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‘It still motivates me.' A closer look at the impact of the Richard J. Phelps Scholar-Athlete award

This year's group of Boston Globe Foundation/Richard J. Phelps Scholar-Athletes are joining an exclusive club. Their photo however, taken at Fenway Park, is unique.
This year's group of Boston Globe Foundation/Richard J. Phelps Scholar-Athletes are joining an exclusive club. Their photo however, taken at Fenway Park, is unique.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Dick Phelps has a simple recipe for life.

“I play tennis two days a week, golf three days a week, and I drink wine seven days a week,” said Phelps, who is closing in on his 92nd birthday.

With all due respect, he’s missing something. For almost three decades now, Phelps has been a central figure in the Globe’s high school scholar-athlete program. If he won’t boast of his participation, it’s up to us.

The 34th Globe Foundation/Richard J. Phelps Scholar-Athlete ceremony was a virtual event held last Tuesday. Today, the Globe salutes the 16 winners in a page that’s normally surrounded with the Globe’s Spring All-Scholastic stars. COVID-19 stopped those spring sports, but the scholar-athlete page returns, minus one season of accomplishments for the honored seniors.

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Phelps’s involvement in the program began with a conversation in 1990 with then-high school sports editor Larry Ames.

“I said, ‘You have the scholar-athlete program at the Globe and I’d like to get involved in that,’ ” said Phelps, whose daughter, Ann, was a Globe tennis All-Scholastic. “He said that would be wonderful.”

That led to a discussion with publisher Bill Taylor, and the rest is history, a history in which almost 400 student-athletes have been recognized with Phelps contributing a half-million dollars to the program. Each scholar-athlete now receives a $3,000 scholarship to their college choice.

“I’ve surprised the hell out of myself,” said Phelps, a Watertown native who was a football/hockey/baseball standout at Phillips Andover (‘46) before attending Yale and earning a degree in economics. In 1966, he founded Phelps Industries LLC, which manufactures pet and household products.

Has it been worth it?

“Totally worth it,” he said. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. And all these kids have been spectacular.”

If you don’t believe him, a few examples might help.

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James Perry is a little more visible than most ex-high school stars. Now in his second year as the coach of the Brown University football team, Perry was the District B winner of the Phelps Scholar-Athlete Award in 1996, combining football, basketball, and track at Malden Catholic with equally strong academics. He’s also part of one of the great athletic families in state history, a family that includes his current quarterback, EJ Perry, his nephew.

Malden Catholic grad James Perry is entering his second season as the head football coach at Brown University, his alma mater.
Malden Catholic grad James Perry is entering his second season as the head football coach at Brown University, his alma mater.TOM MAGUIRE

“My dad and my mom were both educators so at that point I had some good sports seasons and some accolades that way,” said James Perry. “But I recognized, with both my parents being teachers, how much it would mean to the family. It was really cool that way.”

After Malden Catholic, Perry played quarterback at Brown. He graduated holding virtually every school and Ivy League passing record, including passing yards in a season (3,255) and career (9,294), touchdown passes in a game (6) and career (74), and total offense in a career (9,236). He was inducted into the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016.

When it comes to recruiting, Perry is always looking for the next scholar-athlete.

“I get to recruit in every state the scholar-athlete-of-the-year-type person,” said the 43-year-old Perry. “It’s something I take seriously because I love Brown, having gone here, having met my wife Abby here. If it’s the Massachusetts scholar-athlete of the year or any other state, those are exactly the guys who I am typically recruiting. And then I get to coach them, which is a really fun thing.”

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In her role as director of communications for Massachusetts Golf, Becky Blaeser (second from right) teamed up with administrators worldwide at the IAGA Conference in Arizona.
In her role as director of communications for Massachusetts Golf, Becky Blaeser (second from right) teamed up with administrators worldwide at the IAGA Conference in Arizona.Courtesy

Becky Blaeser could have filled every room of her Boxford home with the soccer, basketball, and track awards she won at Masconomet Regional. One of those awards was the District A Phelps Scholar-Athlete in 1994. But don’t think for a minute the award was just another plaque on the wall.

“It was enormous,” she said. “It was, in a word, everything. It was the culmination of what my focus had been going back to before I could remember. I was raised that academics and school were my No. 1 job. Sports was something that I loved and a great complement to academics. To do well in both is a challenge. It takes a lot of commitment. I takes a lot of sacrifice.

