The Rangely cane is in good hands

Ooie Russell is the oldest person in Maine's resort town of Rangeley. As such she carries a Boston Post gold-headed cane, which was presented to her at a luncheon arranged by the town's municipal officers.

Mrs. Russell's front name is Ruth, but a baby sister could come no closer than Ooie, which stuck and she's been Ooie for 98 years. When I write to her, I refer to her as gn├Ądige Frau Vogelfrei, because her father was a German immigrant in the Springfield, Mass., area and the words are apt. Our family has been fortunate to have known Ooie for nearly half her time and the foregoing opens the moment to several subjects.

First, Ooie married a young man named Warren Russell who was called Bud and Buddy and never Warren. At that time he was studying the violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, a distance from Springfield, which Buddy covered twice a day on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Buddy became a concert-quality violinist but he was better known to the Massachusetts State Police as the crazy kid with the violin case out back on a strap around his neck.

But Buddy took to flying, and became pilot for the American Optical Company in Southbridge, near Springfield (and Ooie). His first obligation was to get J. Cheney Welles, president of that money-laden firm, back and forth from Southbridge to the trout ponds of Maine. For this assignment Buddy flew a float biplane and fell in love with Maine's wilderness.

One morning he had dropped Mr. Welles off at the Megantic Club at Big Island Pond and took off to return to Southbridge when his engine swallowed a valve, and he came down in the middle of Kennebago Lake. He could see some camps, so he untied his emergency paddle and headed in. As he paddled, he considered the beauty of the lake and said to himself that some day he'd like to own those camps. Then he said, "When I do own them, this whole lake-view side will be picture windows!"

It came to pass. Ooie became a composer. Bud flew for the Ferry Command in World War II and then was personnel manager for TWA. He and Ooie became owners of the Kennebago Lake Club, the prestigious summer place in Maine, nine miles from town on a chained wilderness road. They operated the camps as a public resort and later sold the cottages to guests, who have set up a perpetually wilderness situation. There should always be a Kennebago as Buddy first saw it from his plane.

Now for the Boston Post explanation. About 1900, it was a struggling newspaper in a city already overpapered and became available at a bargain. Joseph Pulitzer almost bought it, but instead persuaded a young friend, Edwin Grozier, to go to Boston, buy the Post, apply Pulitzer policies, and see what he could do.

Grozier was astute, and in a few years made the Post the biggest paper in the world. He used good editing and a series of promotional stunts, the best of which was the gold-headed cane. A handsome cane was given to every town and city in New England, to be used by the oldest man in town and passed along by the town officials. Later, ladies were eligible. The gimmick was self-perpetuating, and although there was no provision for replacing lost canes, the Rangeley cane is in good hands.

Bud and Ooie were the ideal host and hostess for the ideal summer vacation "camp." She was indeed the gracious lady; she mothered guests and staff and quickly mastered the job of archivist for the Kennebago and Seven Ponds wilderness, which has the best fontinales waters left in the East. (I refer to the eastern brook trout, the fall-spawning char whose spots make him appeal and whose flavor stands alone.)

One day I caught a six-pound, seven-ounce trout in Kennebago stream, and Ooie wrote to ask me to visit their camp and tell the guests what I used for a fly. The friendship thus engendered has lasted. Buddy, who actually held the title of "world's best outdoor cook," picked up his plunder and lit out down the woods trail some years back. But Ooie lives on to embellish Rangeley and tell about the famous pet trout of Ed Grant that lived out of water until one day when he fell in the brook and drowned.

Ooie's children, Neil and Jody, grew up at Kennebago, and both our children worked there at summer jobs, the boy as headwaiter and she as a waitress. He married another waitress who mothered our two grandsons. Family, you might say.

The Boston Post was our household breakfast-table paper when I was a boy. Fact is, the first story I ever wrote for a newspaper was about a cane holder, and the Post paid me $2 for it in 1924. It prides me to write again about another. I guess that's it for this time except to say Ooie Russell is grandmother to Kurt, the Hollywood movie star.

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