Anyone who has spent time on UNE’s Portland Campus has likely seen the friendly face of Ben Frenette, a master carpenter in the Facilities Management Department, who has worked for the University for more than fifteen years. Not nearly as many people, however, would guess that beyond the smile and the pleasant demeanor of this Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider, there lies an intriguing story of a man to whom there is a lot more than meets the eye.
Born in Quebec, Canada, the son of a builder, Frenette, as a very young child, moved with his family to Stratton, Maine, where two of his four grandparents had ties with the logging industry. The family shortly thereafter moved to South Portland, where Frenette grew up, still very much tied to his French-Canadian roots. “My parents spoke to me in French, and I answered them in English,” he explained during an interview on the Portland Campus. “And to this day, I still try to get up to Quebec when I can.”
Frenette showed great promise as an athlete from an early age, running track in junior high school and earning the nickname “Big Ben” at the age of 13. Extremely muscular and possessing incredible strength for his age, Frenette was recruited by the South Portland High School boys’ gymnastics coach while he was still in junior high. With the Russian somersault as his signature move, Frenette rose through the ranks on the highly accomplished South Portland boys’ team, and by the age of 17, he placed second in floor and fourth in tumbling at the State Individual Gymnastics Championship.
After completing high school, Frenette went on to study building technology at Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute. Out of competitive gymnastics for nine years, Frenette, at the age of 27, stumbled into a new sport that would once again put his body to the test and challenge his brute strength. After some friends convinced him to enter an arm-wrestling competition in Old Orchard Beach, Frenette walked away with the first place trophy, and he was hooked.
While working as a builder, Frenette’s free time became largely devoted to arm-wrestling. He became a director of the American Arm-Wrestling Association, holding at least two competitions per year.
Frenette not only promoted and ran the contests; he also competed. “I was always very professional about it,” he explained. “I hired referees and score keepers, so that I could compete, and no one could even tell that I was the one putting on the competition.” At the height of his arm-wrestling career, Frenette traveled to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he came in fourth place in the 1988 Sit-Down Nationals.
His accomplishments in arm-wrestling did not go unnoticed in Maine. He was interviewed by several media sources, including the Courier Gazette and WCSH 6 TV.
Frenette said that his favorite competition was one at the Addison County Fair in Vermont, to which he took his daughters, who had never seen him compete. “At most of the competitions, you could win a T-shirt, but this one was giving jackets to the winners, and I really wanted a jacket,” he remembered. “I went undefeated the whole day, competing in left and right hands, so I walked away with two jackets!”
With over 60 trophies to his name, Frenette last competed two years ago, though he says his competing days are not over yet.
Whatever stereotype people may hold of a Harley-riding, arm-wrestling carpenter, Frenette obliterates the generalization with his other hobby—mycology, the study of fungi. A member of the Maine Mycological Association for the past eight years, Frenette, who says he has always had a love of the woods, takes part in forays each summer in which his group takes samples of interesting fungi from the wild, brings them back, and identifies them. He even grows his own shitake mushrooms at home. “I love the beauty of fungi,” he said, explaining his interest in mycology. “I love the colors and the beauty of the mushrooms.”
He even held a foray at his own home in Buxton.
“The group is very diverse,” he explained. “I’m out there with retired doctors, biology professors, and little old ladies who want to cook with fresh mushrooms.”
So when noticing a job well-done by facilities on the Portland Campus—perhaps a new picture hanging on the wall or maybe a table or desk that has been repaired—know that the work may have been done by a man with arms strong enough to bring down a Titan and with a soul delicate enough to marvel at nature’s little miracles.