ST. ALBANS — Gene French, who celebrated his 98th birthday on November 4th, has lived through many things most people only know from books and movies.
Seated in his daughter Helen’s home, looking out over the snowy town of St. Albans, French, a man with a bright smile and twinkling eyes, recounted some of the things he’s done in his storied life.
In 1946, French, fresh from service in WWII, came to St. Albans where he began writing sports for the Saint Albans Messenger before moving on to coach and teach at St. Mary’s high school in St. Albans.
French recalled that Mr. Lobe of the Messenger tried earnestly to convince him to stay with the paper.
“I must have been doing a pretty good job,” said French with a grin.
Sports and education were both important to French, so when the coaching and teaching job opened at St. Mary’s, in September of 1946, he shifted gears.
“I grew up with sports,” said French, “so I coached football, basketball, and baseball at St. Mary’s.”
French took on the football team, leading the teams to close games and victories against much larger schools.
When the St. Mary’s archives were sorted, a football was found inscribed with the numbers 13-0, the score of a game St. Mary’s played against Burlington High School.
“I was very fortunate that the players I had were really good! As I remember, the first game we played was at Middlebury. The first two times we had the ball we scored a touchdown! It was 14-0.
“I don’t like to run up a score, so I started substituting some of my other players. We wound up winning that game by one point!” said French with a hearty laugh.
French noted he didn’t have a lot of coaching experience, but he had taken a class hosted by professional coaches the summer before he began coaching.
“They gave us ideas and tips on how to handle ourselves and what to do. That was a big asset,” said French.
French, drawing on his high school days in Albany, NY, instituted the military huddle on offense at St. Mary’s.
“The kids liked it! It was one of the things we did, and it was one of the things I had experienced,” said French.
“I loved the kids! They were so into it, and they seemed to be glad that someone was willing to work with them--have some success and have some failures and live with both of them.”
“I loved teaching and coaching those kids; some of them are still alive today,” said French,” and they are good friends of mine.”
French coached from 46’ to 48’ before moving on.
In high school, French played basketball and baseball and was the quarterback of his football team.
“Our baseball teams were traditionally always good,” said French. “One of our pitchers happened to go to Saint Michael’s College.
“Saint Mike’s got interested in me when I sent my clippings because of that pitcher. That was a big help for me!”
French received a scholarship to Saint Michael’s College and joined the baseball team where he played centerfield.
“I was a pretty good hitter,” said French, with a grin.
“I never would have been able to go there if it hadn’t been for that scholarship! It was also the first time I came to Vermont, and what a nice thing that turned out to be!”
While in Vermont, French met and married Mona Larry, an athlete in her own right.
The two met on a blind date arranged by a friend. They were engaged in September of 1942 (on Mona’s birthday) and married in January of 1943.
When Gene took the job at St. Mary’s, Mona, a local girl and graduate of BFA St. Albans (class of 1936), started the girls’ basketball program at St. Mary’s.
“They were so happy about that!” said French, smiling “And she coached them! It was all her idea, and the kids loved her for it! I was so blessed to have her.”
Recalling his wife and her skill and dedication throughout their married life, brought back memories of their early years together.
French had enrolled in the service at Fort Ethan Allen in the fall of 1942, to guarantee that he’d get the six months he needed to graduate from Saint Michael’s.
Thirty days after graduation, and just after their wedding, French left his new bride and was on his way to active duty.
French spent the first portion of his service at Camp Hood in Texas where he spent time training on weaponry with other college graduates who had enlisted as he had.
Thirteen weeks later, French and his fellow soldiers graduated as Second Lieutenants.
“What a nice stroke that turned out to be for me. I got my degree, entered the service, and wound up being a Second Lieutenant in about 25 weeks,” said French, with his typical gratitude.
Mona and their daughter Diane joined French in Texas the following year after Christmas.
Shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, French was activated and went to Europe to replace men who had been lost in battle.
