Colonel Stuart Helgeson, the Superintendent and Chief Operating Officer of Valley Forge Military Academy and College, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Connecticut and gravitating toward lacrosse, which got him into Penn State, where he had “too much fun” and thus learned hard lessons on discipline and goal-setting.
He later walked on to Penn State’s football team, received some advice from Joe Paterno that he likes to share with others today, and was a member of the Nittany Lions’ 1986 national championship team.
Colonel Helgeson also discussed entering the Marine Corps, which helped him cultivate his leadership skills, how he landed at VFMAC, and his goal to change the local perception of the school, which is a college preparatory high school and a two-year military junior college that prepares students for four-year colleges, not just the military.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Colonel Helgeson?
I was born the second of four boys in Cleveland, Ohio but grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut.
What took your family to Greenwich?
When I was two, my dad accepted a job offer in New York City. He was working for Proctor and Gamble before joining Bristol Myers New York City. He liked Greenwich because it wasn’t too far of a commute. He could take the train from Greenwich into New York City and walk to work from there.
What did your mom do?
She tried to raise us, and she did it very well. She’s one of the toughest women I know. She ran a tight ship and didn’t cut us much slack.
What memories do you have of growing up in Greenwich?
All great ones – I went through the public school system. My two younger brothers and I played a lot of sports. I played football and lacrosse in high school.
What was your first job?
I was a caddy. It was a great job. I started at Greenwich Country Club when I was thirteen years old. The club was about three miles down the road from where I lived, so I would ride my bike there. I took a caddy course with the caddy master. I didn’t like it back then, and I didn’t understand what I was learning at the time. I learned so much from that job – talk about dealing with different personalities. You’re with the golfers for four to five hours – carrying their bag, watching their ball, giving them their club. You’re working for tips.
Another lesson I learned was about time and money. Because I was a small kid, I started carrying just one bag. I saw the older, bigger guys carrying two bags, getting twice as much money for the same amount of time. I went half the season asking the caddy master if I could try double bagging. He kept saying I wasn’t ready. I’ll never forget the time he let me carry two bags the first time. Coming up the eighteenth green at the end of the round, I thought I was going to die!
What kind of music were you listening to in high school, Colonel?
Whatever was in style back then — the great 80s music. I liked the Rolling Stones. In the locker room, we’d listen to tapes on our new walkmans.
You were an early pioneer in lacrosse. Not many kids were playing lacrosse back then.
I was at baseball practice in 7th grade, and I was watching these guys on the other side of the field playing a game with funny looking sticks. They were throwing a ball around and hitting one another, and as I stood at second base, I became very interested in the sport.
Most guys start playing lacrosse early in life, but I didn’t start playing until 8th or 9th grade. I was always a runner with good endurance, so my coach put me at midfield, and I loved it. My dad really wanted me to play baseball, but I just gravitated to lacrosse.
Did you play lacrosse in college?
I did. That’s what got me into Penn State University.
In high school, I played both football and lacrosse. I liked football more, but I wasn’t big enough. I did well my senior year, made All-State, but didn’t get recruited by any big schools.
I was, however, getting recruited by Coach Glen Thiel to play lacrosse at Penn State. When I went out to visit, I fell in love with the school. There was a Greenwich High School pipeline channeling lacrosse players to Penn State, so I already knew a few people on the team.
I played on the Varsity team freshman year and had a lot of fun – too much fun. I carried that fun over to my sophomore year and was asked to leave Penn State at the end of my Sophomore Year.
How did you respond to being kicked out of Penn State?
I went back to Greenwich, which really upset my mom. She was disappointed. She didn’t have to say much. I just knew the look.
I took a job with a construction company that summer and made pretty good money. The consequences of getting kicked out of college didn’t dawn on me at the time until my friends started getting ready to go back to school, and I wasn’t joining them. I knew I needed to get my act together and finish what I started.
That Fall, I reapplied to Penn State and went back in January.
How did you do?
I knew I needed discipline and a goal to set my mind right. I knew I wanted to graduate and be better than I had been. I saw an ad in the Daily Collegian paper for football walk-on tryouts, and I decided to go for it. Penn State’s football team was ranked number three in the nation at the time but had just lost the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma.
