Sunday, January 23, 2022

Never Say Never Writer Roy Eaton Overcame Challenges to Motivate Others

Roy gives a commencement speech at the New York Military Academy (June 2, 2007).

Roy gives a commencement speech at the New York Military Academy (June 2, 2007).

By Jessica Hernstadt

Naples writer Roy Eaton, in his book “Soldier Boy,” describes life’s challenges as “numerous and complex.” Roy writes these words from experience. The first of his many life challenges began upon birth.

In the spring of 1946, Roy Eaton was born in New London, Connecticut. A full month premature and weighing around two pounds, Roy’s underdeveloped lungs and two bleeding hernias provided low odds of survival. In fact, so convinced that Roy was not long for this world, priests twice performed last rites by the time he was one-year-old. Roy’s mother Stefanie refused to attend the last rights, never allowing herself to consider the possibility of Roy dying. When she described Roy’s infancy, she would say that he “never cried.” In an incubator, it was nearly a year before she or Roy’s father LeRoy could even hold their platinum-haired baby.

Roy survived the challenges at birth, but remained remarkably small as a child. It was a time where gender stereotypes were widely accepted- and boys and men were supposed to be big and physically strong. Roy was neither. He recalls the embarrassment of being picked last for teams in gym class and in his neighborhood’s baseball and touch football games. Academically, teachers and administrators did not see the hope in Roy’s future, or the great potential that lay within. When he was in 6th grade at Pine Point Middle School his parents were told that Roy lacked self discipline and that his skills in math and English were sub par. Bluntly they were also advised that Roy “was not college material.” Roy, only thirteen years old, was present in the room when the school headmaster, in an arrogant and condescending manner, made these proclamations.

Roy’s parents didn’t take the statements lightly, but they also knew their son and saw clearly what the teachers and administrators didn’t. Together the Eaton family made the decision to send young Roy to summer camp at the Admiral Farragut Naval Academy. The summer goals were for Roy to brush up on his math and English, and through sports, beef up his 60-pound frame to qualify for school in the fall.

However, despite the best laid plans, only one week before Roy was to leave for the Admiral Farragut Naval Academy camp, he suffered a serious accident and cut the bottom of his foot wide open. Roy endured over 20 stiches and a full-length foot cast. When the Naval Academy learned of Roy’s injuries, they did not want to accept him for summer camp. The Naval Academy feared Roy would exacerbate his injuries and not gain any benefit from attending. Again, the Eaton family together discussed this unforeseen turn of events, and what the options were. Despite the difficulties the injuries presented, Roy expressed his desire to go. It would have been far easier to stay home and nurse his wounds, but that was not Roy’s style. The camp would become one of the turning points in Roy’s life. Through the camp Roy started rowing, enhanced his skills and grew more confident. An added bonus: The rowing helped add muscle to Roy’s small frame.

Roy was accepted into the Naval Academy for the fall term, but due to economic factors the Naval Academy could not guarantee that the school would remain open for all six years of Roy’s education. The family decided that it would be better to send Roy to the prestigious New York Military Academy for grades seven through twelve. When 13-year-old Roy Eaton entered the Military Academy in Cornwall, New York, he weighed only 70 pounds, and

LeRoy and Stefanie Eaton, Roy’s parents.

LeRoy and Stefanie Eaton, Roy’s parents.

was well under five feet tall.

Roy blossomed at the New York Military Academy. He received awards in baseball, bowling, music, leadership and science. He was selected by parents, staff and cadet officers for the Parents Award, for achievements in athletics, duty, scholarship and spirit. That was not all; Roy also received the GFA Riley Sabre for leadership, compassion and understanding.

During his years at the New York Military Academy, Roy formed a friendship with fellow cadet, 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. The two formed a decades-long friendship that continues to this day. President Trump endorsed two of Roy’s books, writing “Roy was always a winner, and nothing has changed” in “Soldier Boy,” Roy’s first book about his years at the New York Military Academy. Trump’s endorsement in “Makers, Shakers and Takers” described the collection of stories as “A great read – from someone who knows and respects Roy.”

In Roy’s senior year at the Military Academy he was named Cadet Captain, and he was placed in charge of the middle school cadets. Roy had received both Senator Dodd Sr. and Congressman St. Onge’s principal appointments to West Point. Senator Dodd advised Roy that he had achieved a perfect score on the math portion of the test. (It was not his only one; Roy would later earn a perfect 100 in his electrical engineering calculus course.) Yet even still, two staff members expressed their reservations when it came to Roy’s ability to continue to excel in a military structured environment, despite the fact that he graduated eleventh in his class. By this time Roy’s confidence had grown. He had overcome obstacles before, and he knew he could succeed if he worked hard and set his mind to it.

