BERLIN — Many of you may remember Mark Tilton, who first came to the Berlin area way back in 1964 when he was hired as a social studies teacher and coach at Berlin High School — two roles he would fulfill for 22 years before moving on do the same at New Hampton Prep School in New Hampton for the next 21 years.
Based on his positive impact on so many student-athletes in the North Country and throughout the state, a tribute to him and his career was due. This was on my “to do” list for a while and with a little push from Ben Napert, here it is.
Fortunately, the humble man that he is, Mark agreed to allow me to do this and I was blessed to be able to spend a short three hours with him and his wife Sandy at their cozy log cabin outside of the town of Gorham. This is really the first time in 53 years that I have known him that we have had time to just sit and visit. It was enlightening and very enjoyable. We discussed so many things about life but also all things related to our lifetime dedication to sports and people. If you add our years of teaching and coaching as it would come up to over 100 years, with lots of stories and memories to draw from.
Mark, a Portsmouth boy, graduated from high school there in 1957. He played football and basketball for the Clippers, and then attended and graduated from the nearby University of New Hampshire in 1962. His degree included a major in history and a minor in English. While attending the college in Durham, he met a Miss UNH beauty queen named Sandy Milburn, a farm girl from Tranquility, New Jersey, and married her in 1961.
Sandy’s career was also in education, mainly as a reading specialist, with degrees from UNH and later a master’s degree from Ohio State.
Mark obtained a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, Maine.
In the early years, Mark was involved in three years of semi-pro football in the New England Football Conference.
The coaching “bug” got into Mark when he shared, “I worked part-time at the Community Center in Portsmouth, coaching mainly younger kids and really liked it and them. With kids, they are real, loyal and what you see is what you get and I appreciated that.”
Mark was looking for a teaching/coaching job later and sent a letter out to just about every school in New Hampshire, letting them know he was a college graduate and was looking for work as a teacher and a football coach.
“I did get a response on a Tuesday from one school, Colebrook, way up north,” Mark said. “They were interested, however, but they didn’t have football (and still don’t).”
But he was desperate for at least a teaching job so was seriously considering it, until “Superintendent of Berlin Schools Lawrence Dwyer contacted me on Thursday of that same week offering me a teaching job as well as a chance to coach some football.”
In the summer of 1964, he and Sandy moved their things into a Church St. house in Berlin with three babies in tow and thus began a very distinguished teaching and coaching career in the City that Trees Built, where they would remain until 1986.
The teaching side of things at BHS included social studies as well as psychology and others and he was fortunate to be an assistant football coach under Paul Squarcia and an assistant basketball coach with Ray Kneeland. He coached football during my two-year high school career, so that tells you how old he is!
When Kneeland retired from coaching Mark took over for two years before Berlin’s own Dave Agrodnia came to town to become the boy’s varsity basketball coach. That is a pretty interesting story in itself as to how Dave got that job. First of all, it turned out that Dave and Mark were fraternity brothers at UNH as were Dave’s wife, Bonnie and Sandy, sorority sisters.
“Dave was teaching and coaching in Gorham but was headed south to a new teaching position when I managed to talk Mr. Dwyer into hiring him to teach science and coach basketball at BHS,” Mark shared.
Mark was Dave’s assistant coach for many years and did take over the program for a short time when Dave stepped down.
A football coaching position was a strong desire for Mark and he soon realized that dream completely when he became the head football coach at Berlin High School, a position he would hold for a good many years, and one he was primarily known for in the paper city.
The football program was a special one in Berlin, with exciting times during the late 1960s, into the 70s and early 1980s. Many can all remember the Friday night lights at Memorial Field, rain or shine, snow or clear and the sights, sounds and excitement of football on a cool, clear, crisp fall Saturday afternoon at the same field.
Fans from all over flocked to the games, including those on the road. Dads and other serious football followers roamed the sidelines following the field position of the ball and the stands were full of enthusiastic supports, including lots of the BHS student body. The pep band was playing, the cheerleaders were cheering their teams on and it was just an exciting, festival time and atmosphere.
