SHELBURN, Indiana — At any other graveside service, it might have seemed odd.
But as Jesse Bedwell was being laid to rest late last month, friends and relatives passed by the vault into which his coffin was soon to be lowered and dropped in packets of mustard — an appropriate tribute to a storyteller known for an occasional embellishment.
“The way he would put it,” said his son Jay Bedwell, who played basketball for his father on a Class D state championship team at Southern Aroostook Community School of Dyer Brook in 1984 and then at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, “is that he always liked to put a little mustard on it.”
Bedwell, 83, died of natural causes on Thanksgiving, concluding a life that was based largely in his native Indiana but featured a relatively brief but memorable time teaching and coaching basketball in Maine.
“He was a character,” said Rene Cloukey, sports director at WAGM-TV in Presque Isle. “He said what was on his mind, he said it when it was on his mind and he never worried about the consequences. He was animated and he was entertaining. I loved watching him coach.”
A mention of Jesse Bedwell’s name in northern Maine more than 20 years after he left not only yields an appreciation of his coaching ability but also the inevitable story about his sometimes over-the-top persona.
“His hyperbole was beyond reproach,” said Steve Shaw, athletic administrator at Easton High School and a longtime former coach who worked under Bedwell for a year at UMPI.
Shaw likes to recall the time he was seated next to Bedwell as UMPI played at Unity College.
“There were about 10 people in the gym,” he said. “We were leading by about 20 points and suddenly something happened that struck Jesse wrong. He jumped off the bench and up in the air, and when he came down his heel landed right on my snakeskin loafer and launched me right up in the air like a cannonball.”
While the basketball court was the source of many of his yarns, Bedwell’s forum for telling his versions was virtually anywhere anyone would listen, often at Jerry Adams’ barber shop in Houlton.
“He’d come and get a haircut, and he’d always have a bunch of stories,” said Adams, himself a former high school coach and for 32 years a basketball referee who worked many of Bedwell’s games.
“I asked Jesse once why he was coaching, and he said there wasn’t enough characters in the game. He was a good coach, but he wanted to be a character, too.”
From hotbed to hotbed
Bedwell earned degrees from both Indiana University and Indiana State University with an eye toward teaching and coaching, but military service came first. He was a Marine Corps veteran of World War II who earned the Bronze Star for valor, and he later served in the Korean War.
Basketball was always a passion for Bedwell, leading to his working in the Indiana Pacers’ rookie camp back when that team was in still the American Basketball Association and an additional opportunity to work a Boston Celtics summer camp.
His love for the sport wasn’t rooted in the pros, but in teaching the game and molding high school and college players into successful teams in the manner similar to that of his coaching role model.
“He and (former Indiana University coach) Bobby Knight were acquaintances,” said Jay Bedwell, now a 47-year-old elementary school principal in Speedway, Ind. “If he were to call Bobby up, he’d know who my dad was. They weren’t fishing buddies or anything like that, but he knew him.”
“Dad kind of modeled himself after Bobby Knight.”
Bedwell initially coached in his home state, but spent time with his wife working at summer camps in Maine.
After their divorce, he moved to Maine, initially to Stonington and then to Bangor, where he landed his first boys varsity coaching job at John Bapst Memorial High School.
He guided the Crusaders during the 1973 and 1974 seasons, compiling a 23-15 record with back-to-back Class B tournament appearances.
Bedwell then moved back to Indiana, but he maintained his Maine ties and that led to his return nearly a decade later after former Husson University basketball coach Bruce MacGregor invited Jesse and Jay Bedwell to spend the summer of 1982 in the Bangor area.
They soon decided to stay longer with Jay set to attend Hampden Academy in the fall, but Jesse couldn’t find a job in the Bangor area so he expanded his geographic range and ultimately got hired to teach and coach at Southern Aroostook.
So they moved to Dyer Brook.
The next two winters provided the coach access to the biggest stage in Maine high school basketball — the Bangor Auditorium. Bedwell guided Southern Aroostook to clashes against Jonesport-Beals in the 1983 and 1984 Eastern Maine finals, with Jonesport-Beals winning in 1983 and Southern Aroostook triumphing a year later and going on to defeat Oak Grove-Coburn of Vassalboro for the state crown.
“I remember an Eastern Maine championship game I refereed when Jesse was coaching at Southern Aroostook,” said Roger Shaw, currently superintendent of schools for Bridgewater, Easton and SAD 42 in Mars Hill and a former basketball official. “I was backpedaling down the court and the Southern Aroostook bench was on my left-hand side and to my surprise there was Jesse on my right — he was probably 10 feet out on the court and I had to run between them to get down the court.
“I called a technical foul, and Jesse took his glasses off and they fell on the floor. I picked them up for him and I said, ‘Coach, you need to stay here and I took him over to the bench and sat him down.”
Then there was the time Bedwell’s glasses didn’t make their way back to him unscathed, as he threw them to the floor and then — accidently or not — stomped on them.
“I saw the after-effect of that because I was playing at the time,” said Jay Bedwell. “But the funny thing was the next year someone had gotten him to wear a pair of those huge (black-rimmed) glasses they have before a game and that picture ended up in the school yearbook.”
Bedwell’s two-year record at Southern Aroostook was 27-13.
Trip of a lifetime
Jay Bedwell was set to leave his dad behind, having enrolled at UMPI after graduating from Southern Aroostook in 1984.
Then UMPI coach Bill Casavant moved on to a job at what is now Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle.
The elder Bedwell applied for open job — and got it.
He coached at UMPI for the next five seasons, and among the team’s accomplishments was leading the NAIA in free-throw shooting one year at a stunning 91 percent.
“When I read that they shot 91 percent from the line as team, I thought no way,” said Steve Shaw. “But what he did probably three times a week was he’d get a folding chair and a newspaper and sit in the middle of the court, and everyone had to shoot 100 foul shots in a row.
“It worked. After you shoot 100 in a row, you feel like you can shoot 10 like nothing.”
Bedwell also used his connection with Knight to give his players a once-in-a-lifetime experience during the 1986-1987 season. What began with a Thanksgiving trip to Tennessee for a tournament evolved to include a diversion to Bloomington, Ind., where they not only watched the premiere of the Indiana basketball movie classic “Hoosiers” but got the chance to practice on Indiana University’s hallowed home court.
“One thing I remember about Jesse was he was always going the extra mile to make things happen,” said Larry Worcester, who played for three seasons under Bedwell at UMPI and now is superintendent of schools for SAD 24 in Van Buren.
“Somehow he got us into Assembly Hall to practice, and back then Bobby Knight never let anyone else practice on their court. We practiced there, and then the Indiana team came on for its practice right as we were coming off so we lined up and shook hands with (future NBA players) Steve Alford, Dean Garrett, Keith Smart and the rest of the team.
“Then we watched their practice, something else Bobby Knight never let anyone else do.”
Bedwell left UMPI in 1989 after five seasons, then spent a year in the Baileyville area before returning to his native state. He landed a job managing the Sunset Park and SCUBA diving camp in Linton, Ind., where he worked from 1990 until he retired 2009.