When it was time for college, Roy gave his options careful consideration. He accepted a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Military College (PMC) where he majored in business administration. At the PMC, many of his classmates were unaccustomed to a structured military environment and were faltering. An over-zealous cadet officer bullied the inexperienced cadets, and Roy often stepped in to their defense. As a consequence, most of Roy’s late evenings were spent at attention at the foot of the officer’s bed. Exhaustion led to a case of mononucleosis, just before the first semester exams. Three weeks recovering in bed meant Roy would fall far behind in school. Both the commandant and the college president preferred that Roy wait until the following year to return, feeling that he had missed too much to ever catch up. But Roy wanted to return; he was insistent that he could do it, and he did. He passed all his final exams and made up all the missing work, a condition that was agreed upon for his return. When Roy tells this story he doesn’t dwell on his illness or the troubles. Instead, he points out the good that came from it; Late night hazing sessions were brought to light, and discontinued by the time Roy returned to school three weeks later. To this day, Roy will always stand up for what he believes in.

Although Roy worked hard in college, he has written that most of what he learned “was not in the classroom, but rather from being an active participant in life.”

Optimistic and true to his word, Roy was well liked and respected by his college classmates. When he was a sophomore he was elected class president. In his junior year he refused to run, but still was elected on a write-in ballot. He was elected class

Roy Eaton (right), eighth grade, at the New York Military Academy.

Roy Eaton (right), eighth grade, at the New York Military Academy.

president his senior year as well. Each year he was elected to the student government. In his senior year he became the only student in the college’s history to be elected senior class president, student government president and brigade honor court president.

Roy was the first person in his family to graduate from college. His accomplishments during his four years at PMC were numerous. Roy was a member of the Pershing Rifles National Champion Drill Team and the wrestling team. He was an officer on the Cadet Bridge Staff. He received the David Wilson Memorial Sabre for Leadership and the Pennsylvania Military College Service Award. He was named an outstanding member of the Corp of Cadets by the college president. He received the Military’s Distinguished Student Award. Infantry Magazine recognized Roy for his accomplishments.

Roy was commissioned an officer in the United States Army Reserve. Following his release from active duty, Donald J. Trump offered him an executive position in the real estate corporation he was forming. Though many people in Roy’s position may have been tempted by the high salary, Roy turned the job down to do something he considered far more important. He was also offered a position with a Texas oil and silver tycoon as his administrative assistant, which he similarly declined. Instead, Roy returned home to help care for his father LeRoy, who was suffering from terminal emphysema. Family always comes first for Roy, and to this day he is grateful for the time he had with his father before he passed away.

After his return, Roy also helped his parents realize a dream to own their first home. For 25 years the Eatons had lived in a small 800 square foot apartment. They worked hard, but their financial priority was to educate their children. Roy helped design a 3,000 square foot house for them and they applied for a loan. When the local bank denied his parent’s mortgage application, Roy stepped in and met with the banker, who eventually relented so long as Roy would serve as a co-signer on the loan. For ten years, working two jobs, Roy helped to pay off the loan. His parents were able to enjoy the magnificent home, which has been featured and recognized for its timeless yet modern design.

Twenty-three-year-old Roy, after being urged by a local pastor, applied to be the first wrestling coach at St. Bernard High School. However, the initial reception Roy received at St. Bernard was not enthusiastic. The school’s athletic director wanted a larger and more experienced man who could also coach and handle his football players. But Roy convinced him that he could do it. What Roy lacked in experience he made up for in drive and determination. He promised that in the next three years he would place the team in the top ten in the state, and he agreed to do so without pay until he achieved those results.

When a position for a math teacher became available, the school hired Roy despite his lack of teaching experience. Again, Roy was determined to succeed and he put all of his energy towards that goal. As it turned out, Roy also helped develop programs that improved the school’s entire math department. Roy started a peer-tutoring program where the best math students would tutor the weakest students, and earn themselves extra credit. He also helped develop an algebra curriculum and standardized the final exam, and was selected as class moderator. Roy was awarded the Board of Trustees Faculty Recognition Award for meritorious service, an award that had only seen five

Roy in his 30’s.

