By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — Richard “Dick” Collins — a champion of Andover High sports and education for more than five decades — is being remembered today as a tough, but caring man who dedicated himself to his community.
The athletics legend, teacher and longtime School Committee member died Wednesday night after a period of poor health. He was 82.
Best known throughout the region for his legacy as an Andover football and track coach, Collins first came to Andover High School in 1959 for a coaching job paired with a classroom assignment teaching history.
After 28 years in the classroom, he retired from teaching in 1987, but continued in various coaching capacities until the last year or so as his health began to decline.
Collins also followed his teaching career by serving five consecutive terms on the School Committee, starting in 1998 until last spring when he opted not to seek re-election.
Those who knew Collins said his passing represents the departure of an icon.
“The fact that he is not with us anymore is kind of, in my mind, like turning a page in the experience of all those people who were affected by him,” said Andover native Jerry Stabile, a former selectman who played football under Collins.
Andover High track coach Peter Comeau, hired to replace Collins in 1996, said his predecessor’s coaching style was molded in his youth after serving with the U.S. Marines.
That was most painfully obvious in his choice consequence for athletes in need of discipline — running sets up and down the large hill in front of Andover High, according to Comeau.
“He would always reference back to the Marines, running hills,” Comeau said. “He was very stern and very strict ... but it worked, because as much as you wanted to be frustrated with him, you loved him.”
But that wasn’t to say athletics were Collins’ main drive in Andover.
“Coach Collins wasn’t just a coach. He was a teacher first, and a coach second,” Comeau said. “He was such an intelligent man and a great teacher. People tend to lose track of that.”
Andover High football and girls basketball coach E.J. Perry was one of hundreds of students to move through Collins’ history classes over the years.
Calling Collins “a motivator,” Perry recalled how his former teacher, who eventually led the high school history department, often used athletics to spice up students’ sometimes lagging interest in the subject and inspire success.
“I was struggling in his history class,” Perry said. “He called me aside and said, ‘Your historical paper is due, and I want you to write your paper on the history of pole vaulting.’”
Because of Perry’s interest in the sport, he thrived while hammering out the assignment.
“It was something that made me realize that history is involved in all aspects of mankind,” he said. “He had a way to do that with each and every individual student.”
While he made an impact in the classroom, Collins is better recognized for his work on the field, particularly the wild success of Andover athletics under him in the 1970s.
His football teams went to the state super bowl three consecutive years from 1973 to 1975, earning the title in the last two outings. His winter and spring track teams won 80 dual meets in a row, including numerous state and conference titles. He was picked national track and field coach of the year and is in the New England Hall of Fame for both football and track.
When the high school was expanded in the 1990s, the field house was named after him.
Perry as a child witnessed Collins’ success.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Saturday afternoon was well spent, and we’d get to see great football and a guy who was just very focused and wanted to win.”
Collins scaled back his participation in Andover athletics in his later years, though he remained a scout and mentor for the football team until 2012 and was involved in the track program even up to this year.
“In 2010, he was still animated, would come around, talk to the kids, tell them what it was like,” Perry said.
That 2010 team started off the season 1-3 before going on to win the next seven straight games to capture the state title — the Golden Warriors’ first since 1977 under Collins.
“He set a tone in the ‘70s, and he set a tone in 2010,” Perry said.
Collins was equally respected as an elected official.
As he got older and had difficulty getting around town, School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue said he would drive Collins to events. During those outings, Forgue came to appreciate the octogenarian’s true impact.
“Uncountable numbers of people would come up to him and see him, greet him, have exceptionally kind comments,” Forgue said. “He touched not hundreds, but thousands of lives in this community.”
School Committee member Annie Gilbert said Collins’ record of service to the Andover Public Schools will never be equaled.”
“I just feel like, as a School Committee member, all of us who served with him on the School Committee knew that our contributions were just a drop in the bucket compared to what he has done over the years,” she said.
Throughout his decades in town, Collins carried two quotes that every one of his athletes took to heart, according to Perry.
The first — “It’s not what a man or woman can do. It’s what they can do when they’re knocked down” — is one Perry continues to pass down to his athletes today.
The other — “Quit doesn’t exist in football” — is one that has stayed with Comeau.
“As much as you wanted to be frustrated with him, you loved him, because you knew he cared about you,” Comeau said. “He would come up to you and say, ‘Listen, the day I stop yelling at you is the day I stop caring. That’s the day you should worry about.’”
And that plays into his legacy, Collins said.
“(There are) amazing men who have come out of Andover High School, because Dick never gave up on them,” Comeau said. “And if he did, they knew they were screwed.”