METHUEN — James McDermott was the kind of guy who was particular with details.
A longtime teacher at the former Tenney High School and later at Methuen High School, McDermott taught both mechanical drafting and biology.
Friends said yesterday they were shocked to learn that McDermott, 81, and his wife, Thelma, 79, former head maternity nurse at Lawrence General Hospital, died in a fire at their home at 22 Buttonwood Drive early in the morning.
“He was so particular with details and everything,” said Ray Pilat, the longtime Methuen sports announcer. “I was shocked when I saw he didn’t have any (working) smoke detectors in the house. Jimmy was one of the guys who took care of the small details.”
Pilat, who taught with McDermott at Tenney High and later Methuen High, remembered end-of-school-year parties at the McDermott’s place on Island Pond in Derry, a staple event for years for Tenney and Methuen faculty.
“Jimmy was a great host,” Pilat said. “We’d go swimming, spin a number of yarns as far as the school year or what had happened to us personally. It was a good ole time, as they say.”
McDermott did a lot of work on the house he lived in, friends said.
“It was his pride and joy,” Pilat said.
Kelly McDermott, the McDermotts’ daughter who lives in New York where she is an artist and fashion stylist, talked last night of her parent’s commitment to their family, community and animals that they rescued and provided a home to.
“They were philanthropists who did it quietly,’’ she said. “You’d never know.
“They were the most amazing, supportive parents, she said. “They deserved so much better.’’
Kelly McDermott talked about the shock and anguish felt by several of the firefighters and other first responders who tried unsuccessfully to save her parents from the fire. She said she is somewhat comforted by the fact that the responders who knew her parents were at the scene and treated their bodies with respect.
“Many of them were my father’s students’’ when they were younger, she said, stressing his popularity among young people. “My father was the salt of the earth.’’
Kelly McDermott said that for years, her mother was head nurse at the Lawrence General Hospital maternity department, where she helped deliver “countless children.’’ Later Thelma McDermott was the supervisor of a local visiting nurses organization, and she helped housebound elderly people care for their pets.
Her parents were big supporters of the MSCPA in Methuen, where her mother would regularly deliver money, food and blankets for animals.
“They never hesitated to help an animal,’’ Kelly McDermott, said, explaining that over the years her parents took in a variety of rescue animals needing homes.
She said that at the time of the fire, her parents had nine cats living in their home.
“None of the cats have been found,’’ she said, hopeful that they escaped the fire but fearful some may be trapped in the rubble.
She asked that neighbors who might find the cats bring them to the Methuen Veterinary Clinic, where they will be cared for. She said she will pay the bills.
Kelly McDermott said she has doubts about reports that her parents had no working smoke detectors in their home.
“They were vigilant,’’ she said. “They would never jeopardize the animals.’’
Her father received a football scholarship to play defensive tackle at the University of Miami in the early 1950s, but refused it initially to enlist and fight in the Korean War. After his military service, he attended UMiami, but was injured and gave up football there, transferring to St. Anselm and finally to Salem State College, where he received a master’s degree in education.
Former Methuen High School principal Arthur Nicholson was a close friend of James McDermott.
“He was a very good guy,’’ Nicholson said yesterday. “I was shocked when I heard this morning about it,”
Fran Molesso, a physical education teacher and coach at Methuen High School with McDermott from 1975 to 1983 who became a close friend, said McDermott was a master woodworker.
“He built the trophy cases in the field house foyer,” Molesso said.
McDermott started working at Tenney High School in 1959, teaching biology and science until 1968, according to the School Department. From 1968 to 1985, he taught mechanical drawing at both Tenney and Methuen, and from 1985 until he retired in 1994, he was a physical education teacher.
During that time, he also was an assistant basketball coach from 1959 to 1964 and faculty manager of athletics for three decades from 1964 to 1994.
“By all accounts I have been told he was a very kid-oriented, hands-on type of teacher,” said Superintendent Judith Scannell. “His compassion and caring for his students made a huge difference in their lives outside of the classroom. He was fantastic for the athletic department keeping things organized and under control for the coaches.”
Pilat remembered McDermott being very dedicated to his family.
In the 1980s, McDermott kept some livestock at the house, including horses and donkeys, because his daughters Heather and Kelly were involved in Essex County Equestrians, a 4-H horse club. The town in 1988 finally made him get rid of the animals, but Heather went on to become a veterinarian and buy a practice in Asheville, N.C.
“That was his loyalty to his girls,” Pilat said.
Brian Urquhart, a former teacher and athletic director in Methuen from 1978 to 2006, remembered a quiet, private man, but they shared stories between classes about McDermott’s garden. “We’d have long talks about gardening. He always had a garden going,” Urquhart said.
He took over as athletic director during McDermott’s last year at Methuen High in 1993. “When I took over from Bill Gosselin, I never felt I was deserving of being his boss,” Urquhart said. “I couldn’t tell him what to do. Jim was a real square shooter.”
Robert Vogler, a longtime School Committee member and former president of the Methuen Scholarship Foundation, recalled McDermott working tirelessly for Methuen athletics. “He was dedicated to the kids as both a teacher, coach and equipment manager,” he said. “He was there all the time for all the events.”
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