Then came several critical political and financial happenings in Berlin that would shake the community, the way of life we were used to and school budgets.
“The once prosperous paper mills were going through changes, including shutdowns, layoffs, tax caps and cuts, and put people in a bit of a panic mode. At that time because of all that was going on, sports were not at the top of the priority list,” Mark stated.
The football program struggled in the late 70s, early 80s but with Ken Wiswell and Mark Tilton at the helm, with assistance from Greg Kolinsky, Neil Cascadden, Keith Enman and myself, things were beginning to change. With the expertise and passion the staff brought and a good solid nucleus of veterans returning, plus a great crop of junior high players waiting in the wing the future looked bright, until the axe fell.
But with the tax issues affecting the school budget, talk began in earnest right after that 4-5 season, to cut some sports. Hockey and football were discussed as possible programs to be eliminated due to the higher per-pupil cost to run the programs. It would have been tough to cut hockey with the big goalie sticks hanging near the Princess Theater welcoming everyone to “Hockey Town USA.”
Mark saw the writing on the wall, when as he recalled, “I noticed in the summer of that year, some public works personnel were moving football equipment from the locker room at Memorial Field to the high school. It seemed that building was going to be used as an industrial arts building, not a football locker room. And then later the light poles at Memorial Field were cut down. I could see the writing on the wall, and it wasn’t for lack of support and interest in football.”
It seems the people in power in the school system were going to do what they felt best, regardless of how it would affect the program, the kids in it, coaches and supporters.
Yours truly remembers going to a meeting in the school superintendent’s office with the other coaches to further discuss the plans for the fall, when we were point-blank told football was no longer an extracurricular activity at BHS. It wasn’t too long after that the football equipment was sold to another school.
As Mark said, “Football was a victim of circumstances, no question about that, and it was unfortunate for the kids and the community.”
My younger brother Keith, played four years of football for Coach Tilton, graduating from BHS in 1972.
“It is difficult to condense words and memories about Mr. Tilton but it was a pleasure to play and learn football from him,” Keith quipped. “He certainly had a ‘unique’ way of motivating players, where we would gladly work as hard as we could and strive to be the best we could be for him. Mr. Tilton was a most ‘interesting’ teacher also, teaching challenging subject matter and making us want to learn.”
Keith added: “Besides hard work on the football field and the basketball court, it was life’s lessons being taught — work as hard as possible, never give up, especially when times are difficult, treat others with respect, among many others. I just wish we had won more games on the field for him because he was much happier when we won. Too bad the budget cuts came in the early 1980s. It was a pleasure to work alongside Mr. Tilton and other coaches after my playing days were over. Oh well, time for a ‘chicken salad sandwich!’”
In the fall of 1972, Notre Dame High School closed its doors and those students entered the halls of the new Berlin High School. Along with the move came many student-athletes, including Seniors Bobby Rodrigue, Mitch Dumont and Gerry Blanchette, three guys who had played some sandlot football games in their local neighborhoods but had no formal football education.
“Even though Notre Dame did not have any football, we decided to try out for the BHS football team, and Mr. Tilton found room for us on that team,” they shared. “He was extremely dedicated and passionate about football, colorful and demanded no less than 100 percent effort at practices and games.”
Continuing, the three men said, “Mr. T (Tilly was a secret nickname we had for him in the locker room) left a lasting impression on us, especially when he walked into a locker room at halftime after a poorly played first half, kicking a helmet around the room, but with a little smirk in the corner of his mouth! He made us better players and better human beings by instilling in us the drive to do your best in whatever you attempted to do.”
Finally, they concluded: “There were comments made and even a poster in the locker room that had something to do with chicken salad (an earlier reference made by Keith — you will have to talk to Mr. T about that). We are forever grateful for letting us play football for that one season at BHS. We thank you, Tilly.”
Another BHS Alumni and basketball player in those days, Jim Couhie, spoke kindly of Mark also, saying, “I was exposed to Coach Tilton during my freshman year (and only year of football) and then when he was an assistant basketball coach to Mr. Agrodnia. They had an extensive summer basketball program/camp, and that is where my early development as a basketball player began. We had 14-18 games that we played throughout the North Country.”
