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Joe Pechinsky; fencing coach sent five to Olympics; at 92

Joe Pechinsky, shown instructing Cathy McClellan in 1990, was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily Joe Pechinsky, shown instructing Cathy McClellan in 1990, was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2011

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Taking a sport better known in the Ivy League than in the more modest environs of the Salem YMCA, where he first started coaching fencing in the 1960s, Joe Pechinsky helped send five fencers to the Olympics.

“He took kids who had no reason to believe in anything and made us believe anything is possible,’’ said Anne Barreda Underbrink, who was 10 when she and her brother first went to Mr. Pechinsky’s Tanner City Fencing Club in Peabody because their mother couldn’t find a babysitter one night.

Mr. Pechinsky, a former Peabody firefighter who survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor while in the Army, died Sept. 22 in Radius HealthCare Center at Danvers of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 92 and had lived most of his life in Peabody.

Inducted into the US Fencing Association Hall of Fame in 1996, Mr. Pechinsky often coached without compensation, as was the case when he asked Underbrink’s mother to bring the children back for more training after that first lesson.

“She told him we had no money,’’ Underbrink said. “He got right in my mother’s face and said, ‘I don’t think I asked you for money. I’m asking you to bring them back.’ ’’

As he did for countless youngsters, Mr. Pechinsky supplied free lessons and fencing equipment to Underbrink and her brother. Under his wing, she was awarded a full scholarship to fence for the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

“We were all his kids,’’ said Underbrink, who teaches high school in Casper, Wyo. “We were all special and unique to him. It was the unconditional love everybody dreams of and he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply.’’

A devout Catholic, Mr. Pechinsky lived much like a priest, former fencers and relatives recalled. He never married, attended Mass daily, and lived a life focused on the needs of others.

Known as “maestro’’ to his fencers, a title of highest respect in the fencing world, he was humble, well mannered, and never swore, according to former students. His all-purpose exclamation, whether he was filled with excitement or frustration, was: “Barn door! Barn door!’’

Those words inspired Cathy McClellan, a protégé who was a US Fencing national champion in the 1980s, to start Barn Door Fencers Club in North Conway, N.H., several years ago in honor of her mentor.

“He was so accepting, so encouraging,’’ said McClellan, who was awarded a full scholarship to fence for Penn State University. “He always just seemed to know how much potential you had and was always encouraging that.’’

Winning was never Mr. Pechinsky’s primary focus. McClellan recalled facing the maestro after she was eliminated in her first appearance in a national tournament. She did not win a single bout, but Mr. Pechinsky asked if she had scored any points. She had, and “he grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘Barn door!’ ’’

Mr. Pechinsky never fenced competitively himself. He was in his 40s when he first tried the sport while teaching wrestling and gymnastics at the Salem Y. A wrestling student also fenced and introduced him to the sport. Mr. Pechinsky subsequently took lessons from an Italian fencing master in Revere, his family said.

“At first, I simply wanted to learn the sport so that I could participate in it,’’ Mr. Pechinsky told the Globe in 1991. “But after I learned more about it, I became interested in teaching it.’’

By the 1970s, the Y could no longer hold his many fencers and Mr. Pechinsky started Tanner City Fencing Club, where veteran fencers were expected to give lessons to newcomers.

“One of the things he always instilled in us was giving back,’’ said Michael Tarascio, who learned the sport from him in the 1960s and competed in the World Championships. Tarascio now coaches through the New England Fencing Alliance.

Born in Peabody in 1918, Joseph E. Pechinsky was the youngest of five boys born to Julien and Anastasia (Bylinska). His father immigrated from Russia and his mother from Lithuania. His sister, Jennie Maciewicz, 90, lives in Danvers.

Mr. Pechinsky graduated from high school in 1937 and went to work in the local tanneries with his father and brothers, making leather. He loved sketching as a boy and began drawing scenes from his work, and later painted three murals depicting life inside the tanneries, which were once the heart of industrial Peabody.

His paintings were displayed at the Salem YMCA in the 1950s and then were forgotten in Mr. Pechinsky’s attic for decades. Historians at what was then the Essex Institute in Salem later sought them out for an exhibit in 1991. Mr. Pechinsky declined to sell his paintings and instead donated the works to the institute, according to his family.

His cards and letters to students and family members often contained his elaborate calligraphy with birds and flourishes rising from the letters. He decorated his longtime home in Peabody with a mural that looked like a cathedral’s stained glass window.

He enlisted in the Army in 1940 and told his family he survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because he was on his way to church that morning and not in his bunk.

Discharged in 1945, he returned to Peabody and became a firefighter in 1952. A wiry, fit man who enjoyed mountain climbing, Mr. Pechinsky thrilled spectators during fire equipment demonstrations by bungee jumping head-first from the top of a ladder truck, his family said.

Sometimes he gave fencing students lessons between the fire trucks inside Station 7 while waiting for the next alarm. He retired in 1983.

Fencers from four decades of Mr. Pechinsky’s coaching career gathered last week in Peabody for his funeral Mass. Burial was in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Salem.

“So many of his students went beyond what they thought they could do,’’ said his niece Sally Pechinsky Ballinger of Buzzards Bay, who was 12 when she learned to fence from her Uncle Jolek - Mr. Pechinsky’s family nickname.

Ballinger competed in the 1968 Olympics at 17 and remains involved in the sport through the Cape Cod Fencing Academy. She said that she and her husband, Ed, a fencing coach, took their last lessons with Mr. Pechinsky when he was in his late 80s. They sparred in the community room of the housing complex were the maestro lived in Peabody.

“Often we fenced for him,’’ she said of her teenaged fencing years. “We didn’t want to let him down. That pushed us more than anything. He had this magic about him.’’

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at