SACO – Robert Warner was a pioneer who established the state’s first private physical-therapy practice in the early 1950s.

After falling in love with Maine, he and his wife, Vera, moved here from New York City. He warned his wife before their move that they might not be able to afford much.

“Nobody knows when I say, ‘I’m a physical therapist,’ ” he told his wife, because at the time, physicians’ nurses were handling what they considered physical therapy.

“I said, ‘Well if this is what you want to do, go ahead and we’ll manage,’ ” his wife said.

They certainly managed, as Mr. Warner laid the foundation for the practice of physical therapy in Maine.

“He’d inspire patients,” said his daughter Linda Simonsen. “He developed some lifelong relationships with his patients over many years.”

Since Mr. Warner’s death Sunday at the age of 88, she has heard many stories of her father brightening up someone’s day with a joke or a smile.

“Connecting with people was an important part,” Simonsen said.

Mr. Warner was ahead of the gym and fitness craze as well.

“He started weight lifting well before it became popular,” said his daughter Mari Warner.

In the 1970s, Mr. Warner set up a gym with weight-lifting equipment in his basement. With the equipment, some of which he made by welding to save money, he taught his children how to lift. He also opened his home to athletes from Thornton Academy in Saco.

“The gym downstairs was a steady stream of kids,” Simonsen said.

“He’d give us guidance about different activities,” she said, fashioning exercises depending on the sports they played.

“He was able to apply his craft not only in a hospital setting, but also to kids who were healthy and needed a little guidance to really work out and do better in their sport of choice,” she said.

Simonsen saw compassion in her father that led her to be his aide during summers, from the time she was a sophomore in high school through her college years. While he would have supported her in any field she entered, she followed in his footsteps, now working as clinical education programmer for the Department of Rehabilitation at Maine Medical Center.

When he wasn’t focused on patients, Mr. Warner enjoyed many activities outdoors.

In retirement, he took up blacksmithing and woodworking. He trained with an accomplished blacksmith in Buxton, creating beautiful works. To learn woodworking, he read book after book as if he were back in college studying physical therapy, Mari Warner said. In her siblings’ homes, she said, there are many pieces of furniture their father crafted.

Mr. Warner also was an avid cyclist. Even last summer, he took a bicycle ride with his daughters that was nearly 30 miles.

“Bicycling was not a casual ride when we’d go with Dad,” Mari Warner said.

About 10 years ago, he decided he wanted to cycle home from visiting her in Albany, N.Y. His wife, who had learned to love cycling as well, agreed to the journey — if they could stay in bed-and-breakfasts along the way, rather than camping out.

“It was over 300 miles,” she said, and it took them about 10 days, with some big hills and a bicycle problem along the way.

“We took our time and enjoyed the trip,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: [email protected]