West Point appointment a dream come true for Saugerties teen

Spencer is used to being outranked. Above, with the leadership of the Glasco Fire Department: Raymond Mayone Jr., first assistant chief; Brian Breithaupt, president; Drakontaidis; Michael Sasso III, chief (photo by Ali Zacker Gale)

Spencer is used to being outranked. Above, with the leadership of the Glasco Fire Department: Raymond Mayone Jr., first assistant chief; Brian Breithaupt, president; Drakontaidis; Michael Sasso III, chief (photo by Ali Zacker Gale)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question commonly asked of school children. Spencer Drakontaidis of Glasco, a Coleman High School senior and his class valedictorian, knew exactly what he wanted to do and now he’s only a few months away from fulfilling that dream.

Drakontaidis (let’s call him Spencer) will be attending the United States Military Academy at West Point in July, “something I’ve wanted since I was a little boy. I’ve always wanted to join the family of the greatest team on earth,” he said.

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Spencer and his family understood early on that for him to even be considered for an appointment to the military academy, he would need excellent grades and an impressive extracurricular record.

“I’ve been pretty much self-motivated,” he said. “I would have been real disappointed if I didn’t live up to what I knew I could do.” He credits his teachers at Coleman and the Good Shepherd School in Kingston “with helping me excel in math and science.”

His mother, Kathy, had high expectations. “I would ask him what happened if he got a 95, because I knew he was easily capable of 100s.”

“Unfortunately, I can’t take mom to West Point,” he said.

His average at the end of 11th grade at Coleman, boosted by AP courses, was 102.95. He is only the third Coleman graduate to be nominated to a service academy, preceded by Mike Conrady and Nick Piantanida.

Spencer was a member of the school’s mock trial team, the Civil Air Patrol, where he was a flight sergeant, and the Glasco Volunteer Fire Department. He was also a captain of the Coleman soccer team. He has been an intern in Rep. Chris Gibson’s Kingston office for the past year. Gibson nominated him for the military academy.

Spencer wants to study engineering and play soccer at West Point. He hopes to be assigned as an infantry officer when he graduates in 2018. He was accepted at the Clarkson School of Engineering and applied to the Naval Academy, “but wasn’t really interested” in going to sea.

The application process to West Point, similar to an Ivy League college, was rigorous, he said. Service academies typically accept for interview fewer than one out of 14 applicants. Last year there were over 15,000 applications received and more are expected this year. The appointment covers all expenses, estimated at about $100,000 a year and includes a $600 per month stipend, from which about half is taken for uniforms and computers for each cadet the first year. It carries with it a five-year commitment to the army after graduation.

“There were 13 interviews, the last before a panel of all 13 West Point officers, full colonels,” Spencer said. “I thought going in, that in five or ten minutes these people would determine my life for the next nine years. Imagine my surprise when I saw Congressman Gibson (a retired army officer and a former instructor at West Point) sitting there with those officers. He smiled at me and said, ‘Hi, Spencer, How are you?’ Just those few words from him helped me to relax. The next day he called and told me I had gotten his Congressional nomination.”

Spencer considers George Washington a military role model. “He was for God and country, an honest man. He beat the British without an army,” he said.

He called Gibson “a real all-American, honest guy, not a radical. He knows how to get stuff done by working with other people.”

He wants to be assigned to the infantry upon graduation as a second lieutenant, where he’ll likely be designated a platoon leader.

“Being an officer means I have the lives of 40 other people in my hands,” he said. “Whether we live or die is up to me.”

His mother, Kathy, said she understands Spencer could be ordered to combat duty. “As a mother, it bothers me,” she said. “But that’s what he wants to do. That’s what he’s always wanted to do. He’s been called to serve his country.”

Tom Vondell, his principal at the Good Shepherd Christian School in Kingston, remembers young Spencer as a “very impressive student, very self-motivated.”

“He had a real defined sense of right and wrong at an early age,” Vondell said. “He cares about people. He still comes back to help out. He has been a real positive influence on our students.”

His mother remembered Spencer having difficulty keeping up with the other kids when writing his surname. “His kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Gina Thomann, would tell me the other kids were ready to start their tests but Spencer was still writing his last name,” she said.

The Drakontaidis name has been a tongue-twister for generations. Demetrios Drakontaidis, 75, Spencer’s grandfather, recalled that when he immigrated from Greece 50 years ago an official advised him to use the name “Jimmy the Greek” in America, because “they’ll never understand your name.” “Jimmy the Greek” operated Kingston’s Midtown Chophouse for more than 30 years before retiring in 2005.

Demetrios is, of course, “very proud of Spencer.”

“For all his accomplishments, he has always been a very nice boy,” his grandfather said.

Spencer, who lives not far from the Glasco Firehouse with his parents, Bill and Kathy, sister Lydia, 14, and a dog named Java, in a home where his mother grew up, took an early interest in firemanics. He helped around the firehouse and volunteered for the monthly fundraising breakfasts the fire company sponsors. He joined the company as soon as he could at 16.

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“It’s tough getting volunteers,” Fire Chief Mike Sasso III said. “If we get five recruits, we’re lucky if one makes it. It’s very challenging. It’s a big commitment.”

“Spencer was the guy you look for, hard-working, put in 100 percent from day one, an exceptional recruit. Spencer gone? It’s heart-breaking. We all wish him well, but we’ll all miss him.” His fire company will honor him at an open house on May 4 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Spencer reports for duty at West Point on July 2, one of 1,100 members of the Class of 2018.