Editor’s Note: The Townsman this week presents the first of what will be occasional profiles of townspeople who have left their mark on Andover.
There could have been no more fitting ending to Al Retelle’s life.
Last week, the longtime Andover man, naturalist and patriarch behind Retelle Tree Corp. in town was laid to rest in a coffin lovingly crafted by his sons from the huge trunk of an oak tree cut down in North Andover.
It was simply what the owner of the family tree business would have wanted, his loved ones say.
Albert Richard “Al” Retelle, 83, of Andover, who died Jan. 30 after a resurgence of his lymphoma, departed this world in grand arborist style.
“He wanted a simple pine box ... but the boys went out and built a casket from that oak. It was beautiful,” said his widow, Evelyn Retelle, to whom he was married for 60 years. “He rested on a pillow that I had made and was covered with his favorite blankets ... he would have loved it.”
Retelle loved the outdoors, especially bird watching, and that avocation was incorporated into his services. The lifetime birder was surrounded by meaningful objects from his life, including two hand-carved wooden figures of a loon and an egret painted to perfection, his binoculars and a “Sibley’s Guide to Birds.”
He probably had identified more than 1,000 species of birds over the course of his life and often talked at The Center at Punchard about his bird-watching trips with his wife that included stops in the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica, in addition to outings across every nook and cranny of the Merrimack Valley.
The nature theme continued at the post-funeral meal, appropriately held at the headquarters for his longtime tree business on Bellevue Road, with tree logs piled about.
Evelyn Retelle said her husband came home from hospice care on Wednesday, Jan. 29, and died the next evening against the backdrop of his gardens, where he spent many hours tending to his perennial beds, vegetables and landscape, as well as his beloved Baker’s Meadows that unfolded just outside his home.
More than 145 species of birds, including herons, migrating ducks and nesting Canada geese, have been observed in Baker’s Meadow,essentially a pond between Reservation and Argilla roads, while its wetlands provide vital habitat for muskrat, mink and beaver. The land is owned by the town’s conservation group, Andover Village Improvement Society.
“He wanted to be able to see Baker’s Meadows, his gardens ... that’s why I brought him home,” Evelyn Retelle said.
Retelle’s loved of all things outdoors was legendary, a passion he sought to pass down to his children and later his grandchildren at an early age.
He spearheaded land conservation efforts in Andover as the first chairman of the Andover Conservation Commission and served as AVIS president for five years. He remained active with AVIS as the warden of Baker’s Meadow Reservation until his death. He was the longtime president of the Merrimack Valley Bird Club and a volunteer with the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
Town involvement was just as important as his bird watching. He was a call firefighter in Andover and also served the town as an election official for more than 25 years. He received the 2010 Andover Heritage Award for his work with the Andover Historical Society preserving gardens.
Al and Evelyn Retelle were also the owner-operators of The Merrimack Valley Ski Area and, as a certified ski instructor, he taught many local people how to ski. He continued his love of skiing with his grandchildren, later working at Bradford Ski Area as a true ambassador of the sport.
In addition, Retelle was a fan of Andover High School athletics, serving as a volunteer coach with the Andover High football team and his bucket truck was used for years to spot the games. He later joined the booth to assist with announcing.
Watching his grandson, Riki, play hockey for Andover, and his granddaughters, Cayley, Erin and Kerry, compete in ski races for the high school was another of his joys in life.
Retelle was no stranger to competition himself. He participated in local road races and at the age of 60 completed the Boston Marathon and also hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Born in 1930 in Lawrence to Albert and Alice Retelle, he attended St. Patrick School in Lawrence and Lawrence High School. He graduated from Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Amherst and was a certified arborist.
In addition to his wife, he leaves three sons, Peter and wife Lee Retelle, Robert and wife Amy Retelle, and Terrance and wife Rose Retelle; two daughters, Nancy and husband Michael Irby, and Julia and husband Dan Christopher; 13 grandchildren, and siblings Ruth Bourdelais, Philip Retelle and Marjorie Maginnis. He was predeceased by his brother, James, and great-granddaughter, Khloe.
Arrangements were held last week at West Parish Garden Cemetery Chapel on Reservation Road in Andover, where Retelle had served as secretary of the board of directors.
The garden cemetery and accompanying chapel will continue to benefit from his generosity. He requested donations in his memory go to the cemetery for perpetual care and improvements.