FROM THE NBA TO FULL-TIME WRITER by Ellen Donker
Ken Gagne’s memoir chronicles his youth, home and family
Ken Gagne’s father had a lot of pithy sayings. They were nuggets of wisdom – versions of his truths – that Bob, a rough-around-the-edges type of guy, freely dispensed to his children. He repeated the sayings so often that they stuck, and to this day, Gagne still hears his father’s brusque voice offering situational commentary on the everyday. “Your family is your wealth” and “Yesterday’s history. Tomorrow’s a mystery.”
“You’re gonna miss me someday” is the phrase that Gagne recently chose as a title for his first book, a poignant memoir that explores the stories of his family – French Canadian on his father’s side and Scottish on his mother’s side – and what it meant to grow up in Chicopee, Massachusetts. He uses a different saying to introduce each chapter. Gagne says, “After [my parents] both passed away, I started regretting not knowing them better.” He wrote, he says, to honor his parents; to capture them for his children, Caleb and Lucy; and to compose a love letter of sorts to the people and places who made him.
A Maplewood resident with his wife, Jackie, for 20-plus years, Gagne started his memoir in 2015 during a two-month sabbatical that his employer – the National Basketball Association (NBA) – offered him. This gave him time to return to Chicopee to interview various family members and start the book. When he returned to work, he continued writing in his spare time but couldn’t get enough momentum to finish it. He got his chance last summer when, after 29 years with the NBA, he was laid off. Gagne says, “My first thought was, thank God. Now I can finish this book.”
On the surface it appears that Gagne’s experience is similar to that of many children who grew up in the suburbs in the '70s. He surrounded himself with friends, applied himself to school, loved sports, and used art as his creative outlet. But no two families are ever alike. And for Gagne, his family had a burden rarely talked about, and known only by a few in their community.
His oldest siblings, twin brothers, were afflicted by an undiagnosed condition affecting their muscular and neurological development that rendered them blind and deaf. In 1963, at 16 months old, when it became increasingly difficult to care for Robert and David, Gagne’s parents – Bob and Cindy – made the gut-wrenching decision to move them to a nearby state-run institution. They went on to have three more children, Cheryl, Linda and Ken, representing a chance, Gagne felt, for his parents to have a “normal” family.
Still, there was a sadness that Gagne and his sisters sensed. “I grew up with my parents kind of holding everything back.” He adds, “You know, I mean, they were loving parents, but they never talked about the past because of what happened to them.” Part of him felt as though he and his sisters were born to fill the vacuum left by his brothers. He tried his best always to be the good son so his parents wouldn’t be disappointed by him.
To fill out his parents’ backgrounds when he couldn’t get details from his relatives, Gagne fictionalized flashbacks of their early years, using clever “bridges” such as, “If Mom had told me about her grandparents from Scotland, if I had more info than what I’d found on Wikipedia and an outdated website about the Colthart clan, then I’d know why they left their homeland.” He says, “I kind of took what I didn’t know and just built stories around them. Because I wish I had known those stories about them, [I] wish they had talked to me about what their childhoods were like, or what their parents were like more. I mean, I had little bits and pieces, but I just took what I could and tried to get to know them better by filling in the blanks and making it up…just so I could feel closer to them in some way.”
Gagne also wrote alternate beginnings and endings to the book as a way to imagine how his parents’ story might have been different if the twins hadn’t been sent away or if they had been born healthy. He says, “I wanted to kind of put myself in [my parents’] shoes…whether it happened or not.”
What Gagne knew was that his father had some darkness from his childhood – he once mentioned that his own mother had thrown him down the stairs – and he covered it up by being a troublemaker, leading to his expulsion from several schools. He never graduated from high school. Gagne’s father carried that bravado into his adult life, unable to face his disappointments and hurt, whether it was about his sons, the loss of his business, or a lawsuit that bankrupted him. Instead, he drank heavily, closing himself off emotionally to his wife and getting through life as a functioning alcoholic. Yet Gagne captures him as someone who was always present, always cheering him on and convincing him he could do anything.
He says, “I’m proud of him. Now looking back for how he handled everything and how he raised his kids. You know, he didn’t unload his baggage on us. He just raised us like the way he wished he had been raised.” Gagne’s mother, on the other hand, had a softer approach, most likely due to the loving family that raised her. He says, “My mother had way better tools to deal with it than he did.”
After high school, Gagne graduated from UMass Amherst with a degree in sports management. When he was hired by the NBA, he felt like he was welcomed into a new family where everyone had a nickname, said ‘I love you’ and hugged each other often. Gagne thrived in that environment. He says, “I think I was always wanting to express myself so much more, and I just wasn’t in a family that did that. And so once I got to Jersey and I met my NBA guys and all my friends here, I could be myself.”
Gagne credits his years of video production at the NBA with making him comfortable telling stories – both in words and image – and it’s probably those skills that have made his transition to full-time writing successful. A visual thinker, he says, “I just write what I see in my head.” His NBA career also helped him hone discipline for his craft. He says, “As an editor at work, I would just throw myself in the edit room for like, 12 hours. I wouldn’t move. I’d sit in a chair, and I’d just get it all done."
To educate himself on writing a book, Gagne listened to dozens of podcasts and read websites on the subject. He also talked to other authors. His friend, Dan Barry, a reporter, columnist and author, challenged Gagne to tell his story, knowing from their basketball games that Gagne is, first and foremost, a competitor.
When it came time to edit the book, Gagne turned to his friend, Will Allison, an author and editor, who plays on Gagne’s softball team, the Aging Bulls. He provided invaluable assistance so Gagne could finally self-publish the memoir that he had started six years before.
The book has given Gagne the opportunity to reconnect with his home town. He says, “One of the best things that came out of writing this book is the overwhelming response from Chicopee, and from Western Mass, and all my friends there and the people who didn’t really know us as well as they thought they knew us and the family.”
Although he has several ideas in his head for future books, Gagne is currently writing a work of fiction that is loosely based on his softball team, placing them in a senior softball tournament in Las Vegas. He says, “It’s like Almost Famous meets Bad News Bears meets Wizard of Oz meets The Hangover.”
You’re Gonna Miss Me Someday is available on Amazon.com.