Couhie continued, “As a freshman basketball player, Mr. Tilton encouraged me that I could play with the big boys and really helped me with my development and confidence as a player. Then as I continued to play and improve over my last three years, he would remind me that there was always some underclassman waiting to take my job! That kept me from becoming complacent. He was a smart man, coach and teacher, challenging me in the classroom and on the court, always reminding me to keep up with things going on around me, including reading the newspapers, which I had done since then. I even saw him the other day at the local store, him getting his paper and me mine.”
Steve Arsenault played basketball for Mark and probably would have been a heck of a football player but it had been cut by then.
“I was a sophomore and found out I had made the varsity basketball team at BHS,” Steve shared. “When I went to get my practice uniform Mr. Tilton wrote on the tag on my shorts, ‘YoYo,’ which was my older brother’s nickname. The response from Mr. T. was ‘that will be your name until you earn your own name.’”
He added: “During my junior or senior year I was complaining to him about working hard to get open down low but never seemed to get any passes no matter what. He turned to the basket and said, ‘Do you see that big square behind the basket?’ I said I did and he said, ‘That is your passer, so go get the ball and grab the rebound — that will always be your passer.’
“During our senior year, we started out at 1-5, went on to finish in eighth place, knocked off the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals of the tournament, even though we had been beaten by them twice in the regular season. That was due to Mr. Tilton never giving up on us, and he taught us how to play as a team, not as individual players, and therefore brought out the best in us. When he spoke to us we were never sure if he was serious or just messing with us. His life was coaching and caring for each individual.”
Those are just a few of, I am sure, hundreds of sentiments that people who knew and played for Coach Tilton could/would say about him.
A former student, Dan Guilmette shared that Mr. Tilton established a concept in his classes called "Happy Valley."
Mark stayed on at Berlin High for a few more years, even though the football program no longer existed. However, in the summer of 1986, an opportunity opened up for Mark and his family to move on to new and different opportunities, that being to New Hampton Prep School, which was a private boarding school, grades 9-12, with a post-graduate program.
As Mark and Sandy said, “It was very tough leaving Berlin. Our four kids grew up there. We were close enough to the various schools that the kids were able to walk to school safely, everyone was good to us, we loved it there, along with the people we grew to know and love. But, we could see the bottom falling out of the economy and how the school system was affected by that and it was time to move on.”
The move to New Hampton was from 1986-2007, and while there Mark was the assistant football coach for 20 years, and during that span, the team won six New England Championships. He also spent 10 years as an assistant men’s basketball coach, with four New England Championships and 10 years as the head coach with three more N.E. Championships.
There was also a four-year period where Mark took over, at the last minute, the head coaching job of the women’s basketball program, bringing home three championship banners. Mark shared some comments about his time working with the women’s basketball program at New Hampton, which was his first major encounter with female sports and was probably a bit different from high school football.
“I took the job when they were in need of a coach at the last minute, with the understanding I would have to give up the athletic director’s job, which was fine with me,” he said. “That was the best decision I ever made and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The girls were all great players, students and individuals, many with AAU experience, very competitive, tough and very coachable. They were like family, very committed, loyal, full of self-sacrifice and fun to be around.”
Sandy quipped in, “We still keep in touch with many of them.”
Mark also taught in the classroom and was an interim athletic director for two years.
In 2007, he retired from teaching and coaching at the school.
But you can bet Mark did not retire from being involved with kids and sports programs. He had previously coached the New Hampshire Shrine Team for a year, and then from 2016-19 was an assistant football coach for the annual Children’s Hospital of Dartmouth (CHAD) All-Star football game.
“It was a great experience being involved with that program and I can’t say enough about its founder, Nick Valias, who is definitely a go-getter,” Mark said.
For 30 years he volunteered as a teacher and coach at the ABA Basketball Summer Camp for the Lawrence Boys’ Club at Merrimack College. While in Berlin he also worked with a summer program for low-income kids doing various work related to roadside maintenance. I can remember them working, traveling and hauling equipment in that old Army truck. I know he had a positive influence on the lives of those kids.
