By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 23, 2016
ELBERTON—Gino Saponari Jr.’s greatest high school challenge was finding the moxie to step up and reach his potential at Elbert County Comprehensive High School in the quiet northeast Georgia town of Elberton.
But strengthened in leadership, fitness and spirit through the school’s JROTC program, cross country team and other endeavors, he graduated as valedictorian and will attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Gino is the fourth of five children of Dr. Gino and Peggy Saponari and a member of St. Mary Mission, in Elberton. In an interview before graduation, the valedictorian recalled his early high school days of struggle where he felt shy and awkward.
“It was overcoming my just being scared to step out in the spotlight, just being less socially awkward and more fluent with people and not so shy and introverted,” he said. “I was one of those band geeks.”
Following his natural strengths, the Catholic teen focused on academic achievement while also running cross country and playing soccer for two years, playing trumpet in the marching band for three, participating in the Interact service club and other extracurricular activities.
“I wasn’t always the best physically, so I figured I should be the best at something. So I pushed academically because it came to me. If I needed to study, I studied, but if I didn’t, I went easy because life isn’t just about making good grades,” he said.
“At first it was just making really high grades because I could. Then as I saw (valedictorian) become a more realistic goal, I kept going for that.”
With a longstanding interest in military service, Gino participated for two years in the school’s JROTC program where he learned everything from leadership techniques and team-building exercises to military history and physical fitness.
“At first I wasn’t very comfortable with ROTC, but the longer I was in it the more confident I became,” said Gino, whose grandfather served in World War II. “They make you speak out in front of others so I’d say it made a big difference and my instructors helped me out. You speak in front of all your peers, everyone in class, and you have to do it right.”
Now the teen cadet takes his military training to the next level as he heads to the storied West Point in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.
“I’m excited and nervous because I know it’s going to be pretty intense. But that’s exactly what I want. I want something to challenge myself,” he said. “My grandfather was in the military. My father was in the military. I wanted to go to college at the same time so I figured a service academy was the best way to go.”
Excelling at math, Gino plans to study mechanical engineering at West Point and eventually earn a graduate degree in aerospace engineering. He recently began flying lessons and envisions a career as a U.S. Army pilot with his longstanding interest in aviation. One of his favorite childhood toys was a moon travel rocket from a family trip to Cape Canaveral.
When he was named Academic Student of the Week, his Advanced Placement statistics teacher Alton Smith wrote for the school website, “He has a unique understanding of mathematical concepts. Gino explains his reasoning as well as any student I have taught.”
He also loved AP literature and composition class and the literary discussions. One of his favorite books was “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair that illuminated the harsh conditions of meatpacking industry workers and the power of kindness to brighten a bleak existence. His teacher, Dr. Shawn Rivers, “helped me refocus on humility. She kind of brought you down but built you back up.”
Rivers found Gino to be articulate and confident in expressing his opinions but also open-minded and “very knowledgeable in multiple areas for such a young man.”
“He’s just a really bright young man and I don’t say that about many people,” she said. “He’s very personable and well-liked among many diverse groups of people. He runs cross country. He’s in ROTC. But he also likes literature. He’s a well-rounded individual and quirky in a good way.”
She recalled how he started her class “with an ego” but became more humble as he learned the importance of lifelong learning and growing not just for the accolades of getting the best grade.
“I enjoyed him immensely and I’ll never forget him, and I know he’s going to impact the world in a big, big way whatever he decides to do.”
Advice: Focus on others
Looking back, the new graduate advises anxious freshmen to focus on kindness when they get sucked into the high school doldrums.
“Just stick with it. If you’re feeling down, don’t focus on yourself; focus on helping other people feel better. Number one, you’ll help them feel better, and number two, you’ll be less focused on yourself.”
While striving to show kindness, Gino also chose friends wisely in high school to avoid pressures to use alcohol and drugs. “I never really hung out with people that would do that around me. They knew me well enough to know that I wouldn’t approve if they did it around me.”
Practicing his Catholic faith has brought comfort and focus in knowing “there’s always somebody looking out for you.” In the close-knit community of St. Mary’s, the polite teen has also served with his little brother Mario on the altar since second grade. He has enjoyed everything from cleaning chalices to rehashing the day’s Mass with his sibling.
“I feel I’m a pretty strong Catholic. I don’t have any major doubts about anything. Yes, I’d say the church can be human sometimes, but that’s about it,” he said. “I always try to talk with God before I go to sleep. I won’t be able to fall asleep until I do.”
Gino struggled with the decision to attend West Point over his other choice of Georgia Tech, which offers a more traditional, close-to-home college experience. But he was drawn to the academy’s call to higher service when he got a surprise phone call encouraging him to accept.
“I just figured I’d miss not going to West Point more. It has that traditional focus on having those higher values and being about more than just you. There are always going to be problems around the world. I just want to be one of the people that helps fix them.”