French received a Bronze Stars for bravery while serving overseas.
“I had a machine gun platoon in our regiment. We had jeeps with water-cooled and air-cooled machine guns mounted on them. Our assignment was often to lead the division when we moved from one place to another.
“One day, our group came up the road, and off on the side was the Fifth Armored Division that normally sweeps right through an area and cleans up.”
French drove up to see why the division wasn’t moving. He learned they were worried about traps under the railroad tracks ahead.
There were often fox holes under train tracks where enemy soldiers would hide and wait to shoot allied men.
French volunteered to drive ahead and ensure the area was safe. Thankfully, the tracks were deserted.
“The commander of those units recommended me for bravery, and I appreciate that.”
French also received two Purple Hearts, but he doesn’t talk about them because his injuries were small compared to those of many.
In 1946, French returned to the states on the U.S.S. Lake Champlain aircraft carrier with 1500 soldiers.
Mona met French in New York City, sporting an elegant hat. French noted he loved to see his wife in a hat. The two went out to eat at a restaurant, French still clothed in his military uniform.
The French family settled in St. Albans where he coached and taught, sold insurance, worked in real estate, and raised his family.
After his years of coaching and teaching, French turned his love for sports to refereeing.
French brushed shoulders with BFA St. Alban’s greats Doc Comey and Bob White.
“Doc Comey and I got together and did some basketball officiating,” recalled French. “The games were always good. Doc was known as a serious official. If you did anything wrong, he was going to call it!”
French recalled watching Bob White coach.
“I thought he was great! The kids loved him, and he was a successful coach. What’s not to like!”
Later in life, French developed a love for the game of golf, playing until he was 93 years old. During his golfing years, he scored two hole-in-ones--one at Champlain Country Club and another in Florida.
Recently, one of his great-grandsons, Matt Senesac, began golfing. French was able to watch Matt play at CCC this fall at a high school meet.
“It’s good for kids to get into sports. If they’re playing sports they will be in good shape physically, and they won’t be doing things that aren’t so good,” said French. “I encourage all kids to be sports-minded, and if they have a talent--use it--whatever it is!
“You learn how to handle the good times and the bad ones, and that helps you in life!”
Bob Cioffi, who resides in St. Albans, played for French on the St. Mary’s football team over 70 years ago.
“Gene wasn’t much older than his players. Many of the players on his team left for the war when they were juniors or seniors,” said Cioffi. “They came back after WWII and completed their education.”
St. Mary’s played Burlington, Barre, Mount St. Joseph, Rutland, and Middlebury--schools that often had sixty guys on their roster. St. Mary’s often had no more than 14 players.
“We all played and that’s what it’s all about,” said Cioffi with a chuckle. “He was a good coach, a good guy.”
“There was no youth football in St. Albans at that time. When Gene was coaching, half the kids on the field had never seen a football before.”
Cioffi recalled the win against Burlington.
“We made so much noise some people thought Burlington won. He had some good victories.”
Cioffi remembered one of French’s players in particular.
“He had an extremely good quarterback,” said Cioffi. “’Shorty’ Oullette. He was also a great baseball player--the only one I know who pitched a no-hitter and lost the game.”
Cioffi, a youngster as a sophomore on the St. Mary’s football team, recalled the role French played in the classroom.
“He was an excellent teacher. He taught us economics, and that was the best class I had in high school.”
Cioffi enjoyed having French as a teacher and a coach, but he also remembers him for the role he played outside of the school.
“Gene was a pillar in the community,” said Cioffi. “He was instrumental in many things, and he was well respected.”
French was responsible for reestablishing a National Guard Company in St. Albans.
“Gene was in the motor company in the guard unit with many of the kids he taught.”
Talk of student-athletes, guard companies, and his years at St. Mary’s brought Cioffi back to the years he played for French.
“Gene was really well liked by the people he taught and coached,” said Cioffi. “He was a gentleman as a coach.”