Ritchie Field at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Maritime Academy

A tradition that ended when a referee was shot by a cannon at a Maine Maritime Academy football game in September was only 5 years old, but it had its roots in a prank involving a larger cannon 51 years ago, according to an alumnus who witnessed the incident.

“Back in fall 1968, a bunch of my classmates went to Norwich University and stole a cannon. It was a fieldpiece — some big howitzer or something,” recalled Jerry Markley, a 72-year-old engineering instructor at Maine Maritime who graduated from the school in 1969. “They went over and stole it that weekend. They not only stole it, they cleaned it up and fixed it, got it working, and they brought it back.”

One of the students who returned the cannon to the university in Northfield, Vermont, was Peter Vigue, Markley said.

A fellow member of the Class of 1969, Vigue, chairman of the board at Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp. and the company’s former CEO, began a tradition at his class’ 45th reunion in 2014 when he brought a different cannon to a homecoming football game and fired it whenever Maine Maritime scored. The idea was for the tradition to continue at the class of 1969’s reunions every 5 years.

But it ended with the cannon firing and the referee’s injury at the 47th Annual Admiral’s Cup game on Sept. 21 — the second time the tradition had been carried out. Vigue was indicted by a Hancock County grand jury on three charges on Dec. 5. He will face criminal charges of aggravated assault, reckless conduct with a firearm and possessing or discharging a firearm on school property when he appears in Hancock County Superior Court on Tuesday.

Vigue’s attorney, Josh Tardy, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Vigue, 72, of Pittsfield allegedly hit the referee in the head with cannon fire, causing injuries that weren’t considered life-threatening, after a Maine Maritime touchdown in the second half of the academy’s 42-21 loss to Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

The cannon was not part of any school-sanctioned activity and academy President William J. Brennan “has directed that these devices will no longer be permitted on campus for future events,” academy spokeswoman Jennifer DeJoy said in a statement.

Markley, who has known Vigue since they were classmates, said that Vigue first brought a cannon to the class’ 45th reunion in homage to the prank at Norwich, which has become legendary, and to help raise money for a scholarship named in honor of a classmate.

Markley, who did not recall who grabbed the cannon from Norwich, said that the return of the artillery to the Vermont university a few days later was no small accomplishment, given the size of the weapon. The cannon prank and a scholarship named in honor of the late Bucksport resident and 1969 class member Tom Smith are his class’ greatest claims to fame, Markley said.

“Our class stole a cannon,” he said. “What did the other classes do?”

It is unclear from police accounts whether the cannon in the alleged assault was a functioning weapon or intended for ceremonial use only, but Vigue and the crowd around it were safety conscious whenever they fired it, said Markley, a high school football referee who made it a point to attend the game and his class’ 50th reunion that weekend.

With the cannon set up on the grass behind a fence near the southern end zone, Vigue and others around it made sure the crowd was at least 30 feet away from the cannon before firing it. Vigue also brought sets of ear plugs for anyone who needed them, Markley said.

Vigue “touched it off every time they scored. He was being really safe,” Markley said. “They would holler ‘Clear!’ or something and they would scatter.”

The referee’s wounding was bizarre, Markey said.

“When the cannon went off, there was nobody in front of it,” Markley said. The referee “was going under the goalpost for an extra point try. Nobody said stop, and nobody saw him coming.”

Markley said he was surprised by the indictment. The incident seemed accidental, he said.

“Pete Vigue is a good guy. He meant no harm. He is generous,” Markley said. “His whole life has revolved around Cianbro. I have known him, off and on, since we graduated, and I could never find anybody who could say anything bad about him.”