Remembering Mike Pettee

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.

Mike Pettee

Mike Pettee

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.

Mike Pettee (left) and Paul Green -- octagenarian rowing champs!

Mike Pettee (left) and Paul Green — octagenarian rowing champs!

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 and Andy Pettee, surrounded by their 11 grandchildren.

Mike and Andy Pettee, surrounded by their 11 grandchildren.

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.

Mike and Andy Pettee

Mike and Andy Pettee

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.)

15 responses to “Remembering Mike Pettee

  1. WOW! We should all take a page from his book and live life with such gusto. My condolences to his family, who were fortunate to have this remarkable person in their lives for a very long time.

  2. What a life! Didn’t know him but wish I had! We should all be so lucky! May the wind be always at your back…..

  3. Be like Mike...

    I want to be like Mike!
    Beginning today I will strive to more of the person that Mike is (was)

  4. Pete Wolgast

    Mike Pettee was a close long time friend. He was always upbeat with a smile on his face. He was liked by everyone because he treated each person like a special friend. You could always count on him to do what he promised. A man with the highest level of integrity. It was wonderful seeing Mike surrounded by his family at a birthday party last July in Southport. He was so happy. He will be sorely missed by all those who knew and cared him.

    Pete Wolgast

  5. Mike was a beloved member of the rowing community. He inspired a lot of people (all ages) to get out and row well but, more importantly, to be grateful to have the opportunity to do the sport. I will never forget his bright smile and healthy red cheeks. He really did embrace life to the fullest.

  6. Our condolences to Andee and the whole family.
    Bobbi and Eliot Essagof

  7. Michele Wrubel

    Andy and Mike were such a beautiful fixture on Compo Parkway. They were both so welcoming to us when we moved here more than a decade ago. She always looked stunning, and he couldn’t have been a friendlier guy. Our family hopes that wonderful memories help sustain the entire Pettee family during this difficult time.

  8. Did know this amazing man…wish I did Godspeed . Another of the greatest generation has left us, leaving us to try and be like Mike…and many others!

  9. When Mike found out that I grew up in Minnesota his face lit up immediately and we talked about all the great things we had in common, even though we were a generation apart (and we attended rival high schools). What I enjoyed most was watching Mike and Paul haul their double down to the dock at Saugatuck Rowing Club, with big smiles on their faces, and row off down the river and back. He was such a great gentleman to everyone and the world is a better place because of him. Break an oar, Mike.

  10. Bruce Fernie

    I got tired just reading about his life…Fantastic.
    I wish I had known him.
    May he rest in peace.

  11. What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.

  12. I first met Mike when he joined the our Y age group swim team 45 years ago and have loved him ever since. Mike had given up smoking and put on a few pounds, so getting back in the pool was his method to stave off those extra pounds and work out with the kids. It worked well until an allergy to chlorine flipped him over from swimming backstroke in the water to rowing on the water. We actually took second at Masters Rowing National’s in the men’s age 55 plus quad. He will be greatly missed in all his endeavors.

  13. Sally Ball. South of france

    I first met Mike way back in 1968 and stayed with the Pettees in 1971 and 1973 where I helped with the kids (back then!)Mike was one of the kindest and most generous person that I have met.Andy and Mike were a great couple,so kind and they were so happy visiting France where I met up with them.I was so lucky to have been able to visit him in Nov. 2010.He took such pride in showing me around his beloved Yale uni even though he had just had another knee op and was struggling to walk.I’ll really miss his kindness and “Joie de Vivre”
    Rest in Peace, Mike.

  14. Jack Fogerty

    I knew Mike & Andy from St. Ignatious of Loyola Chapel at Fairfield Prep/U. They were a stunning couple and Mike always had such a friendly disposition. What a wonferful life story with 6 children and 11 grandchildren to keep it alive! Rest in peace.

  15. I did not know this remarkable person, but thank you Dan for sharing this wonderful eulogy written by Mike Pettee’s children. I can only wish that when it is my time to go, my children will have to say half as many amazing things about me as Michael, Tim, and Marianne shared about their father, and that I will have lived a life as full and happy as did Mike.