It was a surprise when my sister married the football coach in 1969, given the gadabouts in her life before Jim. She was living and working as a photographer in Cambridge, Mass., a haven for rebels, radicals and rascals of all shapes and sizes at that strange time. Jim was coaching football at Harvard when they met and he was fishing a lot. All he had to his name were an old Land Rover and two canoes.
But there we were on a beautiful June day in our backyard in Lewiston, Maine, with family and a few friends when Martha married Jim Lentz. As they were driving off in the Land Rover from the wedding, he uttered what came to be a famous line in our family, saying, “I hope this won’t change my life.”
It didn’t change right away. Their honeymoon was a trip to the Miramichi River in New Brunswick fishing for salmon. For most of us, that was the most astonishing aspect of their union. Martha was hardly an outdoors enthusiast and a trip of this sort was not to be repeated in their 40 years of marriage. They did make several extended trips to New Zealand together, where the primary education is progressive (Martha is a special ed. teacher) and the fishing is good.
The year before they were married, Jim was called to Bowdoin College to become a member of the athletic department, where he served for 34 years. For 16 of those years, he was the football coach, the second-longest tenure of a head football coach at Bowdoin.
When Jim died two weeks ago, he still had canoes, but the Land Rover was gone, in favor of a pickup truck and then a more fuel-efficient car. He had added two children, now grown and two grandchildren (with a third on the way), a small farm in Topsham, Maine, a fishing cabin in the woods next to the Kennebec River at The Forks, Maine, not far from the Canadian border.
Jim had no better friends than his dogs — just four, one after the other, over four decades — Angus, Brindle, Jake and Dory. He favored enormous dogs, 125 pounds or more, Newfoundland types. First Angus and later Jake liked to join him in the canoe. That was a strange sight — these two bear-like animals sitting in the front of the canoe, happy as can be, being ferried down the Kennebec. On Jim’s last night, Dory came to his hospital room, wandered the room briefly, licked Jim’s hands one at a time and settled in by the bed.
Jim loved the hurly-burly essence of football. He thought the game uniquely taught young men commitment, effort and friendship, amid its daunting physical challenges. He himself was an undersized lineman, a terrific player at Gettysburg College, after he served in the Army in Europe in 1945 and ’46. In the military, he also enjoyed boxing, which explained his crooked nose. He coached at Gettysburg before joining the football staff at Harvard for 11 years, where he was responsible for the defense.
At Bowdoin, he compiled a 55-65 record and won the CBB (Colby-Bates-Bowdoin) Championship 10 times. At heart, he was a teacher. He loved to be out on the field with the players, teaching the game and enjoying the competition. A throwback, he once told me he wished he had coached in the days when you tacked a note on a tree, “Football Try-outs Tomorrow,” and coached whoever showed up.
In 1984, Jim stepped aside as the head of the football program. He was given a sabbatical and was reassigned to other duties in the athletic department. But he had a better idea.
He had long thought that Bowdoin should have a first-rate outdoor program, given its setting in Maine, close to the sea. During his sabbatical, he investigated outing clubs at schools with highly regarded programs (including Dartmouth and Middlebury) and returned with a proposal for such a resource for students at Bowdoin. Under his leadership, it wasn’t long before the Outing Club became the jewel of Bowdoin’s extra-curriculum and a source of great institutional pride. At his retirement, he was declared Director of the Outing Club Emeritus.
In his retirement, he played golf on days he wasn’t fishing, preferring to play the nine-hole course at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, with other Bowdoin retiree pals, to tonier spots. He continued to cross-country ski in the winter and became a passionate fan of the Red Sox in baseball season. He worked out daily, even after his 80th birthday and savored the end of his active day with a glass of Scotch whiskey. When he suffered the cardiac arrest that ended his life, he was in the fitness center at Bowdoin on the rowing machine.
The message of Jim’s death to the Bowdoin community included these words: “Jim was a beloved member of our community and a fixture at the Watson Fitness Center where he served as an inspiration to fitness buffs half his age. A highly successful football coach, Jim was also responsible for introducing the beauty and challenges of the outdoors to generations of Bowdoin students.
“His love of the outdoors was obvious and contagious and his skills were every bit as impressive. Jim taught whitewater canoeing, cross-country skiing, fly tying and fly fishing, but he mostly taught Bowdoin students how to enjoy the outdoors, how to deal effectively with adversity and how to translate experience and skill into leadership. During Jim’s tenure, the Bowdoin Outing Club became the largest and most popular student organization on campus and his legacy will forever be a part of this signature program.”
He was a sportsman in the truest sense.