“To be recognized by the Globe was humbling. To this day, it’s humbling. I find that it still motivates me in my daily work and my life as a parent, as a community member, and as a professional. It just reminds me that you always have to be committed and focused in everything you do.”

Blaeser took that focus to Harvard. After a knee injury slowed her soccer career, she started exploring career options, starting with journalism. She became the first female sports editor in the history of the Harvard Crimson and eventually worked in the sports department of the Globe. In 2001, she took a position with the Massachusetts Golf Association as its director of communications. What she thought would be a two-year commitment lasted until 2019.

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These days Blaeser, now 44, works as a marketing and communications consultant. After stops in Quincy, Cambridge, Newton, Boylston, and North Andover, she lives in Boxford with her husband, Frank Vana Jr., the winningest golfer in state history, and their two children.

Phil Vaccaro Jr. might seem like a familiar name to many. Part of that is because his father was the athletic director at Reading High School for 18 years, and, after that, an MIAA administrator for almost eight years.

Phil Vaccaro Sr. was known for his commitment to academics, sportsmanship, and athletics, and he couldn’t have been more proud of his son, who was the District B Phelps Scholar-Athlete in 1993.

Since graduating from Harvard in 1997, Vaccaro has spent years working in education, including five years as a public school teacher in the Bronx. He works in the education consulting division of Ernst & Young, where he helps urban school districts across the country.

Recently that work included helping districts reopen responsibly. Safe to say, there was no course that he took at Harvard that explained how to educate in the coronavirus era.

“It is very difficult,” said Vaccaro. “There’s the intersection of what is appropriate from an academic and social-emotional standpoint, and what is sort of politically viable. And then there is what’s responsible from a public health standpoint. Those three are not always pointed in the same direction.”

Vaccaro played soccer and tennis at Reading High, and at 44 he still plays in what sounds like a competitive over-40 league in Lynnfield.

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“When you’ve spent your whole life being competitive it’s hard to drop it down a notch just because you’re older,” said Vaccaro, who plays with his brother, Craig, and brother-in-law, Hal. “I definitely ache a little more. Broke my nose, broke my ribs, broke my finger. They were all accidental.”

Vaccaro still remembers receiving word he was selected as a Phelps Scholar-Athlete.

“This one stood out,” he said. “I remembered when I heard the news, I was really excited and certainly there was a celebration in the family. I still remember that. The day I went in to get my picture taken, it was a special feeling. The financial element was nice and to see your picture in the paper . . . it was really nice.”

Mike Lopez wasn’t as happy with his photo in the Globe.

“It’s kind of a ridiculous picture. I’m not necessarily proud of the shirt I wore that day when they took the picture,” said Lopez, a Lincoln-Sudbury graduate and the District A Phelps Scholar-Athlete in 2000. “But that plaque is still sitting in Sudbury 20 years later. Everything else has come and gone, but that’s something they were pretty proud of.”

“They” refers to his parents, longtime L-S football coach Tom Lopez and mom Nancy, a fixture in the school’s athletic department for almost two decades.

Lopez played football, threw the shot put in track, and was an attackman on the lacrosse team. He was a talented athlete, and very humble when it came to his accomplishments.

“I remember the girl who won [District A] was going to Harvard. I was going to Bates, so I already felt inferior,” said Lopez. “It was a pretty cool program, and as someone who didn’t have the athletic talent exactly to be an All-Scholastic in sports, it was nice to have the school side of things be rewarded.”

He graduated in 2004 from Bates, where he played four years of football. He was a statistics professor at Skidmore College before an opportunity to combine his passions came his way. Since 2018, he’s worked for the NFL, and today is the league’s director of football data and analytics.

“I work at the NFL trying to analyze football data to ensure that the quality of the game is as strong as it can be,” he said. “We look at health and safety data, officiating data, how often a quarterback is completing passes, changes in the game over time, where’s the game going to be in five years, 10 years. How can we use technology to improve the game?”

Lopez lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife, Erin, and three children. He’s 38 and despite aging knees that included surgery before starting his Bates football career, he’s run the Boston Marathon twice, in 2006 and ‘07.

“It was mostly a way to lose weight,” he said.

Perry, Blaeser, Vaccaro, and Lopez. They’re four of almost 400 success stories. Today, we add 16 more.