By Dustin Luca
---- — In 1959, the school department hired Richard “Dick” Collins to teach history and coach the Punchard High School’s football and track teams. The man who would be named to state coaches halls of fame for both football and track ended his introductory season on the gridiron with a 0-7-2 record.
Forty-seven years later, the field house at Andover High School was named after the man, a legend in the facility’s hallways.
But even then, the town hadn’t heard the last of Collins. He returned to the School Committee for another two terms, the last of which ended this week.
On Tuesday, the seat once held by Collins — who did not seek re-election this year — was taken by Barbara L’Italien, who sought her first term on the committee after serving eight years as a state representative. Paula Colby-Clements, the committee’s current chairwoman, was also re-elected to a three-year post.
When asked how he felt about his time on the board ending last week, Collins simply said, “I wish it wasn’t.”
“I’d love to keep serving, but I don’t want to go through another election,” he said, laughing. “I don’t like the election part, standing out on the street with a sign.”
Collins, now 81, has been a familiar face to Andover academics for 54 years. After serving with the U.S. Marines until 1955, he came to the district from Rhode Island after hearing about an opening for two coaching positions at then-named Punchard High School.
But the school’s initial offer wasn’t the one he wanted.
“They said they’ll look around for a teaching position so I could coach, and I said, ‘no way,’” he said. “‘Make me a teaching offer and a coaching offer.’”
His coaching offer was then paired with teaching history. From there, the offer became “the best move I ever made in my life,” he said.
After his first season in charge of the school’s football and track teams, with football tallying losses like they were war bonds and the track team doing only a bit better, a mentor to Collins told him “we were going in way over our heads.”
The northeast conference was a tough division, but Collins “handled it and stuck with it, and everything came out well,” he said.
In the ‘70s, the football team picked up two straight state championships and enjoyed a 40-game winning streak. At the same time, the track team went through 88 meets before picking up a single mark in the loss column.
Former selectman Jerry Stabile played during both of the football team’s championship years. To him, it felt like a scene out of “Remember the Titans.”
“When we got to football games, during a regular season game, we’d have a caravan of cars, we’d have two buses,” Stabile said. “We’d pull in and have more people coming to their games than the home team would have.”
It was a rallying point for more than just the team, according to Stabile.
Current high school football Coach E.J. Perry recalled being a child in the crowd as the mid ‘70s football teams cemented their legacy in Andover. One of three Perrys who were personally connected to Collins, he often saw the team from the inside as well, he said.
“There’s nothing like being 8 years old, being marched out of the locker room with all the kids getting high fives,” he said. “In the day, they were like rock stars around Andover. You knew who they were.”
“You look back, and you’d like to say, ‘Who are my mentors?’ Who are the people who really had an impact on your life in a positive way?” Stabile said. “I’d say Dick would fit in a short list of a small group of guys, including my father, who had a direct impact on the trajectory on my life and the success I had.”
To open its regular meeting last week, the School Committee honored Collins with a reception and, after the meeting was called to order, a moment to reflect on his time in town through committee and public comments.
Kerry Costello, Andover Education Association president, taught with Collins at the high school before she became a school psychologist and a ranking official in the Andover Education Association — a union that spars with the School Committee during contract negotiations.
“We didn’t always agree, but that’s OK,” she said.
Acknowledging Collins’ athletic career, Costello likened life to being a marathon.
“You only win a marathon by dogged performance, by pacing yourself, by keeping your eye on your own personal goal,” she said. “Thinking that way, Dick, you were a distance runner, a marathoner.”
Town Moderator Sheila Doherty also commented at the meeting, saying that “everybody talks about how much you’re loved. I can tell you, from years and years and years of hearing Mr. Collins’ name, how much he was feared.”
“There wasn’t a student in that school who would miss a practice because of Mr. Collins,” she said. “They’d have to answer to Mr. Collins — but with that fear was respect.”
Sitting in his living room this week, dressed just as formally as he would for School Committee business, Collins admitted that he “was known for kicking kids in the pants.”
“Well, only kicked one or two,” he said, chuckling, “but I threatened it a lot. My punishment was running up the hill.”
With Collins now returning to retirement more than two decades after first entering it, he feels he still isn’t done. He’ll still be a frequent guest at school meetings, track meets, football games and the like — albeit from the stands instead of on the field.
“I’d kind of like to stay on. But I am looking forward to coming to meetings,” he said, “and watching from the outside.”