Thaxter Trafton’s first job after he graduated from college was as a teacher and coach.
And throughout a diverse career that ranged from the highest levels of professional sports administration to a state Cabinet position, some of those closest to him say he never stopped teaching and coaching.
Trafton, a former director of the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department and the city’s Bass Park who went on to become president of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers, died at a rehabilitation center in Camden early Sunday morning of complications from Lewy body disease. He was 84.
“Thaxter was larger than life in many ways but was a true friend and the most loyal person,” said Joe Pate, who as a 21-year-old was hired by Trafton to work at Bass Park and eventually replaced him as the facility’s director.
“He looked for your gifts and demanded that you bring it to the table, that’s how he learned about people and where they’d fit. He put people in positions where they could be successful. He tried to show you what leadership was and how to apply it in whatever your passion was.”
A native of Danforth, Trafton grew up in Bath and was a 1955 graduate of Morse High School. He spent a postgraduate year at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield before attending Husson College in Bangor, where he was a standout basketball and baseball player before graduating in 1961.
Trafton was a teacher and coach for four years at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, then shifted career tracks with 15 years as director of the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department and the city’s Bass Park complex.
“He was a visionary,” current Bangor City Council chair Dan Tremble said. “He’s always been supportive with what we’ve been doing in Bangor as far as Bass Park and he never forgot us. He always thought big and he went on to do big things when he left Bangor, but he always remembered his time in Bangor.”
Trafton also had his eye on mentoring the next generation of administrators during his early years in the Queen City.
“He always looked for the potential in people and helped to develop it,” Pate said. “He found potential in everyone.”
Steve Crane is one example, having initially been hired by Trafton to the city’s park maintenance crew while a teenager growing up on the city’s East Side.
“I think there was a time when every first-born son in Bangor had to work for Thaxter Trafton for at least one year at the parks and recreation department,” Crane said
Trafton later hired Crane a second time, as assistant director of park maintenance, after Crane graduated from the University of Maine, and eventually recommended his protege for an administrative post at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
Crane went on to have a 38-year career at the CCCC, including 20 years as general manager before leaving the post in 2014.
“I owe an immense debt to Thaxter for giving a street kid off the East Side of Bangor the opportunity to have the career of a lifetime,” Crane said. “Unfortunately not everybody has a Thaxter Trafton in their life to open that door for you.”
Trafton helped forge a similar career path for Pate, whom he hired in 1978 at age 21 after Pate graduated from UMaine.
“I was preparing to go to Boston for a marketing position, and Thaxter said to me, ‘You ought to stick around here and get a little experience under your belt,’” Pate said.
Trafton hired Pate, who eventually replaced his boss as Bass Park director after Trafton left in 1980 to run the Arizona State Fair and Veterans Coliseum, then home of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
Trafton moved up the sports management ladder in 1985 as president of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a job he held for four years.
“He liked all of his jobs, but I think that was the ultimate one for him,” Pate said.
Trafton went on to manage the Santa Monica Pier in California and nearly 100 annual festivals in Greater Los Angeles as president and CEO of Trafton & Associates from 1990 to 1995.
Then it was back to sports, first as president of the fledgling International Basketball League for five years and then one year as chief administrative officer of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority, which remains the home of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics.
Trafton returned to Maine in 2003 and began an eight-year stay with the state Department of Economic and Community Development that included appointments as director of business development and deputy commissioner before he served as DECD commissioner in Gov. John Baldacci’s Cabinet from late 2009 until the end of his term in 2011.
“When he was with the Department of Economic and Community Development he wanted great things for the state of Maine,” Tremble said. “He always thought big.”
Trafton more recently served as executive director of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, an association to which he was inducted in 2003. He also is a member of the Husson Sports Hall of Fame (2003), New England Basketball Hall of Fame (2006), MCI Athletic Hall of Fame (2013), and Maine Basketball Hall of Fame (2018).
“One of my friends said to me [Sunday], ‘What are we going to do without the coach?’ and that’s how he was,” Pate said. “In fact, he named his dog Coach. He was a coaching-type of leader and a consummate sports guy, especially professional sports but really at any level.
“He nurtured all of the people who worked under his tutelage and beyond with just the way he carried himself throughout his life.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled former Gov. John Baldacci’s name. This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling.