Dick Meader noticed the first evidence of Parkinson’s disease 15 years ago.
Signs of the progressive nervous system disorder gradually became more pronounced, to the point where the longtime University of Maine at Farmington men’s basketball coach was diagnosed with the condition several years ago.
Now 73, Meader continues to coach through the gradual changes he endures from year to year. His passion for teaching and coaching are a continuing source of motivation for his daily 33-mile commute from his Waterville home to his Dearborn Gymnasium office on the UMF campus.
“I’m a little more tired, but not much,” said Meader, who secured his 500th career coaching victory on Jan. 10 with an 83-51 win at Northern Vermont-Lyndon. “Then you have to ask yourself, is it Parkinson’s or just old age?”
Meader’s voice is not as loud as it once was, making it slightly more difficult to communicate positive reinforcement during a game. Handwriting is another struggle, due to hand tremors.
“I can’t really write a sentence now legibly,” he said. “If I do, I really have to sit and concentrate on doing it. I try to do crossword puzzles now. I maybe do one a week now, where before the season I’d do it every day but Sunday.
“It makes me concentrate, but my Solon [High School] education keeps me from doing more,” Meader said with a laugh.
One thing that may make the veteran coach — a member of both the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame and UMF Athletics Hall of Fame — feel more youthful these days is the play of his team. UMaine-Farmington is having one of its best seasons in Meader’s 27-year tenure at his alma mater. The stint followed 17 seasons in the same capacity at Thomas College in Waterville.
The Beavers, winners of the past 13 games, are 17-3 overall and 9-0 in the North Atlantic Conference heading into two key weekend games at SUNY Canton (13-8, 9-1 NAC).
“The disease definitely affects him, but he would never say a word about it,” said Riley Robinson, a senior forward from Dixfield. “He’s just too team-first. He doesn’t ever want to talk about himself.”
One thing that impresses Robinson most about Meader is his endurance.
“He’s a tough guy, too,” he said. “I’ll come in here to shoot at 8:30 in the morning and he’ll already be here, and we don’t have practice until 6. I’ll say. ‘Coach, what are you doing all day?’
“It certainly has not affected his work ethic.”
As much as UMF’s success this year is based on an experienced roster with five senior starters back from a year ago and the added presence of former University of Maine point guard Terion Moss, the teamwork within the coaching staff is similarly significant.
That’s particularly true of the relationship between Meader and assistant coach Jim Bessey, the longtime former boys basketball coach at nearby Mt. Blue High School.
“It really always seems like they’re on the same page,” Robinson said. “Coach Meader won’t even finish a sentence, and Bessey comes in and finishes the sentence for him. You can tell they spend a lot of time in the office together going over X’s and O’s. They always know what they want to do and how to do it best.”
Bessey joined Meader’s coaching staff eight years ago. And while that was about the time Meader was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, that wasn’t part of their initial talks about joining forces.
“I was just hoping Jim would, and he has, kind of sit back and observe and tell us his thoughts about when we should do something different or continue on, and he got right into it,” Meader said.
Bessey said he and Meader are focused so much on planning for practices and games that Meader’s health rarely comes up.
“It’s gotten worse because Parkinson’s gets worse, there’s no escaping that,” Bessey said, “but I’ve been with him a lot, so I wouldn’t notice it as much as someone else.”
Meader’s relationships with Bessey and fellow assistant coaches Nate Carson and Jared Browne have grown more collaborative in recent years.
“We’re pretty organized before the game,” Bessey said. “We have our scouting reports. We know our substitution pattern. I’ll write it down on a piece of paper, and he goes over it and says when they’re going to play, and then I’ll watch the clock. And when the time comes, I’ll tap him on the shoulder and say are you ready for him, and he’ll say yes or no.
“Then during timeouts we usually huddle up before we go to the players, and at halftime it’s the same thing. We meet someplace and organize ourselves first,” Bessey said.
That’s just the kind of support Meader wants.
“Jim’s quick to step in and do some things where I’m a little bit slower reacting now, and he treats the team as if it’s own, which is good,” he said. “I think we all work well as a team with the players.”
Meader admits retirement time is drawing near, but he continues to enjoy the work involved in facilitating his team’s pursuit of an NCAA Division III tournament berth.
“[I’ll get done] when I’m starting to feel like I’m holding them back a little bit, and that time is getting closer,” he said. “I haven’t talked with the players about that yet, but they are a pretty responsible group.”