I knew if I didn’t try out, I would regret it, so I went to the first meeting to see if I could do it. There were forty or fifty kids in the room, and everyone was checking each other out. I went to the tryouts, and I ran a 4.57 forty-yard sprint which got me noticed. The offensive coordinator came over and asked me what year I was in school, which was a little difficult to explain given my semester off.
He told me to see the academic advisor to determine my eligibility. I was eligible, but only if I went to summer school, which I did. For two weeks, we did agility work, which was an easy way to cut down the players and get the real athletes. The coaches were going to take ten guys. “Getting pads” meant that you qualified to participate in the twenty-five or so spring practices.
They read off the ten names, and I was one of them. They told the other nine guys to go see the equipment manager, and then pointed at me and said, “you need to go meet with Coach Paterno.”
Had you met Coach Paterno yet?
No! As the grad assistant took me to the coaches’ locker room, I was sweating bullets. Coach Paterno came in the room and started by saying he spoke with the lacrosse coach, knew I had some trouble, and had messed up in school. He said he knew a lot of guys who took a semester off and never came back. He respected that I was committed enough to come back to school to finish my education.
Then he said something that I’ve used with a lot of Marines and students at Valley Forge. He said, “every man deserves a second chance — this one’s yours. I don’t know if you’re going to make the team, but I’m willing to give you a chance. If you step out of line once, you’re out of here. We’ll see what kind of football player you are. Go get your equipment.”
I went through spring ball, and out of the ten walk-ons who got pads, three of us ended up making the team.
What skill or mindset got you through that process?
I often wonder that. There was one day I knew the coaching staff noticed me. The coaches asked for a volunteer to run the “wishbone” offense against our first-team defense. While every other walk-on was looking at their shoes and the scout team players were avoiding eye contact, I knew the plays from high school ball and volunteered to run it.
I remember the first play. I was so scared! Looking across the line of scrimmage, I could see Shane Conlin and, Trey Bauer, Tim Johnson, and rest of the defense ready to bury me.
On the first play, I handed the ball to the fullback, and I watched him get pancaked. The second or third play, I kept the ball and broke it for maybe twenty-five yards, which was a great feat against that defense. I also played safety, despite being a receiver. Whatever they asked, I would do. At that level, it was a constant fight every day. I was constantly competing.
Where do you get your competitive nature and determination?
It definitely had to do with growing up and playing so many sports. I was naturally competitive because both my mother and father were. My parents drove that in my brothers and me.
As you look back on your college experience, was Penn State the right choice for you?
It was in so many ways! I always say the best catch I ever made at Penn State was my wife the former Stephanie Myers from Paoli, PA who went to Conestoga High School. We met there. She was a lacrosse player and two time NCAA National champion.
In 1986, Penn State’s football team went undefeated and, even though we were two-touchdown underdogs, beat Miami for the national championship. The lessons I learned about teamwork and leadership from that year have stuck with me for my entire life. It was the best decision I could have made to go back to Penn State.
Looking back on your career, who gave you a break and got you to where you are today?
It’s probably a lot more than two or three! I would start with my high school football and lacrosse coaches who saw that drive in me early on and gave me the tools to harness it for success. Coach Thiel, the coach who recruited me to play lacrosse at Penn State.
Obviously, Coach Paterno. He was the one who wrote a recommendation for me to get into the Marine Corps and go to Officer Candidate School. He was a very big influence in my life, and I always say I wouldn’t have graduated if I didn’t have that structure.
I’ve had many mentors and leaders in the Marine Corps. Lt. General Jan Huly who was Colonel at the time that I was a First Lt. Captain Select. He promoted me to Captain. I was deployed with him for six months, worked for him for nine months, and I learned a great deal from him. Colonel Blose at the Naval Academy, which was my last active duty post, was another mentor.
When I joined the Reserves, I worked for Brigadier General Scott Miller, who is currently a four-star General running everything in Afghanistan right now. I worked for him while he was a one star. Master Sergeant DA Miller, who was my platoon Sergeant in my first recon platoon, taught me so much. There are so many to name that I’ve been fortunate to be around and learn from and blessed to be exposed to such leaders.
