at a venue which could handle a crowd that size.
“I’ve been planning this birthday party for over a year,” said Ms. Massa, who has been married to Hector for 35 years. “He’s the most important thing in the world to me.”
“I never thought I’d ever reach this age,” said Hector, in his usual reserved, humble tone, “especially after my first open heart surgery in 1978. I’m so happy my family and friends will celebrate this milestone with me.”
The local sports hero — a three-sport star and All-Stater at the former Colt Memorial High School — was the beloved and well-respected athletic director at the old Bristol YMCA; director of the highly popular Camp Hess Day Camp on Hog Island; and the full-time athletic director at Roger Williams University.
“I guess I’ve had a career that I can be proud of,” Hector said. “No matter where I’ve worked, kids have always been the most important thing to me. I was like a second father to many of them.”
Many people might now recognize Hector by his real name ... Edmund P. Massa. He got the nickname as a youngster from a local priest, who coined him, “Little Hector.” From that moment on, Edmund was a secondary denotation.
Coming from a large family, Hector had to scrap for everything in life. He was a naturally gifted athlete as a youngster, and learned much by following the sports lines of local legends like John Andrade, Sr., John “Foxy” Marshall, Fortunato “Fishy” Caruso, Robert “Buddy” Congdon and Marty Biancuzzo, among others.
He played baseball, basketball and football, with baseball being his favorite. While at Colt Memorial, Hector earned a then-record 11 varsity letters in three sports (baseball, basketball and football) and was one of the first ninth-graders to come down to the new Andrews School to compete on the varsity in 1939.
He earned all-division in the three sports, and was a first team all-state selection in baseball as a third baseman and catcher. He is a 1985 inductee in the Bristol Athletic Hall of Fame.
Hector said the two greatest coaches who made the biggest impact on his life were the late Warren Huston and Archie Allen.
“They taught me everything,” he said. “I learned an awful lot from them. I owe them a great deal.”
Hector is also proud of the fact that he is one of the last living members of Colt Memorial’s 1941 state championship baseball team. Bristol never won another state crown after that. He and longtime friend, classmate and teammate, Frank Murgo, regularly speak about those glory days.
“Frank has always been one of my idols,” he admits. “We go way back. He was a great teammate and is one of my closest friends.”
At graduation, Hector received the Bristol High School Athletic Council Trophy, symbolic of athletic and academic excellence. From there, he entered Springfield College and was working on a degree in physical education when World War II broke out. He decided to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard and served his country admirably.
After the war, Hector returned to his native Bristol and competed in sports once again ... this time as quarterback for the champion semi-pro Bristol Townies football team. He also played in the old Bristol Twilight League on the Bristol Town Common, and smiles every time he looks at the last championship trophy that was presented to him in 1948 as a player/coach for Collins & Aikman.
In 1950, he got a break when he succeeded good friend, Anthony E. Agatiello, as physical education director at the Bristol YMCA. This would open up doors he never realized and start a warm and caring relationship with countless young kids in town.
Molding the athletic talents of up-and-coming stars such as John P. Andrade, Gerry Serbst, Manny Marshall, Manuel “Pepsi” Fernandes, Junie Ferro, and Steve Mascena, Hector used the Bristol Y to his advantage in keeping kids off the streets.
He also instituted the old “Cracker,” “Fruit” and “Nut” leagues, which were competitive recreational staples at the Y back then.
“My favorite memory of Hector comes from his days at the YMCA,” recalls Robert “Whitey” Tavares. “He would referee our games in that bandbox of a gym. His line that always stuck with me occurred when someone would make a nice pass to you and you would then proceed to blow the easy shot. Without fail, Hector would always exclaim in a loud voice, ‘Nice play, lousy shot.’ Every time; it was perfect.”
“As a boy growing up in Bristol during the 1950s, I first attended the Y and quickly learned that Hector was the one person who was going to teach us about sports and respect,” said Bristol’s Manny Pasqual. “As with many other boys, it became a safe haven for enjoying sports, social life, and other table games that kept me off the streets and out of trouble. I respect Hector as much today as I did then. Every boy has a hero to look up to when growing up...Hector was mine.”