Roy in his 30’s.

recipients in fifty years. Roy would become the first faculty member to be elected to the Board of Trustees for St. Bernard High School.

During this time Roy also worked as a security guard nights and weekends at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.

Roy was true to his word, and under his guidance, the St. Bernard High School wrestling team flourished. In his first year as head coach, three of his wrestlers medaled in the state open qualifier championships.

In the first few weeks of Roy’s second year of coaching, his team shocked the opposition by placing nine of their ten small man squad (a full team is 12 members) into the finals of their very-first Christmas Tournament. The result? St. Bernard won the tournament team title and eight of their wrestlers were crowned tournament champions, with two of the boys given outstanding wrestler and fastest fall awards, respectively. The fastest fall award is for the fastest cumulative number of falls.

In Roy’s third season at St. Bernard High School, his team again captured the Christmas Tournament title by nearly 40 points over the closest competitor– one of the largest margins in state history. His team earned awards for having the tournament’s outstanding wrestler and for the fastest fall. In the state open qualifier, his team placed second behind the undefeated state open champion team, and again, team members won outstanding wrestler and fastest fall awards. Two wrestlers were ranked within the top ten in the nation. The team placed sixth in the open division, and fulfilled Roy’s seemingly impossible pledge to the athletic director three years earlier. In his first year of eligibility, Roy was nominated by his fellow coaches to be the Coach of the Year, and he was selected to be the first head coach of the newly formed Connecticut Freestyle Wrestling Federation.

Then Roy’s coaching career was halted. Roy suffered a terrible accident, and broke both of his elbows. Roy’s elbows had not healed properly and partially calcified, which caused severe pain and restricted his mobility. His doctor advised him that he would never be able to coach wrestling again. Roy left St. Bernard High School and became an expediter at Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, a maker of nuclear submarines. And he enrolled in graduate school.

Two weeks into the new season, his former wrestling team at St. Bernard High School defeated the state open champion team in a Christmas Tournament, and was recognized as the number one team in the state, in all divisions.

In pursuit of a master’s degree, Roy attended graduate school at Connecticut College, where he still worked as a security guard nights and weekends. In a little over two years Roy earned his degree, all while working two full time jobs, building a house and coaching.

Roy originally met the love of his life, Debbie, at General Dynamics, although it wasn’t until a second encounter, after his return to teaching, that they began dating. Roy was teaching, coaching and going to graduate school at the time. His schedule was so limited that their dates were often at odd hours—a midnight dinner or an 8 AM breakfast. But Debbie saw something special in this hardworking young man. And he was smitten with her. They made it work and the two have been a team ever since. They married in 1978, two months after Roy’s graduation, at the Harkness Chapel at Connecticut College. Roy invited the entire wrestling team to the wedding.

But Roy was not through coaching. For two years he went through an intensive rehabilitation program, and

Roy and his beautiful bride, Debbie.

Roy and his beautiful bride, Debbie.

eventually returned to St. Bernard. After a year he was asked to take over as head coach and rebuild his former faltering program. In seven years his teams never posted a losing season. The team bettered their record each year, produced 39 tournament champions, 82 tournament medalists, eight completed undefeated dual meet seasons, and three completed an undefeated season. In his last year of coaching the team posted eight conference champions, sent ten wrestlers to the medal round at the Christmas Tournament and state class tournament, and won the state championship by 57.5 points over the second-place finisher, which at the time was one of the greatest margins in state history!

For more than twenty-five years Roy worked as a teacher, and the first seven years as a coach. It was never just a job. He truly inspired his students. He coached six wrestlers who became All American wrestlers. Nine of his wrestlers are members of the St. Bernard Athletic Hall of Fame and eight have become wrestling coaches. His teams have been honored by the town of Montville, Connecticut and the state legislature and governor.

Roy also taught summer school at Waterford High School, was teen director of the Ledyard Connecticut’s town community center, and was the beach director at Black Point Beach Association in Niantic, Connecticut.

Roy and Debbie moved to Marco Island in 1991, and he retired in 1996. They currently reside in Naples.

Roy’s “retirement” has been busy. Roy has written and published 34 short stories, essays and editorials and four books. A fifth book is soon to be released. Roy was honored by the Florida Press Association for an editorial piece he wrote. His hometown of New London, Connecticut honored him for his lifetime of achievements, including his uniquely designed homes and innovative concepts. He has delivered two commencement speeches at the New York Military Academy. He is a member of the St. Bernard Athletic Hall of Fame, the New York Military Sport Hall of Fame, and the New London Connecticut Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2006, Roy was awarded the lifetime achievement award in wrestling at the National Sport Achievement award gala held on Marco Island.

