FORT KENT, Maine — For 39 days he outplayed, outwitted and outlasted his competitors, ate bugs, grubs and pounds of rice, slept on the ground and faced down some of Africa’s most feared wildlife on his way to win “Survivor: Gabon” and claim the $1 million prize.
But Bob Crowley of Gorham joked he preferred any of those conditions to a week in the Allagash at the height of black-fly season.
“I’d take Gabon, without a doubt,” Crowley — or “Bob from Maine” as he came to be known to fans of the popular CBS television show across the country — said with a laugh.
Crowley was in Fort Kent on Thursday night speaking at the University of Maine at Fort Kent in a fundraiser for the campus’s Maxine Page Family Scholarship fund.
Crowley’s wife, Peggy Page-Crowley, is a native of Fort Kent and Maxine Page’s daughter.
Bob Crowley, the 57-year-old former high school physics teacher — who is the oldest contestant to win the title of Sole Survivor — was an instant hit on the show with fans, thanks in part to his trademark bow ties and Down East Maine ingenuity.
In addition to teaching, Crowley has worked on lobster boats, built a house out of recycled materials, raised chickens, and been a surveyor and a forester.
Contestants on the television show are divided into two teams — or tribes — who compete weekly for various reward items.
Each week the losing tribe must vote off one of its members at a tribal council, so Crowley knew he had to do whatever it took to remain in good standing with his tribe mates.
“I was lucky — when we got into camp it started to rain,” Crowley said. “It only rained 15 minutes the whole time I was in Gabon, but I was able to build a shelter when we got there and that showed them I could do things.”
Crowley also constructed a camp bench, an outrigger for the tribe’s canoe, tiki torches and specialized fishing gear.
“Some people have asked me if the show is rigged,” he said. “Yeah, it is — put a guy from Maine on a show with a group of kids from New York, Los Angeles and Boston and the guy from Maine will win.”
For many fans, the highlight of the season was Crowley’s creation of a fake “immunity idol.”
Contestants have the opportunity to ferret out the hidden location of up to four real idols during the course of the show. Possession and presentation of an idol at tribal council means a player can’t be voted off the show.
Crowley’s mock-up was so realistic it convinced one of his competitors to squander it during a tribal council and get voted off.
On Thursday night Crowley had the idol with him in addition to several other pieces of memorabilia from his time in Gabon.
For Crowley, the road to Gabon actually began five years ago when he met one of his son’s roommates.
That young man eventually became a contestant recruiter for “Survivor” and contacted his old friend’s father to see if he was interested in appearing on the show.
“Each season, they go for certain demographics,” Crowley said. “They have the cute young girls, the buff young guys and I guess they needed a skinny, old, ugly man.”
After five days of interviews in Los Angeles, Crowley was sure he had blown the whole thing when he told the producers he would not lie or deceive people.
“But a month later I got a call to go to Africa,” he said.
Before leaving Maine, his father took Crowley aside and told him, “Bluffing for poker is not lying. You play for all the marbles.”
With a diet based largely on rice and whatever they can catch for themselves, contestants often experience dramatic weight loss.
“Everyone on the show lost between 30 and 10 pounds,” Crowley said. “Except for me: I gained 2½ pounds.”
Crowley attributed that to his unique ability to smuggle food back to camp anytime he or his tribe was rewarded with it.
“We also ate one of the cameramen,” Crowley joked.
Creative filming and editing gives the at-home audience the illusion the contestants are on their own. Crowley said that in reality, each one has three crew members following him around at all times — a camera operator, an assistant and a sound man.
“They flew in 350 people to work on the show and built a whole village for them,” he said. “Some nights we could hear the generator.”
Distance is another illusion.
“When it was time to leave for a challenge we’d walk about a half-mile to a road where they loaded us into a black SUV with the windows blacked out,” Crowley said. “We’d drive for an hour or so, and they’d let us out and we’d walk another half-mile to the challenge.”
For all he knew, Crowley said, they could have been driving in circles for that hour.
Along with winning the $1 million, Crowley was voted the fans’ favorite and was awarded an additional $100,000.
When he returned to his class at Gorham High School after claiming his prize on national television, he found his students had responded “1.1 million” to every question on an exam he had left for them.
Since the season wrapped up, Crowley has retired and now devotes his time to fundraising and “doing whatever Peggy tells me to do.”
The couple most recently returned from Kentucky, where they had raised $80,000 for a children’s’ museum.
His pet cause is the American Red Cross, and he encourages everyone he meets to donate blood.
The couple was in Fort Kent to attend Peggy Crowley’s 40th high school reunion, and at times Thursday night it appeared she was the bigger celebrity as she was hugged and greeted by numerous former classmates.
“It was such fun watching the show with someone you know on it,” Delores Dumont said as she waited in line to shake Crowley’s hand. “We were cheering real hard for him.”