Above, from left, Denise Payette-Holmes, Peter Wildes, Link Erskine and Joe McHugh have decided to repeat a 100-mile journey their fathers, at top, took in 1973 to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. From left top are Norm Payette, Wilbur Wildes, Ge Erskine, and Dave McHugh. Contributed / Peter Wildes

SOUTH PORTLAND — In 1973, four South Portland men — Norm Payette, Wilbur Wildes, Ge Erskine and Dave McHugh — took a doctor’s directive for exercise seriously and walked more than 100 miles to Fenway Park in Boston to raise money for cancer research.

Today, some of their children will make the same trek and have launched a fundraiser for the same charity.

Denise Payette-Holmes, Peter Wildes, Link Erskine and Joe McHugh grew up together in South Portland and they are planning to spend several days in July walking to raise money for The Jimmy Fund, the national charity fundraiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It’s the same Boston charity their fathers raised money for by collecting pledges before their walk and in tin cans they carried on their trip. In all, they raised $18,000 in 1973 – more than $106,000 when adjusted for inflation.

“We’d better beat that,” Payette-Holmes, now living in Gorham and working as an area manager for Danforth Pewter in Portland, said of the $18,000 figure.

The upcoming event no doubt benefits from the internet. Between social media and a website dedicated to the fundraiser, the group has already raised more than $7,500, with a tentative goal of $20,000.

A 1973 article in the Portland Press Herald told the story of the four South Portland men who walked more than 100 miles to Fenway Park to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. Courtesy / Peter Wildes

All four children said they were close friends as kids, just like their parents. The famous walk started, according to McHugh, with his father. Back in 1973, Dave McHugh had recently had hernia surgery and, following the procedure, his doctors encouraged him to walk as much as possible.

His response was “If I’m gonna walk, I’m gonna walk for a cause,” his son said.

The other three fathers readily joined in, according to Payette-Holmes.

“Our parents were inseparable,” she said.

McHugh, now a financial adviser living in Westfield, N.J., said the charitable nature of the journey didn’t surprise any of the children at the time.

“They were all really good, giving fathers to things like this,” he said.

Payette-Holmes’ father, Norm Payette, passed away in January, but she still has his meticulous records of the trip. They started at the ball field in Sunset Park on Aug. 14, 1973, with a friend driving a Winnebago behind them so they could stop at night and sleep. They arrived, four days and 108 miles later, at Fenway Park on Aug. 18. The Boston Red Sox have been longtime organizers and supporters of the Jimmy Fund, and that day marked State of Maine Day at the park, she said.

Payette-Holmes said word of the walk reached the ball team ahead of the men and the walkers got the royal treatment when they arrived. They met Red Sox legends Johnny Pesky, Carlton Fisk and Ted Williams. Then-Maine Gov. Kenneth Curtis also met with the group, and Payette-Holmes still has the letter Curtis sent to her father congratulating his accomplishment.

“You certainly have proven an inspiration not only to your own children and the Sunset Park Little League but to all citizens of Maine for your willingness to ‘do’ rather than to ‘talk’,” Curtis wrote.

Wildes, who lives in South Portland and works as a field merchandiser for Hannaford Bros., said he recalls seeing all four fathers in Boston at the end of the walk.

“I remember seeing my dad and his friends being introduced on the field, and that was a cool thing,” he said.

In this Aug. 18, 1973 photo, Wilbur Wildes, left, of South Portland, meets with Maine Gov. Kenneth Curtis at Fenway Park in Boston following a walk he did for charity with three friends. Contributed / Peter Wildes

Exactly how the modern effort began is not entirely clear. All four said they had been thinking about doing a walk of some kind for years. The conversation got serious, McHugh said, when he and Payette-Holmes recently looked at some old pictures of their fathers and got to talking.

Erskine, a South Portland resident who works as arborist and operations manager for the city’s parks and recreation department, said none of the kids ever forgot about what their fathers had done, and doing this now made perfect sense.

“We kind of wanted to relive it and do something to honor them,” he said.

That was in 2020, but the pandemic forced the quartet to postpone the event until this summer, and each member of the new team is taking their own approach to prepare. Wildes said all of them were active in sports as kids but “none of us are athletes anymore.” He said he has taken up walking for exercise for more than a year now, about 25-30 miles a week. Erskine said he used to play adult softball, but now he’s spending time at a local gym.

“I find myself in there more often now,” he said.

Payette-Holmes said her father didn’t get one blister, in part because he borrowed a friend’s army boots. As to her planned footwear this summer, she said, “I’m researching that now.”

McHugh said he has taken up walking, but the fact that all four fathers were in their 30s when they did the walk is not lost on him.

“Truthfully, I’m a little scared,” he said.

All four have adult children of their own, and all hope to be an inspiration to them, just as their own fathers were.

“They think it’s really cool,” Payette-Holmes said of her kids. “I hope they can carry on the tradition when we’re finished with this.”

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