WOOLWICH, Maine — Nearly 20 years ago, Jack Albis and a half-dozen others started gathering for coffee around 2:30 every afternoon at Burger King on Leeman Highway.
They’d talk about family or local events and toss around ideas — one of which grew into something quite special, a regional remembrance of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan that united a community, stripped away political differences and mended generational rifts.
After a few years, the coffee klatch shifted across the street to Dunkin’ Donuts. Mostly, according to Albis’ longtime friend, Charlie Mesplay of Woolwich, because the staff there just loved to wait on Albis, a man most described as “everybody’s friend.”
“They babied Jack so much,” Mesplay said. “They’d go overboard. They even served him, and that’s not a place where you get served. They’d see him coming, and they’d say, ‘Sit down, Jack, we’ll take care of you.’”
Albis, 85, died Friday, Aug. 22. He was just one of those guys, Mesplay said. Everybody was his friend.
For more than a decade, dozens of aspiring pugilists and simple fitness buffs joined Albis on Saturday mornings at the Bath Area Family YMCA to learn boxing techniques or spar as part of a program he started years ago.
“He garnered a lot of respect for working with young adults and even some kids on just the fundamentals of boxing,” Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said. “Anybody who was interested — he didn’t care who you were, if you were a hellion or a straight-A student. Everybody liked him.”
Longtime and retired Bath Iron Works employees may remember Albis as the friendly Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Department deputy who did everything he could to help shipyard crews get to work on time while directing traffic at the old Carleton Bridge.
“He looked forward to it every day,” his son, John Albis Jr., said Friday. “He’d see all his friends. They’d be waving at him.”
However, most knew Albis through his work with the “We Remember” program and the annual Memorial Day ceremony Albis co-founded to honor fallen soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Mesplay and Lou Sikes, who worked with Albis to organize the effort, said their friend was the driving force behind “We Remember.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mesplay, Sikes and Albis — who served in the Massachusetts National Guard for 14 years — spent some time over coffee, remembering the way veterans of the Vietnam War were greeted when they returned.
“They were basically spurned,” Sikes said Friday.
The three men decided veterans returning to the midcoast area from Iraq or Afghanistan would not receive a similar reception.
The following year, on the Sagadahoc Bridge over the Kennebec River, Albis joined others to read the names of the soldiers who died in the previous year.
“It was pouring rain like you would not believe, but we stood there and we read all the names,” Sikes said.
Since then, the ceremony has moved, most recently to the park outside Patten Free Library, and evolved. They still read the names of U.S. military men and women who died the previous year, but the names of Maine soldiers who have died throughout the entire war also are recited each year.
Albis made “We Remember” memorable. He promoted it aggressively but politely to local media. He got community groups of all types engaged in the project. He raised funds for “a field of flags” at the library for each serviceman who died. He arranged flyovers by the Maine Air National Guard. He even solicited donations for refreshments to be served at the Bath Elks Club after the ceremony.
“This was Jack’s doing,” Sikes said. “And we still plan on doing it one more year. Our charter was for as long as the conflict lasts. But obviously Jack won’t be with us next year.”
Albis even purchased black-and-yellow pins with American flags for people to wear to commemorate the day.
However you encountered him, Albis left an impression.
“He was a remarkably thoughtful and caring person who when he asked how you were and how your family was, he really cared,” said John Burne, a retired detective for the sheriff’s department, who worked with Albis his entire career. “And he would listen closely and sometimes act on the details you gave him. You’d have to be careful with Jack. He was so thoughtful and generous that if you said something offhand, he was acting on the information in a very kind way.”
Burne remembered Albis calling him after reading about a case in the newspaper and asking the detective if the victim was in particular need. Whenever Burne would offer a name, Albis would “quietly, anonymously” find a way to help them.
Albis grew up in Methuen, Massachusetts, and worked for years as a welder at Lawrence Paper Board. He later was a project manager for the Waste to Energy Plant in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
In the late 1980s, Albis and his family moved to West Bath, then to Woowich about a year later.
Albis worked as a deputy sheriff, as a lobsterman in the New Meadows River and drove a school bus for sporting events.
After his wife, Winnie, died five years ago, Albis’ greatest joy was doting on his five great-grandchildren, according to Sikes. Their photos hung everywhere in the house.
“If my mother could see what he did to that house,” John Albis Jr. said. “He had pictures of them all over the walls. He’d walk in the house and see the pictures and say, ‘Hi, kids.’”
Burne said he’ll wear his black-and-yellow pin to Albis’ funeral at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bath.
Albis has asked any memorial donations be made to the boxing club at the Bath YMCA, Sikes said. The club will continue, he said, as Albis would want.
“He was just so good,” Mesplay said Friday.
“He was a great man,” Sikes said. “He really was.”