When some 600 graduates walked across the stage at East Meadow and W.T. Clarke high schools last Sunday to receive their diplomas, there was one notable absence. Eric Gershoff, of East Meadow High, reported to basic cadet training at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, on June 25, four days before graduation.
The mandatory reporting date not only made Gershoff miss the ceremony, it also shortened his summer vacation to a mere 10 days.
Though Gershoff, 17, said he was sad to miss it, he understood the situation. “It stinks,” he said two days before flying to Colorado. “But I have to look at the big picture. I’m missing out on this, but I’m moving on to something greater.”
As a consolation for missing graduation, school officials arranged for Gershoff to receive his diploma at the school’s senior awards night on June 24. And while dozens of awards were distributed over the course of a few hours, it was Gershoff who stole the show — his guidance counselor, Joanna Silberman, said he received lengthy, raucous applause from the 500-plus in attendance. “The whole school was behind him,” Silberman said. “The only standing ovation of the night.”
Making his own decision
Earlier this year, Eric’s parents, Walter and Carmen, wrote a full-page dedication to their son in the school yearbook. In each corner is a photo of him in a different uniform, for each of the four sports in which he took part — soccer, track, football and baseball. In the middle is an inscription, signed also by his brother, Joshua, 12, his sister, Ashley, 20, and grandparents Alvin and Trudy, that reads, “We know you will soar high and touch the clouds!” At the time, Walter said, the family did not know whether Eric would be accepted into the Air Force Academy, which has an acceptance rate of just 9.9 percent, but they were optimistic.
Eric began the application process last summer. One requirement was a nomination from a local dignitary, and he received his from U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who interviewed him. In March the family received a phone call from McCarthy, who said Eric had been accepted.
According to McCarthy, Eric was the lone nomination she made for the Air Force Academy who was accepted. “Eric is a bright and talented young man,” she said. “And based on his education, passion and life experiences, I believe he will be an asset to the U.S. Air Force Academy, as well as our country.”
Military service runs in the family. Walter Gershoff was in the Air Force from 1980 to 1992, stationed in the Philippines, Japan and Korea as well as in North Carolina and Arizona. For the past 22 years he has been a pilot for American Airlines.
Walter’s father, Alvin, served in the Army during the Korean War.
While Eric said that his father is a big influence and a role model, his service had no impact on his decision. “I just wanted to do something for me,” he said. “It’s something I wanted to do. I always expected big things of myself.”
“I let my kids make their own decisions,” his father added. “I never mentioned anything about [the Air Force]. I’m very proud of him.”
It was a trip to France three years ago, Eric said, that influenced him. The family visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which honors American troops that invaded German-occupied Western Europe in World War II in June 1944. “That inspired me,” Eric said. “Those guys knew they were going to die. All the odds were against them. So I wanted to lead guys like that.”
It was a poignant moment for Walter, too, who said he had always wanted to visit the memorial. “It’s the most beautiful place in the whole country,” Walter said. “It’s sad but it’s beautiful.”
A different college experience
Eric said he understands that life at the Air Force Academy is very different from most universities. He is required to take 16 credits per semester — typical for a college student — and another eight credits devoted to military training. Every cadet must also participate in athletics.
Eric has never flown a plane, and joked that the only thing he’s ever flown is a kite. But he said he enjoys being airborne and is excited to learn.
Basic cadet training lasts six weeks. The first three weeks are spent learning the military culture. After that, he said, cadets go to Jacks Valley, a training complex on the university grounds, and live in tents. He will not be allowed to use his phone, and can only mail letters to friends and family.
After graduation, he will be required to serve in the military for six years.
He was also intrigued by the academy’s strong program in engineering, which he plans to study.
Once he graduates, he will become an officer — a leadership position, which he is used to. He was a captain of East Meadow High’s varsity soccer team for two years. “He’s an aggressive, hard-nosed, willful kind of player,” said his former coach, Bob Elder, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Eric. “The kind of player every coach wants.”
Each year, football coach Vin Mascia asks Elder for a player to be the team’s kicker. This year Elder chose Gershoff. “He spent 30 to 45 minutes doing 30 to 40 reps of kicking the football, and then he’d come to practice,” Elder said. “He gave 100 percent on both sports.”
Elder said that Gershoff’s leadership abilities became clear this year when he and fellow captain Ryan Lao approached Elder at midseason, recommending that one particular senior receive more playing time. “They stated their case, and I said, ‘All right, I’ll start him tomorrow,’” Elder recalled. “He turned out to be a much better player than I thought he’d be at the varsity level.
“That’s the kind of kid you’d think would go to one of the academies,” Elder said.
‘An all-around superstar’
But athletics are only half of what is expected of cadets. Gershoff graduated with a scholar’s diploma, the highest honor possible, and finished his senior year with a weighted average of 98. He was a peer leader, speaking to ninth-graders about high school expectations, and was also involved in the school’s Model Congress and Environmental Club.
“He’s an all-around superstar,” Silberman said. “Not just the clubs, not just the sports, not just the academics. He always challenged himself to move on to the next level, even if it wasn’t the easiest way to go.”
Eric also missed his senior prom, held two days before graduation. That was particularly upsetting for his longtime girlfriend, Marrol Cajoles, who ended up going alone, Eric said, because she didn’t want to go with any one else. “They’re the class couple,” Silberman said. “Since middle school. It’s very sweet.”
Aside from France, the Gershoffs also visit Costa Rica regularly, where Carmen was born. She works in the cafeteria at McVey Elementary School. Ashley, a 2012 East Meadow High graduate, will be a junior at Binghamton University in the fall, and Joshua will be an eighth-grader at Woodland Middle School.
Joshua said he was sad to see his brother leave. “He’s a big influence on me,” he said. “With sports and academics. I look up to him.”
The two often spend time together at home, playing soccer and video games. “Usually when I’m bored, I play with him outside,” Joshua said. “Now there’s no one to play with, so it’ll be a little boring.”
While he said he would miss his family, Eric was clearly excited to move on to the next adventure in his life. Asked what is most important to him, he broke into a giant grin and said simply, “Just being happy.”