When did you first become aware of your own leadership abilities?
Running into people after they worked with me or for me, they usually told me they enjoyed working with me. It’s nice to hear feedback from others. I took a lot of pride watching my Marines develop and be recognized for their work. When I came back into the Reserves, I would run into guys that I had instructed as a Lieutenant, and they’d tell me how much they learned and enjoyed it. That’s the best kind of bonus.
How did you come to Valley Forge Military Academy and College?
I’ve been here almost three years now. I received the job notice from a friend of mine who was a One Star General in the Marine Corps. He emailed it to me, and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I read this, and I thought of you.”
I was working for a Defense Contractor in Lancaster, and thought it might be something I was interested in exploring further. I didn’t think they’d hire me, but I sent my resume.
Valley Forge called and asked if I was interested. When I talked to my wife Stephanie, who grew up in Paoli, she was all in. We got married in downtown Wayne, and then I took her from Wayne to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and haven’t been back since. We have three kids, and my youngest was going to graduate high school that spring.
Looking ahead, you’re halfway through 2019. What are your priorities, opportunities, and focuses?
Locally, the perception of Valley Forge Military Academy and College has been skewed. In the past, parents have often threatened their kids with Valley Forge. My goal is for people to understand we are a college preparatory high school and a two-year military junior college that prepares students for four-year colleges. We’ve had incredible alumni come through. We have great staff. The Academy is all male, and our junior college is co-ed. Less than three percent of our graduates actually go into the military – most go on to continue their studies at four-year colleges and universities.
We do a marvelous job teaching our young men and women how to be independent and accountable leaders and thinkers. We teach not only how to lead, but how to follow. You need to learn to be selfless as a leader. Most people see the military as just yelling at people, but that couldn’t be further from what we do. We lead by example, and we teach the cadets to set the example.
My motto for success for the cadets is: Show up on time, in the proper uniform, ready to work, and you’ll succeed in whatever you do. It’s pretty simple.
How do you get the word out about your mission outside the confines of your campus?
We are working on several ways to market ourselves. We just started television advertising. We want more people to come visit so they can see what Valley Forge really is. We’re working on hosting more events and opening up the campus more. Our band and color guard participate in a lot of local events. Our best recruiters are the students themselves and their parents.
Are you making any changes to campus facilities?
We are going into our 92nd year, so keeping things up to date is always a challenge. We just put in a new weight room last year.
How does the military junior college experience differ from other two-year junior colleges?
We have an Army ROTC program that a lot of people don’t know about. There are four military junior colleges in the nation that have the Early Commissioning Program. The program is run by the United States Army. Students apply for an Army ROTC program, and once they are selected for the program, they go to one of these four military junior colleges.
Once they graduate with their Associates Degree, they are commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the Guard or the Reserves. I had never heard of the program until I came to Valley Forge. The program and the students who participate are incredible. It teaches them accountability, toughness, determination, and how to overcome obstacles. Those are intangibles you don’t get everywhere else.
What do you do in your free time?
I like to exercise – running, biking, hiking, swimming.
I’ve been privileged to have three great kids. They’re all athletes, so I’ve been able to see them play or coach them for years. I have two college graduates and one still in college.
Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
I’ll go back to a quote that I often reference. Coach Paterno always used to say, “take care of the little things. The big things will take care of themselves.” I’ve said that to Marines, business colleagues, and even myself. In football, it was block and tackle, don’t worry about the big play.
We had a Sergeant Major in my first Infantry Battalion at Camp Lejeune, NC who was a Vietnam vet and your quintessential military guy, and I always remember what he said when I checked-in to the Battalion, he looked me up and down and said, “Lieutenant, let me give you a bit of advice. You have two ears, two eyes, one mouth. Use them proportionally your first six months here, and you’ll be alright.”
It didn’t dawn on me until later, but I realized when you’re going into a situation, you’ll learn more if you watch and listen rather than speaking. It’s helped me in many facets of my life.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagner contributed to this profile.