For Kneeland, mowing brings back memories, and makes new ones
Stockton Springs — Jeffrey Kneeland has mowed the Walter F. Trundy ballpark and the town-owned fire pond next to his Harris Road home for more than 25 years, and insists the service he provides the community is "minuscule."
But town officials respectfully disagreed with Kneeland's assessment.
In August, the Stockton Springs Board of Selectmen named Kneeland the Spirit of America Foundation 2012 Volunteer of the Year, an honor Kneeland said he never expected to receive.
"I was kind of surprised," said Kneeland during an interview with The Republican Journal Monday, Sept. 10. Smiling, Kneeland playfully suggested that town officials chose him for the honor "for lack of someone else."
Kneeland said he's been happy to mow and maintain the ball field and neighboring pond over the years, and his reasons for doing the work have evolved in accordance with the changes in his own life.
Kneeland said he started mowing the ball field when one of his sons, Jason, was 7 or 8 years old and was playing the left field position as part of the local farm league baseball program. That was during the mid-1980s, Kneeland said.
The infield, recalled Kneeland, was always mowed, thanks to the diligent work of a couple of Stockton Springs town employees who were armed with a couple of push mowers. But the job of maintaining the infield alone proved to be quite time-consuming.
"They'd spend half the morning down there mowing it," said Kneeland.
Because mowing the infield was so time-consuming, the outfield was sometimes left to grow a bit longer, a situation that Kneeland's son found increased the difficulty of fielding ground balls.
"They'd go right across the infield and then they'd die about three feet into the grass because it was so long," remembered Kneeland. "My son, well, he'd come home crabbing about it, so I went down and mowed it a couple of times."
After mowing the ball field a few times, Kneeland said, he approached the town and offered to continue doing the job for "fifteen bucks a pop," an arrangement that ceased after town officials grew concerned that Kneeland's son was helping out with the job on occasion. After selectmen at the time went back and forth on the matter, hashing out concerns over liability, Kneeland said he went back to the town and said he'd do the job himself for free.
Over the years, Kneeland said, he enjoyed many spring and summer days of watching his son and his friends organize pickup games at the field and swimming in the fire pond after each game. Jason had the Kneelands' family dog trained to retrieve fly balls, and Kneeland fondly recalled a few occasions when he gave Jason grief for practicing his pitching a bit too close to the picture window that faces the ball field.
"They'd play ball there all summer long," remembered Kneeland.
Then one day when Jason was in high school, Kneeland said, the family received the kind of news no one ever wants to hear about a loved one.
"Unfortunately, we lost him in a car accident when he was 17," said Kneeland.
The days and years that followed were difficult for the family, but, Kneeland said, mowing at the ball field was one of the ways he coped with the loss of his son.
"He and I used to do that, and now it kind of sparks a memory every time I go out to do it," said Kneeland. "It's quiet out there, and it gives me a chance to reflect. There are quite a few things that still remind me of him."
Kneeland, who is now retired from his career of working at the paper mill in Bucksport, said he sees the time he spends mowing as a way to keep up with old friends and meet parents of some of the community's newest young ballplayers. These days he enjoys watching the younger children — including his own grandchildren — catching frogs and turtles from the pond during the springtime ballgames.
"Whoever invented grandchildren must have invented frogging," he said of the activity.
Kneeland has recently upgraded his old lawnmower and is now using a high-powered riding model that allows him to complete the job in two hours instead of the five hours it previously took him to mow his own lawn, around the pond and the ball field.
But no matter how long the job takes, Kneeland said, he's always been happy to do it and wants to continue to maintain those places in town for as long as he can.
"It's satisfying to do something like this," he said. "People should volunteer their time. There are too many takers out there and not too many givers."