Memory is split into two parts in the brain: declarative, or the ability to recall certain events or facts, and procedural, the memory for how to do things.
Francis (Fran) Sweeney has reached the point in life when declarative memory fades a bit. So when he was honored Tuesday night at Waterford High at the last boys basketball game of the season with a plaque for his 56 years of service building the Waterford athletic program, he might not remember the details if you ask him about it.
But then again, Sweeney was never one for declarative memory anyway; it’s the procedural memory that counts.
Take the first sport he ever coached at Waterford: tennis, in 1951. He never played tennis, never watched tennis, never even held a racquet. He wasn’t going to be able to remember anything from his past that was going to help him coach a team.
But what he had was plenty of episodic memory on how to treat people, how to be in control while letting everyone else be in control. That was all Sweeney would really need.
“Didn’t matter what sport I coached, tennis, track, boys, girls, didn’t matter at all,” Sweeney said, who was also a teacher in Waterford. “You treat people the right way and run the team the right way and you can coach.”
But tennis was just the beginning. Sweeney would go on for another 56 years, building an athletic program from the ground up. And all of it was to give students that chance he never had.
“We had some sports when I grew up (in Bangor, Maine), but nothing for girls and nothing really any good,” he said. “We had basketball and football and baseball, but that was it.”
So Sweeney created a football team, a basketball team, a track team, a cross country team, a baseball team and on and on, all kinds of sports for boys and girls. He soon became Waterford’s first athletic director, laying the foundation for the high school’s sports today.
All of this was done for free, with no money for coaching any of the number of teams he had. And back then, teachers made next to nothing, but he was following his passion, Sweeney said.
“I loved it, every single day,” he said. “I never wanted to do anything different.”
Yet despite surrounding himself in sports and being constantly involved in sports, Sweeney’s style was talking about anything but sports. It was about the people, he said.
“I loved every single kid I coached, every single one,” he said. “And if I met somebody I didn’t love, I would work on loving them.”
Finally, Sweeney retired, but still would go to as many sporting events as he could. Even today, he goes to most of the basketball games, saying hello to 85 percent of the people who come in.
Secret to Life?
“My father always ignored me, never had anything to do with me,” Sweeney said. “I told myself I was never going to be like that, I was going to love everybody.”
Sweeney did that, creating relationships with nearly every child that went through Waterford schools. Of course the most important relationship is the one with his wife, Betty, whom he has been married to for 64 years.
“You know I’m still wicked in love with that woman,” Sweeney said. “Greatest woman I ever met, and I married her.”
Those relationships, which make him happy today, are the key to life, Sweeney said. It isn’t about items or money or remembering the things that were, i.e. all those declarative memories; but instead the attitude and the temperament that guides you every day, he said.
“It all comes down to attitude, accepting the way things are,” Sweeney said. “That is what will make you happy every day.”