Roy’s wife Debbie shares Roy’s family values. When Roy’s mother had lymphoma, Debbie left Connecticut to take care of her on Marco Island. Roy stayed in Connecticut and took care of his sister Christina, who is challenged. The couple made the decision based on what was best for those they loved. They felt that Stefanie, Roy’s mother, would be better served with a female caregiver. And Roy did not want to leave his students in the middle of the school year. It was challenging living in two different states. This was a hard time in their lives, but they pulled through. He and Debbie continue to care for Christina.

When facing challenges, writing became a form of therapy for Roy. Debbie and Roy’s doctor encouraged him to write. Debbie even purchased a computer for him after he wrote his first novel, “Soldier Boy,” by hand.

Roy believes in giving your personal best in whatever you do. “If you give me a task, I will do it 24/7 until it is done. I give it 100%.” He demanded the same from his wrestlers. “I demanded that they be the best that they could be, and was happy as long as they gave it 100%.” He wasn’t looking for champions, he was seeking commitment, growth and improvement from his wrestlers. “You know what you do right. You learn by making mistakes.” The lessons Roy taught did not solely apply

Roy and Debbie in Mount Ascutney, Vermont (1986).

Roy and Debbie in Mount Ascutney, Vermont (1986).

to wrestling, but to life in general.

One of Roy’s greatest challenges has been his health. Roy has battled heart disease for over two decades. He has experienced a few close calls over the years, but remains positive. He and Debbie make the effort to eat healthy foods and exercise, factors within his control. He does not dwell on limitations.

In 2008, Roy and Debbie reconnected with his former wrestlers when the couple took them on a cruise. The lessons they had learned from Roy as young athletes remained central to them.

Roy’s former students and players describe the profound impact Roy had on their lives.

David Wilson, the founder and president of DocuFi LLC, was merely 67 pounds when he entered St. Bernard High School. At the time, he was the smallest student in the school, regardless of gender. David set his sights on wrestling, and joined the wrestling team under the guidance of Roy, who he still calls, “Coach Eaton.” Behind the scenes, the school administrator and the athletic director had taken Roy aside to suggest that he cut David from the wrestling team. They felt that his small size was a detriment, and should he get injured, a legal liability as well. Knowing this form of discrimination first hand, Roy refused. Instead, Roy encouraged David to attend summer training camps and not give up. “Coach Eaton deserves equal recognition for the accomplishments I earned on and off the wrestling mat. Coach’s fortitude led a diminutive wimpy weakling into a two time state high school champion, a three time freestyle state federation champion, unbeaten high school varsity duel career, two time high school All American and two time New England Champion.”

Dr. Mary de Groot describes Roy as “the ultimate optimist.” Roy was Mary’s math teacher when she was a student at St. Bernard 35 years ago. She reconnected with him decades later at a book signing in Naples. “He was always motivated by the desire to put himself in the shoes of his students and viewed the issues from a different perspective.” She says she feels fortunate that she is able to express her gratitude to Roy. “He has always been a role model of patience, honesty, courage, perseverance and wisdom with a never-ending commitment to lifelong teaching and belief in the goodness of mankind.”

Jason Cohenour, president and CEO of Sierra Wireless, has known Roy for almost forty years. Roy was his “tough, demanding wrestling coach” who later became his “trusted friend and supporter.” Although he was tough and demanding, Jason realized that Roy thought of his wrestlers as his family. “This unique combination enabled us to become stronger, more confident and determined to break through any obstacle.” More than just a physical sport, “wrestling for Coach Roy Eaton was truly transformational.”

John Belli, former principal consultant at Summit Consulting Services, was a sophomore on the St. Bernard wrestling team during the first year Roy began coaching. John says, “Roy is a crazy good teacher/motivator who finds ways to touch people deep down inside and motivate themselves to improve their lives.” John describes Roy’s foolproof method of coaching, which John applied during his own nine years as a wrestling coach: Heart, respect, knowledge and drive.

If you read any of Roy Eaton’s books or essays, or if you have the pleasure to speak with him, you will see firsthand the clarity in his thoughts and ideas. There is an unwavering strength in his convictions. Roy is traditional, but not outdated. Teacher, coach, mentor and writer Roy Eaton is the embodiment of integrity. It attracts others to him, and keeps them there decades later.

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