Residents of Northbridge and surrounding towns in the Blackstone Valley have pet nicknames for two of the region’s most revered institutions.
The Whitin Machine Works, a manufacturing powerhouse for many years until closing its doors in 1967, is still reverently referred to by locals as “the Shop.”
Similarly, the Whitin Community Center, which opened across the street from the Shop in the early 1920s and which today boasts more than five thousand members, is often simply called “The Gym.” This in homage to G.W. Whitin, treasurer and CEO of the Whitin Machine Works from 1886 to 1920, whose vision for a community recreational complex was carried forth after his death by his daughters Elsa, Katharine, Lois and Elizabeth.
In presenting Charlie Thompson with the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce’s “Gerry Gaudette Extra Mile Award” at the organization’s 43rd annual meeting at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton on November 17, Lee Gaudette added another.
Mr. Thompson could very well be thought of as “Mr. Whitinsville” for his near-lifelong devotion not only to the Whitin Community Center as its former executive director, but also to the town where he was born and raised, Mr. Gaudette, president of Gaudette Insurance Agency, said.
To those who know the Gaudette family, bequeathing of the honorary title Mr. Whitinsville is an especially significant gesture, given that Lee Gaudette’s father Gerry Gaudette is frequently thought of as having earned that designation himself.
Gerry Gaudette, who died in 2003, was a founder of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce and an enthusiastic champion of all things Northbridge and Whitinsville, including the Whitin Community Center. The “Gerry Gaudette Pavilion” in Whitin Park is named for him.
Gerry Gaudette’s wife, Barbara Gaudette, who died in 2020, was, like her husband, committed to the community and civic life. Barbara Gaudette served on various town committees and dedicated many hours to the Northbridge Planning Board, beautification efforts, the Mumford River Walk and a host of other betterment initiatives.
Lee Gaudette is carrying on his parents’ work.
Mr. Thompson is a logical choice as the latest recipient of the Gaudette award for being the face and heart and soul of the Whitin Community Center, Lee Gaudette said. A 1969 graduate of Northbridge High School who went on to Westfield State where he earned a degree in U.S. History and obtained certification as a secondary education teacher, Mr. Thompson took a part-time job at The Gym and within a year was named executive director. He retained this post from 1974 until his retirement in 2007.
“Charlie oversaw my splash party when I was in the second grade,” Mr. Gaudette said. “Charlie was always there.” This included his role as scoutmaster of Troop 155 and for always finding the best Christmas trees to sell during the holidays.
Mr. Thompson was largely responsible for The Gym’s remarkable growth during the 1990s. Under his watch, a facility that had survived serious financial challenges and a devastating fire in 1959 suddenly realized its full potential with the addition of a state-of-the-art fitness center, classrooms, child care, a new lobby, an elevator, racquetball courts, restoration of the Main St. facade, improvements to Whitin Park, expanded parking and upgraded tennis courts.
In 1996, under Mr. Thompson’s watch, ground was broken for a new competition-sized swimming pool, prompting references from old-timers to Alice Bridges of Uxbridge who placed second in the 100-meter backstroke in the 1936 Olympics after training at The Gym.
Mr. Thompson remains firmly connected to the Whitin Community Center as a volunteer with the its Board of Directors. He also serves on the Development Committee and is active with plans to renovate the original pool and gymnasium as the WCC’s centennial year approaches.
He also serves on the boards of the Whitinsville Water Company, the Whitinsville Social Library and UniBank, and chairs UniBank’s Blackstone River Valley Greenway Challenge. The Challenge celebrated its twentieth year in 2021.
In addition to a parting chairman’s report from Joshua Lee Smith, Year in Review remarks from Chamber President and CEO Jeannie Hebert, and recognition of Indian Ranch’s Suzette Raun Coppola on the popular attaction’s seventy-fifth anniversary, the Chamber’s Cornerstone Award went to Christopher Robert for his development of the Samuel Slater Experience.
Another highlight of the meeting came when Robin LeClaire, retrired president of the Lampin Corp., was presented with the Chamber’s Women’s Success Network Exceptional Woman of Business Award for her work raising the profile of the employee-owned manufacturing company during her four years at the helm.
The Blackstone Valley’s entire legislative delegation was saluted with the Chamber’s Economic Development Award. “They were invaluable to us,” Ms. Hebert said of Sen. Michael O. Moore, Sen. Ryan C. Fattman, Rep. Paul K. Frost, Rep. David LeBoeuf, Rep. Joseph D. McKenna, Rep. David K. Muradian Jr., Rep. Brian W. Murray and Rep. Michael J. Soter.
In his keynote address as guest speaker, Gov. Charlie Baker praised the Legislature and all involved for guiding the Commonwealth through the COVID-19 pandemic—“a three-act play,” he said. There was the initial “scramble” in March of 2020 when the supply chain froze, followed by the manufacturing sector’s transition to the production of gowns and gloves and masks along with the introduction of comprehensive contact testing, and finally “creation of a plan to reopen,” the governor said.
The sixty days it took for the reboot to occur “felt like sixty years,” he said.
“By fall we were so much better prepared, and then came the vaccine rollout and we quickly established the highest vaccination rate,” Gov. Baker said. First “4.9 million and now 5.4 million have had at least one shot.”
In a surprise twist, the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to Gov. Baker, who just turned sixty-five.