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On Second Thought

Widow still holds her Ace in hand

By Kevin Paul Dupont
September 11, 2011

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Kathy Bailey has said little about any of it to anyone but family and friends for 10 years, not because the talking point is always about her husband and her loss, but because the conversation is too often about where people believe Ace Bailey’s story ended, rather than how it continues.

Overwhelming, unspeakable grief has a way of freezing the clock, forever framing the discussion, keeping even the survivors connected to a tragedy in a place they care not to dwell but often have no clue how to escape.

“It’s such a personal loss,’’ Kathy Bailey said the other day, her last 10 years a story of first coping, then recovering, and today, at age 64, ultimately thriving. “But also, I know . . . because it’s 9/11 it’s so open to the world.’’

On Sept. 11, 2001, Ace Bailey, the Bruins winger from their 1970s heydays, was on United Flight No. 175, one of the two commercial airliners hijacked out of Logan Airport and flown into the World Trade Center towers as instruments of terror and holocaust.

In the instant the Boeing 767 exploded, Kathy Bailey lost a husband, Todd Bailey lost a father, and the hockey world lost one of its cheeriest, most gregarious characters. There was just something about Ace - his laugh, the perpetual twinkle, that devilish smile and dimpled meaty cheek. He was a man whose spirit seemed to be hand-crafted in a toy store, too large ever to tuck into a toy box.

“Oh boy,’’ said his sister-in-law, Barbara Pothier. “Was Ace ever a kid.’’

So to that point, and with his boyish laugh still resonating in their ears, sisters Kathy and Barbara only months after his death began the Ace Bailey Children’s Foundation. Initially handed a hefty check from the Bruins’ Alumni Association as seed money, they promptly formed a partnership with Boston’s Floating Hospital For Children and dedicated themselves to finding ways to mix Ace’s spirit and memory into the brick and mortar of a hospital dedicated to taking care of kids.

First came a dazzling playroom, Ace’s Place. Next came the refurbishing of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. And now, nearly 10 years gone by and with some $1.5 million raised, the foundation is pulling together the dollars to add a mini-version of Ace’s Place to the hospital’s pediatric emergency unit.

On Tuesday night, the Canadian consulate here in Boston is cohosting a fund-raiser at the Elephant and Castle Restaurant at 161 Devonshire Street.

Oh, and from the world-is-just-too-small-to-believe department, the Consul General of Canada to New England, Patrick Binns, is from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, where one Garnet Edward “Ace’’ Bailey was one of his high school classmates in the 1960s.

Bailey was a hockey player, of course, while Binns opted for track and field, specifically the pole vault.

“Strange, isn’t it?’’ mused Pothier. “I mean, no one is from Lloydminster. To hear [Binns] tell it, when they were in high school, Ace came over one day and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with that pole?’ [Binns] explained the whole pole vault thing to him, and next he knew - zip! - Ace popped right over the bar. First try.’’

A sister’s support Bailey’s on-ice gifts, though not as abundant as such swashbuckling headliners as Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, and John Bucyk, made him a fan favorite here in the early ’70s.

He was a versatile left winger, with long blond hair, a mock turtleneck, and requisite Bruins spunk. After getting his name on the Stanley Cup twice with Boston, in 1970 and ’72, his tour here ended when he was dealt to the Red Wings in March ’73, the Bruins bringing back Gary Doak to bolster their blue line.

For most of his 20-plus years after his final NHL game with the 1977-78 Capitals, Bailey was a scout, for years with the Oilers and later the Kings. The day he died, he was headed to Los Angeles, where the Kings were about to start training camp.

Immediately after the crash, a horrified Pothier drove straight from Providence to her sister’s home in Lynnfield, where she would live for nearly two years. For the first three weeks, she barely left her sister’s side, to the point that her younger sister was wearing her clothes.

“I was pretty down and out,’’ recalled Kathy Bailey, a petite woman whose weight in those initial weeks and months slipped from a steady 115 to 97-98 pounds. “Just the sadness. I couldn’t eat. Barbara would say, ‘Kathy, you’ve got to have something!’ But I couldn’t. A bite, maybe two, and I was done.’’

The hurt lingered. As did the horror.

Ace Bailey was happiest when in his backyard, his haven, a kid from western Canada farm country who raised chickens and hens and turkeys and ducks way in the back of his Lynnfield home. He named them all, especially the chickens and hens. He proudly called them his “girls.’’

