Marine’s ‘incredible journey’ started with horrific childhood
James Walker , Special to the Register 08/17/2003
From left, Chris Gentili holding his son, Giancarlo, and daughter, Giulianna, in the arms of big "brother" Thomas Dolan, and Mary Gentili. Contributed photo
DEEP RIVER — When 2nd Lt. Thomas Dolan returned to Mount St. John’s Home and School for Boys recently, he was no longer the scared, waif-like kid with the chip on his shoulder who had arrived on the school’s doorstep 13 years ago.
A level head, confidence and self-control were evident. The qualities had replaced an explosive temper, guarded eyes and teenage sneer that had evolved from a miserable adolescence wrought by years of physical and mental abuse at his West Haven home.
The abuse that Dolan endured might have derailed another youth. For Dolan, who did have helping hands, it set him on a path to achievement.
Recently, standing before hundreds of family, friends, staff and dignitaries, the brass buttons on Dolan’s dress blue Marine Corps jacket gleamed. The razor-sharp crease in his white uniform pants settled precisely against black regulation shoes polished to a mirrored finish. The white hat with black brim and gold band sat squarely on his head.
Three weeks after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Dolan, 26, was basking in thunderous applause upon his triumphant return. The Marine officer had returned to the school for troubled youths to accept St. John’s first "Leadership Through Learning" alumni award.
"I wanted to honor the incredible journey he had taken from here," said St. John’s executive director, Cathi Coridan. "I wanted the other kids to see a real-life hero whose story starts out just like their own."
That story started Dec. 27, 1989, when Dolan’s father, a truck driver, kissed him goodbye, jumped into his Jeep and never returned. As his father’s favorite child, he bore the brunt of his mother’s wrath, Dolan said.
For two years, Dolan’s mother had isolated him from his two younger brothers and sister by forcing him to live in the dimly lit, damp cellar in their home at 275 W. Spring St. in West Haven.
A kitchen chair was jammed under the doorknob to prevent him from opening the door to enter the interior of the house. A cellar door that led to the outside of the home was kept locked; if he went through it he could not use it to return.. There was no bathroom. He got in and out of the cellar by sliding through a window he broke. He lived in fear his mother would find out but it was no secret, he said.
Once a day, his mother removed the chair so she could feed him.
"She used to throw a can of Geisha tuna fish down to me along with a couple of slices of freezer-burnt bread," Dolan recalled. "I was banished to the basement with the dog."
He made his bed on the carpeted section of the floor until his step-grandfather purchased a rollaway bed for him. Nearby, the family dog, Nikki, which was never walked properly, according to Dolan, was chained to the oil tank. Dolan said he could not wash the scent of the animal’s urine off his body or out of his clothes.
Dolan, who’s known as Robbie, washed at friends’ homes or in the bathrooms at McDonald’s, before heading off to class at Carrigan Middle School. Soon, he stopped going. The school system was phasing out truancy officers, he said, and his name was just one among dozens sitting in a filing cabinet.
"I didn’t want to go to school because I was ashamed of how I looked and smelled," he said. "One day I came home and found the dog had climbed on my bed and given birth. I still had to sleep there. I can’t believe some of the things I went through. It was so primitive."
Dolan said he rarely saw his mother, except when she came down the eight steps to the basement to do laundry, to beat him or holler at him. He often hid in his "safety zone," which was an area under the stairs next to the oil tank. He would squeeze himself into the tight space because his mother couldn’t reach him. He ran an extension cord to the area so he could have light to read or listen to the radio.
The isolation was suffocating and disturbing.
"I began to grow wild," he said. "We had Sheetrock wall down there and I kept hitting it with my foot and fist. I just wanted attention."
His home life also was became violent. At one point, he said, his mother struck him over the right eye with a piece of wood and he was taken to the hospital for treatment, he said. At his mother’s insistence, Dolan told doctors he fell.
The violence, however, continued to escalate and Dolan snapped when she struck him in the face with a rubber hose.
"I picked up something and went after her," he said.
He didn’t hit her but destroyed furnishings around the house. Dolan was arrested for reckless endangerment, assault and threatening. He was taken to the New Haven Juvenile Detention Center, where he was stripped naked and disinfected. His new home was behind a "large steel door," along with 156 other youthful offenders.
"I cannot describe the amount of fear I had at that moment," he said.
A month later, when asked by a judge if she wanted her son back, his mother replied, "No." It was the last word he would ever hear her say. He was 13 years old and hasn’t seen her or his siblings since.
"I still didn’t know what I had done wrong," Dolan said. He later found out his father committed suicide.
Filled with rage at being abandoned by both parents, Dolan turned his anger on the establishment. He became a seasoned pro at getting kicked out of youth homes.
His short stints included stops at the Northern Middlesex Temporary Youth Shelter in Middletown, the Salvation Army Youth Emergency Shelter in Waterbury and Junction 1019 in West Hartford. Dolan was in the fast lane on a road that had one exit: steel doors with 24-hour security and armed guards.
SOMEONE TO CARE
When Dolan arrived at St. John’s, he hit a speed bump — a 24-year-old social worker named Chris Gentili, who was fresh out of Wesleyan University and had also just arrived at the school.
