Eric T. Sollee ‘52
Fencing - Hall of Fame Class of 1999
Harvard Athletic Achievements
Eric was a late comer to the art of fencing, picking up the sport as a freshman. Amazingly, he was elected captain of the freshman squad due to his talent and early successes. With intensive lessons throughout his college fencing career, Eric was able to become captain of the varsity squad as a senior. He also made second team All American, took fifth place in the 1952 NCAA championships, won all three divisions of an American Fencing League Association tournament and won the Greater Boston Open Foils Championship.
Remembering Harvard Athletics
I am grateful and honored to be elected to this select group of amateur student-athletes. And I’ll always thank Bob Powers. He piqued my interest in fencing while I was in the Army getting the GI Bill. Harvard provided the opportunity to learn and mature as a fencer while I was an undergraduate and ten again when I changed careers 20 years later.
I never thought that after graduation I would earn a living by working at what I played at while a student. But that is exactly how I finished the last half of my working career – coaching college fencers at MIT as a Maitre d’Armes, and teaching newly-blind adults how to fence as an instructor in a rehabilitation program at the Carroll Center for the Blind. The balance between the two groups was particularly satisfying. As I enjoy my “work” so much, retiring fully from the fun of it is a problem. My “work” with the blind continues to be especially fulfilling.
My own fencing career at Harvard ended with an All-America award as a foilist. My coach, Rene Peroy, fostered my skills from the start. He also taught me to appreciate the aesthetics of a worthy opponent’s moves. He was a devoted teacher who worked long hours to improve the fighting skills of our entire team. Learning from him was both intense and lots of fun for us.
Winning was not the most important goal for our coach. He wanted us to make our moves combining footwork, blade play, and temp changes skillfully and energetically. His critiques were sensible rather than authoritative. I still have clearer images of his classical style and advice rather than the outcome of most of my fencing bouts.
I was in love with the sport, and I continued to develop after graduating. I earned some international recognition as a competitor, but couldn’t train regularly as business and a growing family took precedence. However, I was especially lucky in my choice of a brilliant wife, Natalie Dosick ’52. Shortly after earning her doctorate she helped me through my midlife crisis by fully supporting my desire to become a professional fencing coach.
The coaches of both Harvard and MIT, Maitres Edo Mairon, Silvio Vitale, and later, Branimir Zivkovic, had trained abroad in the European tradition of dueling swords and foils. They were my mentors. They worked after hours to teach me the techniques and tactics of all the Olympic fencing weapons. Again, I was privileged to be a student once more at the best of academic institutions.
Coaching at MIT was a challenge as the roster of the team changed according to the academic placing students earned in tests graded on a curve. Luckily, our third division athletes won high ranking in the 1980 NCAA national championship, passing redoubtable fencing powers, Penn State and Notre Dame, and most of the Ivy League schools along the way. That singular success won our school a reputation for developing winners in sports as well as winners in academic subjects.
Almost half of our varsity roster were recruited from the required Physical Education courses. Many of these students had spent little time on sports while in secondary school. Not athletic, they were smart learners who analyzed opponents closely. They then focused their energies specifically on essential skills and winning tactics. I must admit, though, that having an occasional world-class fencer on campus made the job of building winning teams easier. Some of these former students still enjoy fencing and continue to serve the interests of the sport as an avocation.
Largely in retirement now, I’m still fencing, coaching, and teaching part time. Even our grandchildren don’t escape my teaching efforts. We also continue to enjoy the cultural and educational offerings of the many resources in the Boston area and along the coast. Fencing has been enjoyable and rewarding. I hope that our prime educational institutions continue to make this lively activity available to their students. The benefits are life long.