Once he and Sandy “retired” to their cozy little log cabin off Route 16 in Gorham, he immediately got involved in volunteering as an assistant coach at Berlin High School (go figure, back to Berlin!) under Don Picard and later Dave Morrissette and then later for Morrissette at Gorham High School and most certainly played a huge role in the success of those programs.
On Christmas Eve of 1979, Andre Caron, former Berlin High School student, superb athlete and an even greater person, lost his life in a tragic car accident, that left the North Country folks stunned and grieving. Mr. Tilton, who coached Andre both in football and basketball, was instrumental in establishing the Andy Caron Memorial Junior High School Basketball Tournament shortly after his death. That tournament was expanded even more when another BHS student/athlete Tim Holt died in a traffic accident in 1987.
This became a very popular end-of-the-season tournament, with two divisions (A and B), male and female, and teams coming from all over the North Country as well as Vermont, Maine and Mass. We used both the high school, junior high and even the recreation department gyms on Friday night and all day Saturday.
After Mr. Tilton left the area, yours truly, with help from more people than I can list here, kept Andre’s and Tim’s memories alive for over 25 years until the name was changed in the 2000s. The money raised from the event was used to purchase athletic equipment, uniforms etc for the Berlin and Milan (Andre was a Milan boy) athletic programs. Thanks Mark for helping to get that tournament in Andre’s memory established.
There have been several special and prestigious awards Mark has received over the 56 years he has been involved in making huge differences in peoples’ lives including being elected into three Hall of Fame organizations — New Hampton Prep (2010), the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (2016) and the Lawrence Boy’s Club.
Mark and Sandy have been married 59 years, they have four children, Jennifer McMahon, who is the Academic Dean at New Hampton Prep; Jon who is a civil engineer in Mass.; Paul is the director of public works in Sandwich, Mass.; and Jay, who is the assistant director of admissions and head men’s basketball coach at Phillips Exeter Academy. They are also blessed with nine grandchildren.
“When we left Berlin, there is a time to go and a time to stay, we needed to go, both professionally and personally. We left Berlin for the right reasons but I felt like I was abandoning the kids, and because Berlin gave me a chance to get started in the field of education, I felt like I owed them something as the people and the community were very special and unique to me and us.”
Continuing, he said, “We had a great time in Berlin, as it can be isolated and insulated from things in other parts of the country, which can be good or bad, but it is sad to see how things are there now, with the economy, taxes and so forth. Since we did like it so much we bought the land we have our house on now before we moved, thinking and hoping we would be back come our retirement years, which we did.”
During the years the Tilton’s were in Berlin, especially in the 1970s and 80s, the road-running craze hit the area and Mark was a part of it. One could find a road race almost every weekend, and many a runner could be seen training on the streets and roads in the area. We had the Fagin’s Pub Race, James Gang, Milan Fun Run, Paw, Peddle and Paddle race, the Dixville Races (relay, 12-miler and marathon) and numerous races in the Conway area as well as in Maine.
As much strain and stress as those races put on our bodies (hence the hunched over posture) Mark stated (and I agree wholeheartedly), “I miss those days of running, both training and racing and the bonds and relationships we build while on the road and off were truly special.”
As I recall Mr. T did the Mt Washington Road Race — I wonder what is worse, that run of 8 miles uphill or a 26-mile run?
In a resume of sorts that Mark provided me with, he had a quote regarding his philosophy: “Success is not measured in wins and losses, but in who you become after the games have been played.”
Mark said, “It took me a while to realize this. And in my early years of coaching, I was always questioning myself regarding whether or not I could coach. If I was successful in winning does that mean I am capable of coaching? What happens when you lose, does that mean coaching is not for me?”
Having been a long-time coach myself, with a wife and kids, and understanding how things can be for the family, I asked Sandy what it was like for her as a wife of a coach and a mother of their kids.
“I had to learn to be independent and take care of things around the house, handle the kids, and set and follow the schedules,” she responded. “There were weekends and holidays that could be and were ruined for the entire family after a loss, as Mark took things to heart.”
