At first the idea was to have a little get-together to toast Bob McPhee before he flew off to Oklahoma to receive the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Medal of Courage next month. Punch and cookies, hugs and kisses from family and friends.

The plan changed because a community decided it was time to remind one of their own what he means to them. The man who lost the use of his arms, legs and his voice after making a tackle on a Rumford football field gained quiet respect and admiration long ago.

A Maine paper mill town feeling tough times has only to look at McPhee to understand there’s more than simply enduring a hard life. McPhee may not have material wealth but he is rich.

“He’s an inspiration to us,” said Steve Nokes. “We have more people that expect more and more and do less to get it. And we have Bob, who expects little, asks for nothing, and does more with less.”

A former Rumford wrestling champion and coach, Nokes is part of a five-person committee that went from planning a get-together to something more ambitious. Money has been raised to pay for the travel expenses for McPhee and Larry Gill, the friend and assistant who helps McPhee navigate daily life.

In difficult economic times, Nokes expected small donations. Twenty dollars would be generous. Instead he saw checks of $50, $100 and $200. An older man, known to Nokes, stopped by and opened his wallet. The contribution was five $100 bills.

Later, that man called Nokes. How much is the whole trip? Nokes guessed. Maybe $1,500. The man, who didn’t know McPhee but knew his story, said he’d write a check.

Nokes thanked him but said no, that wouldn’t be necessary.

Earlier in the week, Nokes said about 60 people sent word they would attend Sunday’s reception at 49 Franklin, a former Rumford church transformed into a reception hall and theater. He told the caterer to plan for 150. He’s crossing fingers.

“(McPhee’s) a guy who had a beautiful, bright future ahead of him and made something out of a tragedy,” said Dean Sciaraffa, a South Portland businessman and Rumford native. It was his idea to go beyond the reception and raise money for the trip.

“I’m not sure I would have recovered my life like Bob has.”

During a football scrimmage with Portland in the late summer of 1976, McPhee went to tackle Ed Bogdanovich. McPhee was about 70 pounds lighter by his estimation and 7 inches shorter. McPhee completed the tackle. Both went down and both got up.

McPhee’s neck felt sore. He didn’t ask for ice. Thirty minutes later the field started to spin and he couldn’t feel his legs. He was taken to a Rumford hospital in the back of a station wagon. In 1976, ambulances were not required to be at football scrimmages.

Shortly after, McPhee was rushed to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. He was in and out of consciousness but remembers the attendant yelling to the driver to speed it up. “We’re losing him.”

McPhee was in a coma for 17 days. He had planned a career in law enforcement. In 1984 he graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in journalism. He’s a sports writer. You can find his byline in the Lewiston Sun-Journal and the Rumford Falls Times. He types words into a small computer that becomes his spoken words.

You can read his memoir, “It Could Be Worse: The Rest of the Story.” Ted Reese, the longtime Maine high school and college wrestling coach, helped McPhee revise it recently.

It was Reese who nominated McPhee for the prestigous Medal of Courage. Reese will present him at the banquet on the Oklahoma State campus.

McPhee was a wrestler at Rumford, a “tough nut” remembers Sciaraffa, who was several years older and on the team.

McPhee owns a house in Dixfield. On his web site you can see a photo of him taken years ago sitting on his motorized wheelchair, dragging a lawn mower. Other photos show him on a snowmobile, on a roller coaster and in a whitewater raft on the Kennebec River.

“Sometimes you can see him get that look in his eye and grit his teeth. He’s stubborn. But he’s also caring, thoughtful, selfless,” said Gerry Perkins, the former Rumford football and wrestling coach who will be in Oklahoma. “My life changed that day he got hurt. He’s like my son, he’s my friend.”

Perkins’ wife, Joyce, passed away recently after a long fight with cancer. In a crowded church in Brewer, Perkins looked up to see McPhee and Gill entering the sanctuary.

The van, with Gill driving, had a flat tire two miles from the church. They arrived, McPhee says, about two minutes before the service. He was determined to be there. “I knew Coach was hurting.”

Sunday’s reception, open to all, is from 1 to 4 p.m.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]