“Those were such rewarding years for me,” said Hector. “I met so many wonderful young kids. Many of them are still close friends with me today.”
In addition to spending countless hours working at the Y, Hector thrived as director of the YMCA Day Camp on Hog Island. Everyone called Hector, “Hector, Sir!” He taught swimming, led the children every day in calisthenics, and taught them to love and respect nature in a primitive outdoor environment.
The children would line up early on the sidewalk in front of the Y on Hope Street and march down regimentally to the beat of a drum. Waiting anxiously at the Church Street Dock, was the late Capt. Manny Sousa, who watched the kids board the Prudence Ferry for the trip to Hog Island.
“I enjoyed this part of my YMCA experience more than you’ll ever know,” said Hector, tears beginning to well up in his eyes. “I loved every one of these children as if they were my very own.”
“I have had the honor of knowing Hector since my days as a counselor at Camp Hess,” said David E. Barboza. “He’s someone I have always looked up to, respected and admired. But, more importantly, he’s been a good friend.”
For 22 years, Hector Massa thoroughly enjoyed his role at the Bristol Y, including the late 1960s, when he helped realize a longtime dream: the addition of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Ironically, it was this same indoor pool which helped him get a job at then Roger Williams College.
“I gave President Ralph Gauvey his first swimming lessons at the Y,” said Hector. “He enjoyed that so much and was so appreciative.”
As fate would have it, Hector would become the next athletic director at the College.
When Hector got to Roger Williams as the new AD (succeeding Tom Drennan in 1972), the college campus did not resemble its current state.
“We had nothing,” he said. “We only had four sports (soccer, golf, basketball and club football). We had no recreation facility. We had no home court. We used to play our home games at Rogers High School in Newport or at the Bristol National Guard Armory on Metacom Avenue. We finally got our new Thomas Paolino Recreation Center in 1983.”
During his 16 years at Roger Williams, Hector built the sports program to include 16 varsity sports for men and women, including, sailing, equestrian and a variety of club and recreational sports programs. He also started the Roger Williams College Day Camp.
“It’s difficult to fathom how many generations of people Hector has touched in a positive way over his distinguished career in athletics and recreation,” said longtime friend and RI Interscholastic League assistant executive director, Michael Lunney. “As a young boy, I can remember attending Roger Williams College Summer Day Camp and he was always the first person to greet us when we arrived. Hector knew how to keep kids occupied with fun activities and we looked forward to what he had planned because each day was different. He is a timeless treasure to the entire community.”
When Hector retired from Roger Williams in 1988, he left behind a legacy which is still a part of the fabric of the University community today.
“Hector was like a father to me,” declared Ed Randolph, Roger Williams University’s all-time leading basketball scorer and a member of the school’s first Athletic Hall of Fame class. “He and his wife, Shirley, were always there for me. He probably made the most significant impact on my life of anyone I ever knew.”
Native Bristolian Michael T. Byrnes, added: “Bristol is a community in the true sense of that term. Our town is marked by strong families, hard-working people, numerous churches, great civic associations and concerned citizens who make worthy role models for our youth and for all members of our town. Hector Massa stands out as one of those bigger than life role models who had a positive impact of several generations of Bristol youth.”
In addition, Hector worked 50 years as a highly-regarded schoolboy baseball umpire in the RI Interscholastic League, and played tuba in the Portuguese Independent Band for half a century. He also worked part-time in his retirement years at the former Jamiel’s Shoe World in Warren.
Having two open-heart by-pass surgeries, Shirley Massa kept praying to God that her husband would be OK.
“I thought I was going to lose him after his first heart surgery in 1978,” she said. “But he made it. He’s a fighter; a real battler. I am so happy to see him as well as he’s doing. I’m so proud of all his accomplishments. But most of all, I’m so proud to be his wife.”
On Dec. 30, all of Hector’s family members, including his three children, Edward, Teresa (Terri) and Alan Massa, and many of his closest friends, will gather to mark his 90th birthday. Many will get up to recall some memorable moments of the past; some will be comical; others will invoke a few tears. But, in the end, it’ll be an afternoon filled with human emotion and sincere gratitude.