Monument on common to honor Troy man
by Steve Gilbert; Posted on Keene Sentinel: Thursday, August 21, 2014
It’s been 51 years now, so a monument on Troy Common is long overdue.
Perhaps it’s best to first know something about the man who will be honored with this memorial, John William “Pete” Trudelle, for insight into why he did what he did.
The half-century-old newspaper clippings help, as does the late Red Sovine’s country-and-western song whose lyrics incorporate Trudelle’s heroism.
But nothing drives it home more succinctly than seeing his son Joseph — today a senior citizen, then a teen — wiping away tears when talking about his father. Joe was 17 when it happened, in Navy boot camp for merely a month, and his sisters say he tears up to this day whenever his father is the subject.
“It changed my life. He was my role model,” Joe Trudelle says, his voice cracking. “It’s very hard.”
The dedication ceremony for Pete Trudelle’s stone monument will take place Saturday, Sept. 13, at 1 p.m. It comes more than 51 years and seven months after this headline in The Sentinel: “Crash Kills Troy Man; Sought to Avoid School Bus.”
Pete Trudelle was omnipresent in Troy. He had hardscrabble hands born from working in the Quincy (Mass.) Shipyards and later Troy Mills. His father emigrated to the U.S. from Quebec, and the Trudelles are one of the seven oldest families in Canada, with 50,000 descendents.
But Pete Trudelle was far more than a laborer. He was a family man, the father of five, deeply committed to God and his faith, a sexton at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Troy. If an altar boy didn’t show up, Trudelle would be first to volunteer to assist the priest on the altar. He sang in the choir.
He was well-known in town as a part-time police officer and volunteer firefighter. He played softball and liked convertibles. He was so popular that American Legion Post 54 in town made him an honorary member. Born in 1919, he tried to join the service after World War II broke out, but was denied because of high blood pressure.
He loved to dance. Oh, how he loved to dance, say his daughters, remembering their parents going out dancing almost every weekend. Daughter Peggy Hakala of Fitzwilliam was 16 at the time of the fatal accident, Debbie Syrjamaki of Troy was 10 and Darlene Hill, now deceased, was 4. Another son, Terry, who was 6, lives in Laconia.
“Everybody loved my father,” Syrjamaki says.
At Christmas, Pete Trudelle was renowned for playing Santa Claus. His kids say he was the perfect Santa and couldn’t wait to get into that suit. Joe can visualize him hanging onto the back of a fire truck, headed to visit a girl too sick to leave her house. He played Santa not only for children, but also put smiles on the faces of soldiers at Veterans Administration clinics.
“He was everything that a guy should be; a part of his community, a part of his town,” says Charlie Shaw of Marlborough, a classmate of Syrjamki’s.
Shaw was instrumental in pushing for the monument on the common, and putting together the details. Trudelle’s sisters call him their brother.
Pete Trudelle didn’t finish high school. The family split time between Quincy and Harrisville, where it still owns a house near the Historic Harrisville complex. He grew tired of traveling to Dublin to catch a bus to Keene for school — in winter he would have to cross-country ski from Harrisville to Dublin — and because of that difficult commute, he dropped out of school.
Pete Trudelle moved to Troy in the mid-1940s and worked a variety of jobs, with Troy Mills as the mainstay. His wife, Margaret, also worked there. Trudelle drove a lunch wagon truck for years. In the fall of 1962, he got a job driving a fuel truck for Maurice W. Starkey, the owner of a small fuel supply company.
So it was that on Jan. 29, 1963, Trudelle drove to Boston to load up his tanker, filling it with 4,600 gallons of gasoline. Trudelle, 43 years old, started his drive back to Keene.
His route home took him up Route 1 through Saugus, Mass., on what was called the Newburyport Turnpike. He would pass under a bridge at the Route 129 intersection, the site of numerous accidents through the years and long a concern to Massachusetts highway officials.
A blind spot impeded drivers as they went down a dip before the bridge. When Trudelle reached it, a school bus picking up children and a car were stopped under the bridge. He couldn’t possibly stop his tanker in time. Instead of plowing into the backs of those vehicles, Trudelle yanked the wheel to the right and crashed into a bridge abutment.
The resulting explosion killed Trudelle, unable to escape his cab. The driver of the car, Robert Mayer of Stamford, Conn., tried to flee but collapsed from the flames, witnesses said.
The bus was soon engulfed in the conflagration, but not before the six children and driver had time to escape. Witnesses said the bus burst into flames about 10 seconds after they got out. Steel girders on the overpass also buckled from the intense fire.
Years later, while working in Laconia, Joe Trudelle, who lives in Surry, gave an acquaintance a ride. The pair started talking and the man mentioned witnessing a horrible accident in Saugus, and the actions the tanker driver took to avoid hitting a bus. They quickly determined it was Pete Trudelle.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Joe says the man told him. “I was two cars behind him.”
The accident happened so fast, Joe says, “that my father had to make a split-second decision. That’s the way he was. He probably knew he (would die) but he was more concerned about not hitting that bus. For all he knew, it was full of kids.”
One month in the Navy, Joe was working in the galley when he was informed about the tragedy. At first, he thought something had happened to his sister, Peggy, who had just gotten her driver’s license. Margaret Trudelle, Pete’s wife, was escorted home from Troy Mills by police and her priest. She had to be hospitalized, treated for shock.
In 1967 a country song called “Phantom 309,” written by Tommy Faile and performed by Red Sovine, hit the charts and was later covered by many artists. It’s about a hitchhiker picked up by a ghost driver and ghost truck. Woven into the lyrics is how that driver died trying to avoid a school bus, the inspiration said to be from Trudelle.
Shaw, the family friend, says he has believed for some time that Trudelle should be remembered as a hero by the town. He pushed the idea of a monument a few months ago, and town officials quickly jumped on board, he says.
Many townspeople have gotten involved, particularly Dennis Poirier and Valerie Britton, along with several others, Shaw says. He also credits librarians at the Keene Public Library for giving him invaluable help and advice. Troy selectmen approved it in July and construction on footings for the stone on the common is well underway.
The main inscription will read, “Troy’s Hero,” just below the words, “Greater love hath no man than this … To lay down one’s life for his fellow man.”
Shaw says advocating for the monument is one of the most important things he’s done in his life, next to raising his own family.
“Pete Trudelle belongs on the common,” he says. “He’s not just Troy’s hero; he’s New Hampshire’s hero, too.”