BRUNSWICK — July 6, 1944, Hartford, Conn.: The setting for one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States.
The fire occurred during the afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. About 7,000 people attended the circus that day; 168 people died, and more than 700 were injured.
Jerry Levasseur, then 6 years old, barely survived. His mother Marion did not.
“I remember being in the oxygen tent at the hospital and hearing someone in the room ask, ‘Who’s in there?,'” Levasseur recently recalled. “Someone else said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ I thought to myself, ‘Yes I am.’”
Levasseur, now a Brunswick resident, doesn’t dwell on the fire that took his mother’s life and shaped his own. In fact, he only agreed to be interviewed after some friends said his story would inspire others.
He doesn’t know exactly how he escaped to safety, but Levasseur believes he was on the bottom of a pile of people and that someone found him alive and pulled him out. He suffered severe burns on his head and arms and lost the tips of his fingers. He wasn’t allowed to get up from his hospital bed for over 6 months.
“I basically had to learn to walk again,” he said.
Levasseur didn’t learn of his mother’s death until a few weeks after the fire, when his father, who hadn’t gone to the circus, finally told him. He later learned other facts of that fateful day.
The circus tent had been coated with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline, creating a highly flammable situation. Moreover, circus workers had neglected to place the fire extinguishers in the proper places that day. As a result, the entire tent burned to the ground in just 10 minutes.
What’s significant about Levasseur’s life, however, is not the tragedy he survived, but the success he has accomplished, especially in athletic endeavors. At age 74, Levasseur is still active, still going strong, still giving every challenge his all.
He said he remembers that kids in school sometimes made fun of his “funny hands.” He often wore a hat to cover his bald spots.
“People thought I couldn’t do anything, but I proved them wrong,” he said. He competed successfully as a high school athlete in football, basketball and softball.
After college, Levasseur had a successful career as a certified public accountant. He retired and moved to Maine with his wife Arden in 2004.
Levasseur’s love of running began after he read Jim Fixx’s classic, “The Complete Book of Running,” in the 1970s. Wiry in frame and fierce in spirit, Levasseur has won scores of individual and team age-group events over the years, and he still competes. At age 70, he was part of a four-man team that set a world age-group record in the 4×1,600-meter relay.
In addition to running in local and regional events, Levasseur travels around the world to compete in the World Masters Athletic championships every four years and in the Senior Games every year. He said he loves the camaraderie every bit as much as the competition. His wife also competes successfully in international age-group events.
When Levasseur moved to Brunswick, he contacted Pete Slovenski, Bowdoin College’s track and cross-country coach, to ask how he could help. Today, Levasseur works with the younger runners and also coaches runners for special events.
He worked closely, for example, with Bowdoin runner Anna Ackerman, who competes in the grueling 3,000-meter steeplechase and went on to set Bowdoin steeplechase records and earn a No. 14 ranking in the U.S.
“Seeing Anna do so well was more satisfying than any of my own running accomplishments,” Levasseur said.
Pete Slovenski said Levasseur is a great role model for college students. “He’s such a hard worker,” Slovenski said, “and they can see the way he pitches in to help at track practices and track meets.”
In May, just three weeks before a 5K road race in Brunswick, Levasseur had a kidney removed. His doctor, knowing Levasseur’s competitive drive, gave him an OK to run as long as he took it easy. Levasseur also was still undergoing radiation treatments for prostate cancer, which had been diagnosed a year ago.
At the start, he just smiled when asked if the doctor knew he was actually running races.
“Your job,” Levasseur said, “is to keep me from trying to beat the other guy in my age group.”
One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: firstname.lastname@example.org.