Manchester native Lucien Tessier leans at the wire to win a sprint for Boston College in a dual meet against Dartmouth College at White Stadium in Boston’s Franklin Park. (COURTESY)
Manchester native Lucien Tessier in his U.S. Marine Corps dress blues. (COURTESY)
Lucien Tessier, a Manchester native who captained the Boston College track and field team in 1964-65, seemed born to run, but his ambition was to fly.
According to his sister, Priscille De Sena, “His loves were the Marine Corps, flying and Boston College.”
Tessier was a sprinter and a Golden Gloves boxer during his years at Manchester's Bishop Bradley High School. He was a “red chip” athlete, not a scholarship recruit but the kind of self-made star of whom BC fans are especially appreciative.
As a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, he became a hero, ultimately giving his life for his country in Vietnam.
One of 29 Boston College graduates who died in the line of duty during the Vietnam War, Tessier will be inducted into the Boston College's Varsity Club Hall of Fame Friday night.
“We would go on family trips, and as soon as the car stopped, he'd be out and running,” recalled De Sena, who attended St. Joseph's High in Manchester and followed her brother to BC, where she graduated in 1967. “It was part of his makeup. He just loved to run. Later on, as a teenager, he'd put on his shoes and he'd be out jogging every day, in the rain, good weather, bad weather. He had to run.”
But he dreamed of flying.
As a boy, his sister said, Tessier built and flew gas-powered model airplanes with their father, Robert, and the two often drove to the airport just to watch planes take off and land. Lucien's longtime ambition, she said, was to become a pilot.
When he got to Boston College in the fall of 1961, Tessier walked onto the track team, earned a roster spot and proceeded to transform himself into a top-notch, three-season college athlete.
Phil Jutras, a distance runner and a scholarship winner out of Manchester Central High, roomed with Tessier at Boston College.
“Lou was a developing sprinter, one of the top three or four guys in the state of New Hampshire, but he wasn't first,” Jutras said, recalling their high school days. “From high school to his junior year of college, he probably improved by six-tenths of a second (in the 100-yard dash). That's a huge amount in the 100. And it was all due to hard work. He was an extremely focused guy. Not a big ego. He took track seriously, but he didn't take himself very seriously.”
Tessier's speed and agility also earned him an invitation to try out as a running back or receiver for coach Jim Miller's football team at BC, but he declined the offer and ran cross country during the fall to stay in shape for the shorter events in the winter and spring seasons.
His primary events in outdoor track were the 100 and the 220. Five times during his career he won both races in dual meets. He captured the 100 at the Greater Boston Championships and won the New Englands with a time of 9.7 seconds, a BC school record. Indoors, he won the 60-yard dash at the UConn Relays in 6.4 seconds, and he tied the school record in the 50-yard dash at Brown with a time of 5.4 seconds.
Boston College teammate Paul Delaney remembers Tessier as a true team player in a sport typically associated with individual achievement.
“He doubled or tripled in all the meets, indoor and outdoor. He could do the sprint, the hurdles, a leg in the relays and the quarter in the mile relay,” Delaney said. “Whatever the team needed, he would do. He was always up, a gung-ho Marine, and he was always ready to go out and get some points for the team.”
Tessier's performance in the dual meet at rival Holy Cross during his junior year clinched his team captaincy. He won the 100 and the 220, and anchored the relay. As the meet's end approached, the Eagles trailed the Crusaders by a few points and were running short of athletes. Tessier volunteered to compete in the hurdles, an event he'd never run. He nabbed a third place, and BC eked out a victory. The team elected him captain for the coming season during a restaurant stop on the way home.
“That was four events in one day. But one of the unusual things about Lucien, and why the guys picked him as captain, was the interest he took in everybody,” said Jutras.
“When a track meet starts, people get caught up in their own event. I'd be pacing up and down, thinking about what I'm going to do, not paying attention to anyone else. Not Lucien. He was always around, talking with everybody — down at the high jump pit, the discus, the pole vault. He was very approachable.”
Tessier's speed made him a perfect leadoff runner for the indoor 4x440-yard relay team. He would grab the lead and hold off challengers, who found it almost impossible to pass him on the short, tightly banked wooden tracks. The Eagles won the 4x440 at both the New York A.C. Games and the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in Tessier's senior year.
A French major in the Boston College School of Education, Tessier graduated in 1965. According to his sister, he planned to teach or become an airline pilot. But military service came first, and he prepared for it by enrolling in the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course at BC, one of the country's largest PLC programs at the time. Tessier was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps and trained to fly the massive CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters.
Training in the Corps is always difficult, but for Tessier it wasn't all work. He was one of the lucky officers who got to don dress whites and escort beauty queens on their runaways. Because he spoke perfect French, he squired Miss France in the Miss Universe competition.
While in flight training at El Toro, Calif., Tessier escorted Caylene Walt, Miss Orange County in the Miss America competition. They fell in love and planned their wedding for June of 1968.
But the war in Vietnam escalated with the Tet Offensive in January of that year, and Tessier's helicopter crashed into a mountain in North Vietnam with eight men aboard on Feb. 19, 1968. Capt. Tessier and his companions were listed as missing in action for several months before the crash site was discovered.
Delaney, who graduated a year after Tessier and served in the Army, paid his former track captain a visit at Da Nang in South Vietnam just a week before Tessier's last mission. The memory of that trip — and of the man he visited — remains vivid.
“Lucien Tessier lived his life with intensity and commitment to Boston College, the USMC and his country,” Delaney said. “He was truly a man one would never forget.”