Two weeks before the opening ceremonies of the 1997 World Scholar-Athlete Games, I received a call from a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, on the west coast of Central Africa.
Since the inaugural World Scholar-Athlete Games in 1993, the Peace Corps has helped us identify outstanding scholar athletes and scholar artists, particularly from African countries. Upon receipt of a Peace Corps nomination, our job is to find funding to get the candidate to the Games.
The Peace Corps volunteer was calling about Rommel Padanou, a young man who had displayed uncommon ability as a student and basketball player. The volunteer persuasively cited other details about Rommel, including his view that Rommel was among the finest young men he had ever encountered.
I immediately contacted a friend who agreed to fund Rommel’s airfare and tuition to the Games.
Upon meeting Rommel on opening day, I saw why the Peace Corps volunteer was so earnest in his recommendation. At 6’5″ and rippling with muscles, Rommel cast an imposing figure. Yet more than his physical presence, what struck me was his humility, and his gratitude for the opportunity to be at the Games.
When the basketball competition started, Rommel distinguished himself as one of the best players in the competition. I also received feedback from several coaches about his positive attitude and competitive spirit.
A few days into the Games, I was standing outside of Keaney Gymnasium at URI, conversing with two representatives from my alma mater, Bates College. Bill Hiss, Executive Vice President and Wylie Mitchell, Dean of Admissions, had just finished a presentation to the participants regarding the college admissions process, and were getting ready to return to Lewiston, Maine.
As we were talking, Rommel walked by and I motioned him over to meet Bill and Wylie. His game was starting in a few minutes and the conversation with the two Bates representatives was brief, but long enough to impress both men to the point that they decided to stay on and watch the first half of Rommel’s game.
Rommel not only played well, but displayed an admirable combination of leadership and sportsmanship that both Bill and Wylie noticed right away. As we were watching Rommel, I shared my knowledge of his sterling academic record. At halftime, I asked Rommel to join us for a brief chat, during which it was agreed that, when the Games concluded, he would visit Bates.
An important objective of the Scholar-Athlete Games is to help young people in a variety of ways, including assisting participants from other countries further their education – either in their home country or at an American college. Three weeks after closing ceremonies, Bates had reviewed Rommel’s transcript and recommendations and decided to offer him a full-academic scholarship.
The school’s investment paid off. Rommel had a brilliant four-year career at Bates, excelling in the classroom and on the basketball court, where he scored over 1,000 points. Upon graduation, he became a highly successful businessman, specializing in the import-export business in the United States and in his native Gabon. Several years after his graduation, Rommel was featured in a Bates magazine cover story about his many accomplishments.
Seven weeks ago, my daughter, Meg, who attended Bates with Rommel, contacted me to say that Rommel had passed away. It would be several days before we learned that Rommel had been quietly and valiantly battling a disease that took his life.
From the time I met Rommel, we developed a special bond; he often referred to me as his second father. Over the years, many people who knew him would contact me with heart-warming stories of his success and goodwill. When I learned of his passing, I felt – and still feel – as any father would.
I loved Rommel, and when I reflect on his splendid but all too abbreviated life, I am reminded of the words of A. E. Housman: ‘Like the wind through the woods … Through him the gale of life blew high.’
Whenever I think of Rommel Padanou, which I will do often, I will always think of him as a peerless example of why we do what we do at the Scholar-Athlete Games.