I am sure too that she had to endure few praises and more so the criticism that comes with the territory. Coaching for Mark not only involved games and practices but scouting trips, phone calls, conferences, film sessions as well as other duties that dedicated coaches fulfill.
The Tilton children were involved in many extracurricular activities in Berlin, including Jennifer as a cheerleader and Paul with football and basketball, while Jon and Jay played basketball. A major highlight of Mark’s coaching career was, “Being able to coach my three sons, Jon, Paul and Jay.”
I know exactly what you mean Mark, having had that privilege also, with my own 3 sons, Dan, Luke and Ethan.
The personification of someone relates to the attributes of him or her, including their characteristics, and a representation of certain personal qualities and a general notion that we see in or think of a person. On the surface, Mark Tilton might be personified as a gruff, blunt, rough, grumpy and growling man that could have played a part in the “Grumpy Old Men” movie or been one of the old guys in the balcony in the “Muppets” show. And unless you got to know him in the many roles he played in life, as a coach, teacher, friend, colleague and so forth that could be who and what you think he may be.
But he was/is an extremely caring, passionate individual who has spent his adult life mentoring and giving of himself to others. It wasn’t just about basketball or football. In a book Mark recently gave me on the life of legendary coach/teacher Fletcher Arritt of Fork Union Military Academy, entitled “Body, Mind, Spirit and Basketball,” is a direct reflection of who Mark Tilton is. It is about “steadfastly maintaining the same values and discipline throughout his career.”
As Mark told me, “I always enjoyed getting out of bed and going to work every day throughout my career. It was a good lifestyle, and I have had contact with so many great kids and people over the years. My goal was to make a difference in the kids I taught and coached. Maybe looking back I might have been a little hard on some but it was always about caring for and about them.”
Ben Napert, my long time friend, classmate and teammate on the BHS football team, and I might add one of the best and biggest lineman and a decent field goal kicker too, had this to say about Mr. Tilton: "Mr. Tilton was always Mr. Tilton to me, and I have a great deal of respect for the man. I looked up to him, he took care of the lineman and even though he was very hard on us, he was very fiery, and used different motivational tools, no one could do it like he could and he got results. We were so impressionable that no matter what he did or said, we worked hard, played hard and played the game the right way."
In fairness to that generation of 'old school' coaches who were like many coaches just getting started, young, enthusiastic, brash, uninhibitedly energetic and demonstrative, and wanting to gain respect (and maybe through the use of fear) from the players. It ultimately came down to winning games, especially in a football town, and coaching a sport such as football, demanded some special motivational tools since it involved physical combat with a certain amount of violence. Mr. Tilton was all of that and more.
When I was a senior in high school I got caught in a numbers’ game with baseball and didn’t even try out for the team, knowing I probably wouldn’t make it. Mr. Tilton arranged to take a bunch of high school guys to a track and field meet at the Lancaster Fair Grounds in the spring of ’67, where Berlin High pretty-much dominated the field. I think we had one practice. The clipping of those results is in my scrapbook. But that was Mr. Tilton, doing something a bit unusual for the benefit of the kids involved and something that many will remember forever.
And here’s a trivia question for Mark and some of us “older students.” In the BHS 1967 yearbook, under the picture of a very young, short-haired man, in a short-sleeved white dress shirt with a tie (one that he wore many times at football games, rain, shine or snow), with a quote under the picture — “Other than Tupick, Lacasse is my best student.” Who would he be referring to?
I have a framed saying hanging in my den that was given to me years ago that sums up Mark Tilton. It goes like this, “Thanks for being so thoughtful in everything that you do. Please accept our appreciation. We are grateful for you. 100 years from now it will not matter the type of house you lived in or the kind of car you drove, but the world may be different because you were important in the life of a child and the people you came in contact with.”
Thank you Mr. Mark Tilton for making a difference in the lives of so many people, not only in the great North Country but everywhere you went! Continued best wishes for much joy, rest and good health in the days, months and years ahead.