A young Todd Bailey would perch one of the hens, Clara Cluck-Cluck, on his bicycle’s handlebars and drive house to house in the neighborhood, delivering free eggs, with Clara clucking the whole way. Some five months after Bailey’s death, a fox or coyote made its way into the coop and wiped them out.

“It was February, and we’d had a huge snowfall overnight,’’ recalled Pothier. “I went out that morning to feed them and . . . whatever it was, a fox or coyote, bit the head off of every single one of those animals. The blood was everywhere.

“I just lost it. I was so mad, if I could have found that animal, I would have shredded it.’’

“Awful,’’ added Kathy Bailey. “It was like, how much more of this can we take?’’

Healing and helping Ever so slowly, Bailey began to rebound, the one constant through it all, to this day, being that she never stopped her conversation with or about Ace.

“He still talks to me,’’ said Kathy Bailey, who met her husband-to-be when she was a flight attendant, and the Bruins, fresh from a matinee at Madison Square Garden, were on her flight to Boston. “Ace was such a presence, so of course you’re still going to hear him. How could you not? It’s not like you can put him in a drawer. So he’s always there, talking to me, and when there’s no one around, I talk back to him.’’

Her turnaround really began more than a year after 9/11, when close friends Diana Merriam and Anne Gibbons insisted she try running. Not previously a runner, Bailey soon was competing in half-marathons, and in April 2003, at age 56, she ran her first full marathon, from Hopkinton to Copley Square.

She was back the next year to do Boston again. Two marathons, each completed in roughly five hours.

“And each time,’’ she said, “I talked to Ace the whole way. I’d get to a tough hill, and I’d say, ‘Come on, Ace, push me!’

“It’s euphoria, crossing that finish line.’’

Nowadays, her weight back to a steady 115, Bailey has traded in her running shoes for spinning classes. She plays golf regularly. Exercise, she proclaims, “is my Prozac,’’ and she encourages anyone experiencing deep grief to get out there, make the first step, get moving.

Meanwhile, Bailey and her sister keep Ace’s memory alive with the foundation. It’s a busy life, different but fulfilling, especially on the days Bailey reports to the Neonatal Unit at the Floating Hospital to volunteer as a “hugger,’’ cradling and keeping warm the tiny preemies, some barely big enough to fill her two hands.

Helping the children in need, and witnessing the anxiety of parents with ailing children throughout the hospital, said Bailey, has provided her with valuable perspective.

“You realize you aren’t the only one in life with issues,’’ she said. “You get to a point where you feel like, oh, shame on me for feeling down when so many people around you are down.’’

‘The only way’ This morning, Bailey will make her way downtown for an annual 9/11 ceremony at the State House. In the evening, she will be the keynote speaker at a similar ceremony in Lynnfield Center. She’ll be accompanied both times by a niece, Sarah Pothier, who is scheduled to sing at the remembrances. It will be the first time in the 10 years that Bailey has spoken publicly about that day, about her loss, her grief, and ultimately her way back.

Her speech will be brief, she said, and mostly about courage.

“I’ll tell them it wasn’t easy,’’ she said. “I’ll tell them it has taken a lot of courage. Everyone has issues, and often it takes a lot of courage to get through it and come out on the other side.’’

It is a place, said Bailey, where she knows she’ll truly never get over what happened. Nothing can change that day. She said farewell to Ace that morning at Logan, returned to Lynnfield, then life as she knew it collapsed with the towers.

There is no forgetting that. But, over time, she has learned to bundle the grief, acknowledge it when she must, then leave it alone, walk away and get back to living.

“That’s the only way . . . you have to realize that life goes on,’’ she said, fixing her attention to joys such as her 2-year-old grandson, Evan “Ace’’ Bailey. “My life goes on. My son’s life goes on.

“I’ve learned that wallowing in sadness does nothing but keep you and everyone around you down. And I realized, eventually, that’s not the way Ace would want me to be. So, I made the decision to go and live a happy life.’’

Just two weeks ago, Kathy Bailey was back at Logan, dropping off relatives for a vacation trip. It was a United flight. For the first time since that fateful day, she found herself at the very spot where she last said goodbye to the man she married in 1972.

To her dismay, she said, she looked behind the check-in counter just as a Los Angeles Kings equipment bag moved along the conveyor belt.

“My sister-in-law, Paula, looked at me and said, ‘Kathy, does that upset you?’ ’’ said Bailey. “And I said, ‘No, I’m fine . . . that’s just Ace saying hello.’ It’s a much better place to be.’’

Tickets for the fund-raiser at the Elephant and Castle Restaurant are $65 and are available at the door or online at: acebailey.org.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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