Don Wilson, a longtime educator and athletic director at Biddeford High School before he retired in 2006, died Monday.

A close friend said Wilson, 73, took his own life.

News of Wilson’s death brought a flood of tributes Tuesday from former co-workers and colleagues who extolled Wilson for his outgoing personality, warmth, and sense of humor, along with his deep roots in the Biddeford community.

Don Wilson, shown in 2003 at Biddeford High, where he was the athletic director for 23 years. Staff file photo

“The Biddeford school community is extremely saddened to lose such a beloved legacy,” Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray said in a news release. “Don is the epitome of Tiger Pride and left a significant impact on all individuals he encountered. He knew everyone and prided himself in knowing their athletic stats without prompting. His memory was ironclad and he gave the Biddeford youth in this community the opportunity to excel inside and outside of the classroom.”

In recent months, Wilson had confided to close friends that he was struggling with anxiety and depression, said Jim Godbout, a Biddeford businessman who employed Wilson on a part-time basis for the past 17 years and who is helping the Wilson family with funeral arrangements. Godbout said that when Wilson and his wife Peggy returned to Maine this spring from Florida, his friend was dealing with “severe anxiety and depression.”

Godbout said Wilson was killed Monday afternoon in Biddeford when he stood in front of an Amtrak Downeaster heading north from Boston. Wilson was “deciding to take his life in front of a train,” Godbout said.

According to Biddeford Police, the man who was hit by the Amtrak Downeaster shortly after 2 p.m. on Monday was a 73-year-old from the Biddeford area who died at the scene. In a news release, police said further investigation determined that the train’s conductor saw a man standing on the track, sounded the train’s warning system multiple times, and could not stop the train before the collision. The police did not identify the name, citing that the incident “is currently an open investigation.”

Godbout and some of Wilson’s other friends knew of his struggles, but his death still took them by surprise.

“Don recognized he needed treatment and had been doing active treatment through counseling and other therapies and quite frankly, last week, I had a 45-minute conversation with him where he was like his own self so I had great hopes that things were turning around for him,” Godbout said.

This summer, Wilson, Ron Cote and Dick Agreste gathered beside the old St. Louis High to reminisce for a Portland Press Herald story about the parochial school closing in 1970. All three had graduated from St. Louis High, then went on to successful careers as teachers, coaches and, in Wilson’s case, administration in the Biddeford and Saco schools.

Cote said Wilson confided in him that he was battling depression.

“He was getting some therapy for it,” Cote said. “You would ask him how he was doing and he would say, ‘I’m not doing well.’ But we knew he was getting treatment, we were hoping it would turn around for him.”

Brian Curit, who retired last fall as Biddeford’s head football coach, said he saw Wilson twice last weekend, including having a dinner out on Saturday night. Curit concurred that Wilson had been open about his recent struggles with depression, which Curit said seemed to hit suddenly over the past six months.

“I thought that he had turned the corner; I thought he was getting better; we thought it was over and all of it was over,” Curit said. “I have no doubt it was kind of COVID-induced somehow. He’s such a social being that that kind of threw him for a loop a bit, all the isolation. And, we’re still wondering if it could have been something medical that was rearing its ugly head.”

For his friends, former students, and peers, Wilson’s death will not diminish his accomplishments, Curit said.

“To me, the thing that sums him up was that he knew every family tree,” Curit said. “It was astounding, his memory. Nothing short of extraordinary.”

Curit added that Wilson, “genuinely loved people and loved having conversations with them.”

Wilson started his 37-year career at Biddeford High School in 1970, just a few months after graduating from the University of Southern Maine. He was Biddeford High’s athletic director for 23 years, and an industrial arts teacher, multi-sport coach and assistant principal in the Biddeford system.

Cote was freshman at St. Louis High when Wilson was a senior. The two became lifelong friends and were both assistant coaches on the football staff of the late Mike Landry. When Wilson became athletic director, Cote said their relationship never changed even as Cote was the head boys’ basketball and baseball coach, and later the girls’ basketball coach.

“He remained the same type of person that he was,” Cote said. “He was still a friend to all of us, all the coaches. He did make sure that all sports were treated the same at Biddeford, both boys’ and girls.’”

Ron Cote, left, Dick Agreste and Don Wilson, right, share memories and look at old photographs outside the former St. Louis High School in Biddeford in May. They all played for state football champions at St. Louis during the 1960s. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Wilson was known for his smiles, his laughter and his social skills.

“His whole life was social,” Cote said. “If he didn’t know you, he would go up and introduce himself and get to know you. And he might know who your uncle was, or some other relative. He was like that, very social. It’s just a tough loss for the community of Biddeford.”

Wilson continued to find ways to connect with Biddeford athletics after retirement as an assistant coach and with the greater community by taking on a variety of part-time jobs, said Dennis Walton, who replaced Wilson as Biddeford High athletic director.

“He wasn’t the sort of guy to retire and sit at home and watch reruns,” Walton said. “That wasn’t his personality. He had to be with people, he had to act. He had a memory that was second to none. He would remember a student from 25 years ago and would know where they sat in class and a story about them.”

After retiring as the athletic director, Wilson helped coach the middle school football teams for 10 years, and spent a year with the freshman squad in 2017. After a year away from the sport, Wilson was a volunteer varsity assistant in 2019 in what would turn out to be Curit’s 20th and final season.

“I didn’t do anything (in the fall of 2018) and I really missed it,” Wilson said last October. “Anyway, I talked to Brian and said, ‘I’d love to be back.'”

Wilson was a mentor and adviser to many involved in high school athletics across the state.

“Don Wilson is the reason I aspired to become the athletic director,” Walton said. “He did such a great job, he loved what he did. I was a classroom teacher and pursuing a master’s and not really sure where I wanted to go with it. The closer I got to achieving it, I was so impressed by the way he did things and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’

“He was a very dynamic personality, the most sociable person. Don was a difficult man to forget once you met him,” Walton added. “It’s been what, nearly 15 years, since I became the athletic director and people will still mistakenly call me Don Wilson … that speaks to the type of person he was.”

Wilson was inducted into the Biddeford Hall of Honor in 2015. He was instrumental in the development of the city’s Waterhouse Field, including securing lights for the return of night football in 1985. Wilson played a major role in the installation of bleachers in 1985 and 1989, and assisted in the fundraising efforts for the renovation in 2018. Wilson also was key in bringing the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl game to Waterhouse Field.

“He made an impression with people and he just touched so many lives,” Godbout said. “I have a board at my office where I try to put up a message to create positivity and my message right now is to ‘reflect.’ And we have that on the board at Waterhouse, too, and that’s because it’s so important to reflect on Don Wilson’s life as a human being. He was an amazing person and he touched so many lives.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe contributed to this story.

If you or someone who you know is struggling with a mental health crisis, you can call the Maine Crisis Line 24 hours a day at 1-888-568-1112. For more information about mental health services in Maine, visit the website for the state’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


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