Jun. 10—After crossing numerous finish lines as a track and field athlete at Saint Bernard, Jack Zachem crossed the final finish line of high school last week when he graduated from the private Catholic school in Montville, bound for Villanova University.
During his five years at the private school — his mother's alma mater — Zachem spent hours and hours each season with his track and field team, participating in nearly every event the sport had to offer. He also spent hours at the Waterford Speedbowl, where he has helped his family race modified cars since before he could drive himself. He played basketball, served as a school ambassador, helped out at his family's businesses, volunteered at a food pantry and became an Eagle Scout.
And amidst his lengthy list of extracurriculars and athletics, he found time to excel in academics, earning the highest grades in history in this year's senior class after taking summer courses on constitutional law and doing an intensive research project on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
With so many interests and activities, Zachem's normally packed schedule took a sharp turn last year when he pivoted to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and bid farewell to his teammates. The change, he said, "was crushing."
But when he returned to school he kept one question in mind: "How can I finish this on a good note, in light of everything that happened?"
Although he didn't set any records in athletics this year, he said he achieved the goal that was most important to him after going through the unprecedented stress and change of a pandemic: he had fun. He spent time with his friends, he supported his teammates and he enjoyed living in the moment throughout his final sport seasons.
He also pushed himself to finish something he wasn't sure he would have made time for in a typical year — dedicating more than 200 hours to becoming an Eagle Scout.
The new graduate said he thinks the pandemic encouraged him to remain committed to his Eagle Scout project — preserving an antique canoe that was found on his grandparent's property in Griswold.
"I thought to myself, 'I have the opportunity to do something that not a lot of people have been able to accomplish' and I think it really kicked me in gear to get my project done," said Zachem, who finished his project in April.
The canoe, from 1928, was found in a shed near his grandparents' house on Pachaug Pond and donated to Zachem's boy scout troop. Zachem's original goal was to restore it.
"We were operating under the goal of making it watertight — so that if you put it in a lake, it would work," Zachem said. But that goal soon changed.
After about 30 hours of meetings with experts in restoration and aquatic engineering, they realized that wasn't an option. In order to make the canoe water-worthy, they would have had to destroy some of the history of it.
"Then I thought, this is a 90-year-old canoe, do we really want to destroy the historical aspect just to make it float?" He decided the answer was no, and shifted his project toward preservation.
He deep-cleaned it to remove dirt and chipped wood, coated it with a preservative and restored it as best he could while maintaining its integrity. The boat is now at a Boy Scout camp in Ashford and Zachem hopes that one day, it will be put in a museum.
Looking back, he said he is impressed with the amount of time he was able to dedicate to the project. "At the same time I was juggling academics and athletics and I was a Boy Scout — not only doing my Eagle project but going camping in Vermont, and hiking Mount Washington in the rain," said Zachem, who described himself as an avid outdoorsman.
He's looking forward to being just as busy in college, where he'll be living on campus at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He plans to play intramural sports and is looking forward to what he hopes is a social campus and close student body.
The day after Zachem graduated, Kim Hodges, director of admissions for the school, noted that the speaker at this year's graduation ceremony highlighted how close-knit the Saint Bernard's community is.
Zachem said that the school's saying, "Once a saint, always a saint," resonated with him even more now that he himself is an alumnus. He said he hopes to stay connected to Saint Bernard and form a similar bond with his new school.
Although he excelled in history at Saint Bernard, he'll be pursuing a different path in college.
After considering multiple competitive engineering programs at colleges and universities across the map, Zachem will be studying astrophysics and astronomy at Villanova. Though he's eager to learn about those subjects, he said he's happy that he doesn't have to declare his major right away. In fact, that's one of the reasons he chose the university: "I can take a lot of different courses and try to figure out what I really want to do."
Holly Cyr, director of school counseling and the school's summer programming, has known Zachem his entire life and worked as his counselor during his five years at Saint Bernard. She said she is excited to see where Zachem's future takes him.
Cyr described the recent graduate as level-headed, mature and always pleasant, and she thinks he will excel at Villanova, as he did at Saint Bernard.
"He's very much transparent and a straight shooter, there's never any drama with Jack," she said. "He's not always the kid in the forefront, but he's the kid who always makes good choices along the way and toes the line."
Zachem, she said, is also impressively independent and "steers his own ship."
Cyr, who attended Saint Bernard with Zachem's mother in the '80s, said she encouraged Zachem to attend Saint Bernard and was thrilled that he seemed to have "really found a home" at the school.
"I expect great, great things from Jack," Cyr said. "He's the real thing."