Friday, January 28, 2022

Couple creates enduring connections through memories of a special boat

Roger LeBlanc stands beside his 1972 California
Sidewinder boat as it makes its transition to
being completely refurbished for its 50th
anniversary party this summer.
By Lorraine Glowczak

When Roger LeBlanc of Windham inherited a small rundown ski boat in 2009, he was uncertain what to do with it.

“I kept it for a while, but eventually, I wasn’t sure if I should just scrap it or refurbish it,” LeBlanc recalls. “But my family reminded me that I would never be able to let it go.”

LeBlanc’s 1972 California Sidewinder wasn’t just any old boat. It came with heartfelt memories of youth and summers well spent on Cape Cod with what became a large adopted family. The boat and all the experiences that came with those many summers have guided LeBlanc’s life, even leading him to the shores of Little Sebago Lake in Windham.

It all began when LeBlanc was 6 years old and met Mrs. Jean McManus while attending Littleton Elementary School in Littleton, Massachusetts.

“My second-grade gym teacher, Mrs. McManus, and her husband Warren didn’t have children. However, they wanted to help out families in need so they ‘fostered’ those students on Saturdays during the summer by taking us to the beach,” LeBlanc, who came from a family of 11 children, said. “Looking back, I can see now that we were really poor, but my parents did such a good job at raising us and giving us a good life, we had no clue that we were considered a ‘family in need’.”

Eventually, the gym teacher and her husband, a Commissioner of Rehabilitation in Massachusetts at the time, purchased a small cottage along the waters of Cape Cod and the Saturday excursions to the beach became life on Cape Cod all summer long.

“At first, there were just three of us kids, and we called ourselves the ‘McFranle’ family – which included the first two letters in all of our last names,” LeBlanc said. “But Jean and Warren kept ‘adopting’ more kids, and our non-traditional summer family continued to grow.”

The ‘family’ included people she met on her travels through Europe, including friends from Sweden to Italy as well as many students in need from Littleton.

“One person was a family friend of Jean. His name was Fabio Ventura, and he didn’t speak English at first,” Leblanc said. “Fabio came to the Cape eight or nine summers in a row until he got married. We became best friends and are still friends today.”

The growing “McFranle” family enjoyed the New England sun, playing games on the beach, and swimming. But things got more exciting when the McManuses purchased the California Sidewinder in 1972. LeBlanc was 17 years old.

“We would ski all day long,” LeBlanc said. “That boat would run six to seven hours a day. When we started the engine in the morning, Jean would yell through a bullhorn from the front porch to the dock, ‘Warm it up before you take it out.’”

Although the kids’ days were filled with fun and adventure, the husband-and-wife duo made sure their adopted family had plenty of learning opportunities, preparing them for adulthood.

“We all were required to work,” LeBlanc said. “My first job was at 14, working at a Howard Johnson’s as a short-order cook. We all worked the night shifts so we could swim and ski during the day.”

The McManuses also required them to pay $15 per week to help out with the gas for the boat and the food they ate. LeBlanc said it was a minor donation for the amazing return.

“We were also expected to get to know the neighbors, and we had to help with chores including pulling milfoil out of the water that was growing around the dock,” LeBlanc said. “The cottage was located in-between two cranberry bogs, and while the bogs were being fertilized, so was the milfoil. Unfortunately, we didn’t know as much then as we know now about fertilizer and milfoil.”

LeBlanc recalls the times when he would go on dates. “Jean made sure I knew my manners, gave me mints to put in our pockets, sprayed me with Aqua Velva, and made sure I was dressed well. I remember her advising me as I walked out the door, ‘Remember to keep yourself above reproach.’"

Eventually, the LeBlanc’s summer experiences at the McManus’ cottage ended when he graduated and went to college and joined the military. However, this did not prevent him from visiting the couple when he came home during winter breaks.

“This actually was a precious time for me as I got to know them more personally,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc eventually met his wife, Mary Parisi, and his own family grew to include three sons; Joe, Matt, and Roger Jr. and one daughter, Danielle, who now lives in Cumberland. Although his military career led him to Hawaii, he and the McManus couple never lost touch – each visiting one another every year - either in Hawaii or Cape Cod, where his own children got to ski and ride in the old ’72 California Sidewinder.

The McManuses and LeBlanc continued to remain close until Jean’s death at the age of 70 in July 2009 (her husband passed away six years earlier at the age of 65 in 2003).

It was upon McManus’ death that LeBlanc and her five other “children” inherited the cottage and the old rundown boat that held so many memories. Although the five decided to sell the cottage they all wanted the boat to go to LeBlanc, who at the time lived in his hometown of Littleton.

Yearning to be near water again, he and his wife envisioned a retirement home like the McManus cottage and loved the area of Maine where their daughter lived.

 “We finally found this perfect home on Little Sebago Lake,” Leblanc said. “It reminds me so much of my childhood experiences.”

The LeBlanc family has continued to grow, both biologically and otherwise, and they now host a house full of people every summer - creating another set of memories. Of course, the old blue boat continues to be a part of it, too.

“When I inherited this boat, my intention was just to do a new paint job but it was worse than I thought.” LeBlanc said. “To get this boat refurbished took significant time and work and I’m not sure I would have done it if it weren’t for the local businesses in Windham and Naples who took on this big task. But they did so because of the story that is attached to it. And I must admit, it was a big part of not only my childhood but my own children’s life.”

The California Sidewinder, now named ‘Above Reproach’ in honor of McManus’ dating advice, will be completely refurbished in time to celebrate the boat’s 50th anniversary this summer. The cast of characters will include all of the “McFranle” family members. The celebration will occur in Cape Cod in honor of Jean and Warren McManus and the deep and binding relationships they created for so many.

“We all realize the important role Jean and Warren played in our lives and the many connections all of us have as a result of them. They gave us a wonderful life, guiding us in many ways. Yes, the boat is just a boat – but it carries with it so many important stories and memories. And we would not have it any other way.” <

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