Joe Del Ponte carries
a torch for Huntsville
Joseph Del Ponte '75, a confessed nonathlete, had his own Olympic Moment last summer, when he carried the Olympic Torch through Huntsville, Ala., for one kilometer of its 15,000-mile journey from Los Angeles to Atlanta. The 10,000-person relay featured ex-Olympians and celebrities, along with local heroes nominated by their own communities.
His selection as a Community Hero Torchbearer came as a complete surprise to Del Ponte. The Coca Cola Co., sponsors of the relay, asked schoolchildren across the country to name their heroes. Del Ponte's eldest son, Jonathan, nominated his father for his devotion to the Boy Scouts and for a heroic rescue in 1967.
On that fateful Fourth of July, Del Ponte's rowboat capsized off the coast of Rhode Island, dumping him, a cousin and two younger brothers into Naragansett Bay, 100 feet from shore. His brother David panicked.
"There was this 10-year-old trying to climb on top of me," Del Ponte relates. "I was trying my best to knock him off. I remember seeing him floating on his back, unconscious." After what seemed like an eternity, they were finally rescued by two teenage Boy Scouts in a rowboat. When he vaulted into the boat, Del Ponte saw David lying in the boat, white as a sheet, lips blue, not breathing. He began emergency breathing and kept it up until the boat reached shore and an adult took over.
David was hospitalized for several days, but sustained no permanent damage. The Red Cross and the Boy Scouts of America later recognized the rescuers and Del Ponte. "I never left scouting," he says. "At WPI I worked with inner-city youth in Worcester through a scouting outreach program, and I later became an adult volunteer." Today he is scoutmaster of Troop 4 in Meridianville, Ala., secretary of the local Lions Club, and a supporter of youth sports. When skeptical boys ask why they should bother learning first aid, Del Ponte uses his experience to hammer home the Boy Scout motto "Be Prepared."
Lo and behold, one February morning in 1996, Del Ponte opened a letter from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, inviting him to carry the torch down a main road that Huntsville locals call The Parkway. The nomination essay submitted by Jonathan's English class had won Del Ponte a spot in the parade. At first he thought it was a practical joke. "I started screaming, 'Someone is going to get it for this!'" he relates. "I had totally forgotten that my son had put me up for the honor."
The idea of making a public appearance in skimpy shorts and a T-shirt was daunting to Del Ponte, a systems engineer with W.J. Schafer Associates who describes himself as "a large individual." He began walking and jogging to get in shape, with Jonathan as his loyal companion. "Since it was his fault, I decided to drag him out of bed every morning!" Del Ponte says. "The truth be known, Jonathan was often up before me, encouraging me to get going." After six months of training, Del Ponte made his run, in the official uniform provided by Coca Cola. He managed to run and trot the entire kilometer. "I did take a double XXL T-shirt," he notes.
"It was very well-organized and well-run," he says of Coca Cola's coordination of 10,000 relay runners in 42 states. "Being an engineer, I notice these things." The gas torch he carried and used to light the torch of the next runner now rests on his mantelpiece, a $275-memento of the experience.
Although he initially threatened mayhem up on whoever put him up to this, Del Ponte's letter to the selection committee had a very different tone. "While it is exciting to be a part of the Olympics," he wrote, "I probably would have declined the nomination if it had come from any other source. This demonstration of love and respect from my boy means more to me than can be written."
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