Gentili believed social workers were meant to change the world.
He couldn’t do that. But when he looked into the sunken, troubled blue eyes of Dolan, he saw beyond the cocky attitude. Gentili said he saw intelligence and motivation.
"He had a tough background and came from a real tough situation, but he was a smart kid," Gentili said.
Dolan saw in Gentili someone young enough not to be threatening but old enough to be an authority figure. More importantly, Gentili was new and hadn’t formed strong ties to any of the other boys.
The two forged a tightly knit relationship and soon Gentili realized they had formed more than a conventional social worker/at-risk youth alliance.
He had become a strong father figure at a critical time in the young boy’s life. He instilled discipline in Dolan and taught him how to shave and eventually how to drive. The harder he drove him, the more Dolan tried to impress him.
Athletically, he excelled in softball and basketball and won awards on the wrestling team. Academically, he became a top-notch student.
"He was a real competitor," Gentili said. "He didn’t have limits. Everything was fueled by the chip on his shoulders."
Gentili left St. John’s for greener pastures in his home state of Rhode Island, but the bond between the two remained strong. He continued to see Dolan once a week and spoke with him regularly.
Meanwhile, Gentili had been dating and decided to get married. He had already involved his future wife, Mary, in Dolan’s life. Though she took to him right away, Dolan was threatened by the new woman in his mentor’s life. He had already lost one father.
Without Gentili’s daily supervision, Dolan stumbled. Now 17 and no longer a resident at St. John’s, he was living on his own and making bad decisions. He had dropped out of Robert E. Fitch Senior High School in Groton and went to work on a lobster boat.
FINALLY, A FAMILY
Two weeks after Chris and Mary Gentili tied the knot, however, they made a big decision. They decided Dolan had come too far to throw everything away. They invited Dolan to move into their cramped, two-room apartment in Cranston, R.I.
"It took me 11 seconds to say yes," Dolan said. "I finally had a family."
Through an agreement with Fitch High School, Dolan enrolled in the Community College of Rhode Island, where he took 12 credits — six toward his high school diploma.
Each day he walked two miles to the school’s Knight Campus to attend class, bypassing two malls on his way.
"It was all uphill," Dolan recalled. "Boy, it was tough."
After earning his diploma, he joined the Marines and was stationed for two years at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. His enthusiasm and work ethic caught the eyes of a superior, who urged him to apply to the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I.
He spent about one year at the prep school before arriving in 1999 at the U. S. Naval Academy. It had been a long journey. As an enlisted marine, Dolan didn’t need a recommendation from a U.S. senator or representative. His test scores and letters of recommendation from his chain of command were enough to get him in.
A MARINE’S VICTORY
The memory of those isolated nights in the basement when he sat on the concrete floor and escaped into the world of Alexander Dumas’ "The Count of Monte Cristo" still burns in his head. But now, the burn comes the glow of triumph.
With his speech gripped in his hand and the applause thundering in his ears, Dolan stepped to the microphone at St. John’s. He looked with pride at Chris and Mary Gentili.
The good-looking Marine with the crystal-clear blue eyes told his audience, "it is an honor to say a brief word to you all."
It was more than an honor for Dolan. It was a victory.
"To be able to go back there was so special," Dolan said. "It meant so much."
An imposing brick and granite building, St. John’s sits high on a bluff above the Connecticut River in Deep River. It has nurtured young boys for almost 100 years. Started in 1904 as an industrial school, it became an orphanage in 1919. Operated under the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, it has been helping at-risk youth since 1953.
Its motto is, "It is better to build boys than to mend men."
Mary Gentili believes they helped build a winner in Dolan.
"He’s everything you want your daughter to marry," she said. "He’s turned out to be an incredible, thoughtful and caring man."
Over the years, Dolan had made attempts to reconcile with his mother, he said. After winning first place in the Class L state championships in 1995 when he was at Fitch High, he appeared in the sports section of two local papers. He left newspaper clippings of his achievement in her mailbox, hoping she would contact him. She never did. He no longer knows where she lives.
But another family found its way into Dolan’s heart.
That family includes the parents of Chris and Mary, as well as their brothers and sisters and extended relatives throughout the Unites States — all who have welcomed the kid who beat the odds.
Life has given him something more. Dolan again has a little brother and sister: Giancarlo, 3, and Giulianna, 1, Chris and Mary’s two children.
Dolan intends to make a career out of the military. In January he heads to school in Quantico, Va., where he hopes to become an infantry officer. He has locked his eyes on acquiring a degree from Harvard Law School. Future aspirations include a position as a judge advocate general and eventually the halls of Congress as a senator from Rhode Island.
"Looking back, my life has been a turbulent roller coaster of emotion, never knowing if it would stay on the right track," Dolan said. "The adversity I have overcome has forged me into the person I am today."
He owes much to one special man who believes that kids don’t need "part-time help."
"Most people have their parents," Dolan said. "I didn’t. I had books and I have Chris. That’s what I have."
James Walker is a reporter for the Pictorial Gazaette, a Journal Register newspaper.
©New Haven Register 2003
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