Mike Pettee — a Westporter for 55 years, vigorous civic volunteer and all-around great guy — died Thursday afternoon at his Harvest Commons home. He was 83.
His sons Michael and Tim, and daughter Marianne — on behalf of their 3 other siblings — sent along some thoughts on their dad.
Growing up in Minnesota, Mike would swim the backstroke for a mile and a quarter. Against the current. With his dog on his chest.
When he came to Westport, he loved swimming from one jetty at Compo to another. And back.
His kids spent plenty of time cheering Mike on in masters swim meets. But he attended far more of their Little League games.
He married his 2nd wife (Andy) after his 1st wife (Nancie) died in 1965. With 6 kids (including at least 1 in college for 16 straight years) and a high-pressure job in New York, Mike needed a high-intensity outlet. He took up crew, and rowed for decades.
Over the past few years, he partnered with Paul Green. They won a gold in their 2010 masters competition — as octagenarians.
Paul — no slouch himself — told the Pettee family that Mike would always look at the water and say, “It’s not too rough. It will be a challenge. Come on — we’ll be okay!”
The 2 men traveled the world racing. Once, in Scotland, the wind and waves roared. Out they went — to a gold medal.
After graduating from Yale in 1951 — where he swam on a team that in 4 years never lost a meet; won a prize for his thesis on Daniel Webster, and was a ROTC officer — Mike was recruited by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. His “spy” adventures on the North African desk became family lore.
Yale was a big part of Mike’s life. He was a class officer, and set fundraising records at 8 reunions. When Mike noted the 60th reunion class was trying to raise “240,” his son said, “piece of cake.” He figured $240,000 was nothing for Yale.
Mike replied, “We’re going to raise $240 million.”
Mike loved to travel. Four years ago, he took his grandkids on a 10-day trip through the Rockies. Two years ago he went to China for 3 weeks , through the Yale Alumni Association. He got very ill at the end, and had to be air-evaced out.
He knew he was not well when he signed up for the trip. But, his family says, he would rather live life fully and go to China, than sit around quietly and feel old.
Mike had come from a family of strong people — including very accomplished females. “Many of his role models were women,” Michael says. “I think this was his foundation for being so open-minded about race, gender roles, and sexual orientation. He even rowed in the Gay Games.”
Mike loved parties and people. Westport was filled with the best of both, and Mike thrived.
But he came from modest means, and in his 1st years here Westport was very expensive. Michael was out of college before his parents bought a new car.
Their 1st home was a drafty rental at 10 Compo Parkway. In 1958, Mike applied for a mortgage, and was turned down. He went to a new bank: Connecticut National.
The president — a Mr. Romano — said, “Don’t worry. My brother at Romano Oil tells me that anyone who can afford to heat your house can afford a mortgage here.”
Mike’s career included human resources for National Sugar Refinery Company; purchasing at McGraw-Hill, and purchasing agent for the town of Fairfield.
His volunteer activities include Little League umpire, softball coach, auxiliary police officer (“the best way to keep tabs on his 6 kids,” Michael says), the Republican Town Committee, and the Longshore 50th anniversary.
He also proudly attended 84 Back to School Nights in Westport. And with other energetic retirees, the Regular Guys Lunch Out club solved town and world problems over sandwiches every month.
His beloved wife and longtime partner, Andy Walton Pettee, died of cancer in 2008. He was bereft, but picked up where she left off by buying fresh flowers every week, sending birthday cards, and staying intimately involved with his family’s very active lives.
Michael called his father a “bon vivant. He lived life well. He loved deliberately. He laughed heartily. He enjoyed good food and wine, great conversation, and the company of people. It’s with great sorrow that we say bon voyage to a man who made so much of life.”
(The family will celebrate Mike life at a funeral mass on Friday, March 15, 10 a.m. at St. Luke’s Church. Lunch will follow at 12 p.m. at the Saugatuck Rowing club. Memorial contributions in his name may be sent to Whittingham Cancer Center at Norwalk Hospital, Norwalk Hospital Foundation or Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven.)