An appreciation: Swampscott loses a special fan

Ann Riddell was of another era. And I’m sure I speak for many when I say that outside of the fact that she died last week, the saddest thing about it is that the era she represented is gone. Over. A distant memory.

Riddell, 93, was a throwback to the era when life slowed to a standstill on Saturday afternoons — given over to the high school football game.

Cheerleaders would march down the middle of the street, undeterred and unencumbered by traffic; and the wit and wisdom of the football coach carried as much gravitas as any as the mayor or the town manager. For 23 years in Swampscott, Stan Bondelevitch was like E.F. Hutton. When he spoke, everyone listened.

And Ann Riddell probably gave him brownies.

If there were ever two shining examples of the truly selfless football fan, George and Ann Riddell qualified.

What made them so wonderful was their absolute lack of agenda. They gave and gave and gave, and asked for nothing in return (well, once in a while, Ann might ask me to put a good word for her grandson in the paper. And when the Big Blue lost a game, she’d wait for whomever the Item had assigned to cover a game so she could plead with us, “don’t write anything bad, OK? The kids are trying their best.”)

When you put the words “adult” and “youth sports” next to each other, the common association is negative. Images of pushy parents, grown-ups inflicting their childhood failures on their children, and loudmouths who see kids as a vehicle for asserting their hyper-aggressive personalities.

Those definitions did not apply to the Riddells. They were quiet supporters who understood that as part of that support system, their roles were to do what they could to support the boys and get out of the way.

Ann probably developed her love for high school sports watching her big brother play for the Big Blue back in the late 1930s and early ’40s. As someone who has attended every Marblehead/Swampscott Gridiron Club pre-Thanksgiving feast at the Gerry 5, and listened to the annual recaps of all games of years ending in the same digit as the year of the dinner (in other words, this fall, all previous games from years ending in “8” will be recapped), the name JoJo Cardillo comes up often when 1939 and 1940 come up. Those were his prime years, and he was Ann (Cardillo) Riddell’s brother.

It got so that I’d look for the Riddells when I went to cover football or basketball games at Swampscott High, and once I asked her how the two of them got to be so devoted.

“I’ve loved it ever since I watched my brother play,” she said.

I’ve known lots of boosters who either end up being jaded by the way times have change, and the way school sports has slipped a few notches in importance; or who develop a proprietary sense about the programs they’ve supported.

Riddell was not like that. Whether it was Dick Jauron or Kyle Beatrice, and whether this was a 10-0 team or 0-10, Ann and George were always there, always smiling, and always — if the occasion called for it — wanted to make sure we said “something nice about the kids.”

A few years back, Moynihan Lumber, which sponsors a student-athlete program in recognition of the all-around accomplishments of young people, presented its annual fan award to George and Ann. It was my privilege to introduce them at the luncheon where they, along with the two yearly scholar-athlete winners, were honored.

They were bewildered. They were honored by the award, but were not really sure why they were getting it.

Perfect. That’s exactly why they got the award.

They never got any coaches fired, or complained behind the scenes about who played and who didn’t. They came, they rooted for whoever was on the field, and they went home.

After four years, Ann and George are together again — looking forward, I’m sure, to another successful Big Blue season.


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