Obituaries

Bert Hammel, selfless Merrimack College men’s basketball coach, dies at 67

Mr. Hammel starred at Bentley, a Northeast-10 opponent, before he began a 36-year career as Merrimack’s head coach.
Merrimack College
Mr. Hammel starred at Bentley, a Northeast-10 opponent, before he began a 36-year career as Merrimack’s head coach.

As Merrimack College head men’s basketball coach for 36 years, and through his charitable work, Bert Hammel’s ultimate joy was unselfishly giving of himself.

“With Bert, it was always about the other person,” said his younger brother Brian. “That was his greatest strength, and people gravitated toward him because he had a certain kind of magnetism.”

As head coach from 1980-2016, Mr. Hammel guided Merrimack to 526 victories, six NCAA Tournament appearances, and three Northeast-10 Conference titles.

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“He was like a second father to me,” said Bobby Murgo of Watertown, a standout point guard who was the team’s captain in 2005-06. “Coach Hammel had an open door policy and I would always talk to him when things were tough. He prepared us for the real world while making us better players and better people.”

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Mr. Hammel, an inductee to the Bentley University Athletic Hall of Fame, died Oct. 6 in Massachusetts General Hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 67 and lived in Methuen.

Merrimack College renamed its basketball and volleyball court the Bert Hammel Court in October 2011. The honor, he said then, brought back fond memories of practices, games, and summer basketball camps over three decades.

Mr. Hammel was a mentor to more than a dozen of his former players who went on to coach at high schools or colleges, including current Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo.

“I have never seen anyone that has the ability to light up a room like he did,’’ Gallo said. “He was larger than life and meant so much to so many people. He is a Hall of Fame coach, father, husband, and friend.”

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Around the time Mr. Hammel became head coach at Merrimack, he began a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence that resulted in the founding of the Academic Basketball Awareness Camp.

Held one week each summer until 2016 — Mr. Hammel underwent major heart surgery in 2017 — the camp hosted 150 Boys and Girls Club members at no charge for one week overnight on the Merrimack campus in North Andover.

Many campers were from single-parent homes and lived in public housing. They attended classes in the morning and received basketball instruction in the afternoon. In the evening, they listened to guest speakers, including former professional players, the mayor of Lawrence, and members of law enforcement agencies.

After Mr. Hammel graduated in 1973 from what was then Bentley College, he worked at The Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., which supported children and families in need of guidance.

In 1987, Mr. Hammel told the Globe that when he had worked as a scout for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks several years earlier, as he traveled from college to college he “kept thinking what as a college coach you could do — some way to reach out. It was always in the back of my mind.”

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After the Academic Basketball Awareness Camp was founded, he would listen to campers during closing night ceremonies as they read their 150-word essays about what the experience had meant to them. Their words often left him in tears.

“It’s emotional, believe me,” he told the Globe in 2001.

Camp coaches and staffers included his Merrimack players, fellow coaches, and family members.

“Bert Hammel was the most incredible and caring person I have ever met,” said Billy Robertson, director of operations at the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, who helped select campers over the years. “He also ran Christmas and Halloween parties at the club, and coached our sixth-grade basketball team last year.”

Born in New York City, Wilbert George Hammel Jr. was a son of Wilbert G. Hammel and the former Eleanor Blute, and graduated from Archbishop Stepinac High in White Plains, N.Y.

Bentley College had a 66-13 record during Mr. Hammel’s three varsity seasons and advanced to the first two NCAA College Division tournaments in the program’s history. A 6-foot-4-inch forward, he was cocaptain and team MVP his senior season while averaging 17.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.

“He was such a great shooter we called Bert ‘deadeye,’ recalled Brian Hammel, an All-American who starred with his brother on the court. Brian is now president of the Northridge Hospital Foundation in California and lives in Valencia, Calif.

The Hammel brothers coached against each other when Brian was head coach at Bentley, a Northeast-10 opponent. Brian’s son, Troy, was recruited by his uncle and played for Bert Hammel at Merrimack.

Mr. Hammel “was the epitome of what all of us in athletics strive to be,” said Bob DeFelice, Bentley’s director of athletics.

Bentley’s current head coach, Jay Lawson, said that Mr. Hammel’s “natural presence that portrayed a unique combination of toughness, compassion, dignity, and humility” left a lasting impression.

Mr. Hammel met Jill Kennedy, who teaches at the Alexander B. Bruce School in Lawrence, on a blind date.

“He was kind of shy at first, but the second time we went out, Bert told me he had to make an appearance at a banquet,” she recalled. “It turned out to be his induction to the Bentley Hall of Fame, and when I saw how warm, happy, and loving he was with his friends and family, I fell in love with him right then and there.”

They married in 1991.

Jill said that one Father’s Day she gave him a DVD of his playing days at Bentley, and that “he got so wrapped up in it he started coaching himself and yelling, ‘Pass the ball.’ ”

Mr. Hammel’s many honors included the National Association of Basketball Coaches Literacy Champion Award, the University of Massachusetts Sports Management Service Award, and the Sam Schoenfeld Sportsmanship Award for instilling character, ethics, and integrity in the game of basketball.

A service has been held for Mr. Hammel, who in addition his wife, Jill, and brother Brian leaves his daughter, Alexandria of Methuen; his sons, Lucas, who teaches in China, and Cooper, a senior at the University of Tampa; another brother, Robert of Valrico, Fla.; and three sisters, Susan Cooley of Monroeville, Pa., Mandy Ryder of Ballston Spa, N.Y., and Jane LaVigne of Menands, N.Y.

A scholarship fund in Mr. Hammel’s name has been established at the Boys and Girls Club where, Robertson recalled, “every time we needed help, Bert came through and never got a penny for it.”

Brian Hammel said that playing at Bentley with his brother “meant the world to me. It was a special experience. Our bond strengthened as players and as coaches. He was truly my best friend.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.