Bangor’s most famous resident celebrates his 70th birthday on Sept. 21, hot on the heels of the blockbuster release of “IT,” which is now the highest-grossing Stephen King film adaptation of all time, raking in over $370 million in just 10 days. He’s got a new book out next week — “Sleeping Beauties,” co-written with his son, Owen King. And with no less than 25 feature films, short films or TV series either announced or set to come out in the next few years, there is perhaps no author currently more relevant in pop culture than Mr. King.
And yet, to longtime greater Bangor residents, he’s just Steve.
You know Steve. He lives around the corner. He walks his dog (Molly, the “Thing of Evil”). His kids went to local schools. He and Tabby used to eat at that restaurant down the road. Sure, he’s got some money, and happens to be internationally famous, and sure, maybe not every person agrees with his politics. But he’s ours. And we’re proud of him.
Many people have some sort of Stephen King story. It could be as simple as just seeing him off in the distance one time, or attending an event where he spoke. But for some, the connection is a lot closer — especially for those who grew up in the Bangor area in the 1980s and ’90s playing sports. King was a huge booster for local sports while his kids were growing up, and even coached a few teams in the ’80s and ’90s.
Theresa Cucinotti, a Hampden resident who grew up in Bangor, recalls her daughter, Kate, playing on the Bangor YMCA basketball team in the early 1990s — the only girl on an all-boys team, coached by Dave Mansfield and Stephen King. Cucinotti said King would gently encourage her daughter, a gifted ball player, to shoot the ball, rather than pass it to another player. Her confidence in the game was low and she rarely shot the ball herself, despite her obvious skill.
During the championship game at the YMCA, King called a timeout and told the rest of the team to make sure the ball was passed to Kate, so she could take a shot. She did, finally, and scored a three-pointer.
“The entire gym, both sides, were on their feet. I swear you could hear them cheer across the river. It was a moment everyone wanted all season long from the girl,” said Cucinotti. “The kindness he showed gave her a new confidence that has stayed with her to this very day.”
For others, the connection came in a classroom. King taught English at Hampden Academy for two years, between 1971 and 1973. But in the 1980s and ’90s, he would also visit schools around the state for story times.
Dave Bumpus, a 35-year-old Gardiner native now living in New Jersey, recalls reading King novels at a very early age, developing a deep affinity for horror writing by the age of 9. In fourth grade, he wrote a letter to King, asking him to come read aloud to his class. One day, he walked into class, and his jaw dropped — King was standing there.
“He read us a short story that [at the time] had not been published. … It would later be published in ‘Nightmares And Dreamscapes’. I hung on his every word,” said Bumpus. “He signed an autograph for me, and for my friend. I was so excited I thought I would faint, but I fought through it … I was 9 years old when that happened. It’s now 26 years later and I still remember it very vividly. It was the day I met my hero.”
Sometimes, however, a “King encounter” happens when one least expects it. That’s what happened to Tim Morse of Thomaston, when he was around 7 years old. He and his dad were shopping at the Wal-Mart in Bangor and ran into King.
Father introduced son to the world-famous author; the 7-year-old was totally unimpressed. Fortunately, King handled it like a pro.
“Stephen asked what I think of his books, and I said, ‘They’re boring,’ and my father said, ‘Timothy!’” recalled Morse, who said he’d never told the story to anyone until now. “Stephen asked why they were and I said, ‘They’re adult books, I like kid books.’ Dad was clearly angry and embarrassed, so I asked, ‘What? I’m a kid.’ My father started apologizing to him, and Stephen said that it’s OK, he doesn’t write books for kids … Even at age 30 I look back at that and get a little red in the face.”
Whether you’re a fan or not, King’s fame is undeniable, despite his best efforts to keep a relatively low profile in Maine. Occasionally, though, the trappings of being a big-deal celebrity will follow King to Bangor. In 1998, “60 Minutes” did a profile on him, with part of the feature shot in New York, and the other part shot in Bangor. The Kings took journalist Lesley Stahl out to dinner with them in Bangor, to their favorite Chinese restaurant, Panda Garden.
Aimee Beth Hatt, then a young waitress at the longtime Franklin Street eatery, was used to the Kings coming in to eat. She wasn’t used to a full camera crew accompanying them.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I wasn’t even supposed to be working. We didn’t know they were coming,” said Hatt, a Bangor native who now lives in Holden. “I was really nervous … but Panda Garden didn’t end up in the video. I didn’t either. My hand did, I think. You know, they’re really just normal people. They ate there all the time. They’re really down-to-earth. If people came in and wanted to ask him for his autograph, we’d stop them. They’re just trying to eat dinner.”
The Kings may be known as down-to-earth, normal people, but their impact on the lives of other normal people in the area is far from commonplace. Through the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, they have donated millions of dollars to causes as huge as the renovation of the Bangor Public Library and the construction of Mansfield Stadium and the Beth Pancoe Aquatic Center at Hayford Park in Bangor, to smaller, personal acts of charity that directly benefit specific individuals in the community.
One of those individuals was Amanda Randall of Dixmont, along with her husband, Brent, their kids and a number of other area military families. Brent Randall and other members of the Army National Guard’s 172nd Infantry Unit out of Brewer were due to deploy to Afghanistan in January 2010. They were already undergoing training at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, and just days before Christmas were told they’d have a few days off around the holidays. With last-minute flights either booked up or very expensive, options to get home were extremely limited.
Then “someone” chartered two buses for any soldier that wanted a ride home to the Bangor area for Christmas, free of charge. Those “someones” were Stephen King and Tabitha, who personally donated $12,999 to pay for it — according to those that know King, he’s a “numbers person,” and felt the even $13,000 to pay for it was unlucky.
“It came out in the media that it was them,” said Amanda Randall. “I will never forget their generosity, and thankfully all returned home for good a year later, right before Christmas of 2010.”
Regardless of the connection — personal, charitable or simply as a fan — it’s hard to deny the impact the Kings have had on the Bangor region, and the state as a whole.
Happy birthday, Stephen, and here’s to many more.