Jesse Reynolds has a mother he loves and a father and sister who helped him survive a rocky transition to manhood. On Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day, the North Reading resident honored all three when he graduated with honors from Southern New Hampshire University.
But it’s the relationship with his mother, Debby Dageforde, that most closely mirrors his own path: Less than ideal, it schooled him in the lessons of loss and responsibility, challenges he would master as he made his way from a homeless teen drifting from beer to beer to a young man who finally said enough after a car accident nearly claimed his life.
Reynolds was 2 and his sister 5 when their parents split up, and Darryl Reynolds, an Indianapolis firefighter, took custody of the children. Jesse Reynolds said he remembers seeing his mother infrequently, the occasional weekend at her place in the country, or the rare times she attended his baseball games.
In his teenage years, when he began drinking with friends and getting into trouble for petty mischief, his mother was quick to let him know she was behind him, no matter what.
“He really had some bad times trying to find himself,” she said, recalling a boy with a big heart and a small ego. “He put on a big act around his friends, but he wouldn’t hesitate to give me a hug.”
Though they have spent most of Jesse’s life living apart, the bond between mother and son remains unbreakable.
“We have a strong relationship now and have for a while,” said Reynolds, 35, a Navy veteran who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in justice studies and has his sights on a career with the Department of Homeland Security or the Secret Service.
His father and his sister, Dawn Snoeberger, flew in from Indianapolis for his graduation ceremony in Manchester, N.H., joining Reynolds’s wife, Stephanie, and the couple’s 3-year-old son, Cole.
Dageforde, who lives in Zionsville, Ind., and suffers from debilitating migraine headaches, is too ill to travel. But she pictured her son marching to the stage in his black cap and gown, her star in a galaxy of more than 2,000 shining faces.
“It’s what every mother hopes for,” she said proudly in a telephone interview. Then her voice softened, almost to a whisper. “It’s killing me not to be there.”
It was 1981 and Jesse and his sister were living with their dad in Pittsboro, Ind., a one-stoplight town with wide streets, small houses, and white picket fences that you could imagine Tom Sawyer and his friend Huck Finn slathering with paint. There was a baseball field across the street where Reynolds spent hours, both watching and playing, and a corn field where the neighborhood kids gathered on summer nights.
Now a college grad and a Navy veteran who works as an electronics mechanic for the Coast Guard’s Department of Homeland Security in Boston, it’s not where Jesse Reynolds was headed when he graduated from Tri West High School in nearby Lizton in 1997.
“He got into trouble drinking and driving, run-ins with the police,” said Ryan Johnson, a childhood friend.
It was life in rural Indiana. “I was part of the party crowd,” Jesse said. “It was social. I was social a lot of nights.”
Dageforde said her son struggled to find himself.
“It was what every teen goes through, but to the extreme,” she said.
In recent years, when she picks out greeting cards for him, she gravitates toward the ones that say, “I know you’ve had a rough road, and I can’t be more proud of the person you’ve become.”
By the time he was 13, Jesse had become an exceptional baseball player. He was fast and strong, a natural who worked hard to become even better.
By his junior year in high school, he was one of the state’s top second basemen. But while his baseball star was rising, his personal life was spiraling out of control.
“I got a phone call from school, ‘If Jesse misses one more day of school, he gets kicked out,’ ” Darryl Reynolds recalled. “Every day I was working, he was missing school. So I told him, ‘No more absenteeism.’ And the next year, it was being tardy. ‘One more tardy and he gets kicked out.’ ”
Baseball was his anchor. So at the start of his senior year, when he was thrown off the team, he took it hard.
“I didn’t tell my dad for two weeks. It was the last thing I had that me and him kind of bonded over,” Reynolds said. “When that was gone, we didn’t have things to talk about.”
He remembered it as if it had happened yesterday. How he arrived on the field five minutes late because of detention; how the day before he had missed practice to give a friend a ride; and how after he had owned up to what he had done, he asked the coach if he could run laps to make amends.
“He said, ‘No.’ . . . He said it was not necessary to do anything anymore because I was no longer part of the team. I asked him if he was serious, and he said, ‘Yes.’ I walked off and never played an organized baseball game again, even though I could have had college recruiters out to see me that year. I lost it all.”
For Reynolds, what followed were more parties, more heavy drinking, and after barely graduating from high school, a series of dead-end jobs.
“He wouldn’t listen to me, follow the rules,” Darryl Reynolds said, remembering the day it all came to a head. “He walked in, and I said, ‘Get your [stuff] and get out.’ The look on his face is something I’ll never forget. I hated to do it. But he really had to learn a lesson.”
For a while, Reynolds slept on the couch at work, a commercial cleaning business owned by his sister Dawn’s husband, Aaron Snoeberger.
By the time he was 21, he had patched things up with his dad and was living at home again. But his tough times weren’t over. He was still floundering the night he spent drinking at the local bar, a five-minute walk from home.
“I was there for about three hours and from my bar tab that was [later] pulled by the police, I had drunk about a 12-pack,” Reynolds said. “My plan had been to walk home from there if I had gotten smashed.”
About halfway through the night, a friend walked in with his girlfriend and a couple of her friends. Introductions were made, the group spent the night playing pool, and at last call, one of the girls asked him if he’d give her a ride home.
“I knew I shouldn’t,” he said. “I was a five-minute walk from home and she lived 30 minutes away, taking winding country roads. I got her home and stayed there for about an hour and a half.”
On the drive home, he fell asleep behind the wheel and ran head-on into a tree.
“I remember bits and pieces after that,” he said. There was a walk down a country road; a voice yelling out, asking if he needed help. A call made to the police. An ambulance.
What remains are two scars, one across the top of his head, which had hit the windshield hard, and another just above his chin.
He received a citation for drunken driving, but no jail time.
“At 22, I finally looked at myself,” he said, recalling how he decided to sign up for a 120-day computer course offered by the Job Corps in Indianapolis. He completed it in three weeks.
A guy he met there had taken the Navy entrance exam and scored a 55 out of a possible 99, a passing grade, but not impressive.
“You think you can do better?” the guy challenged. So on a bet, Reynolds took the test and scored a 96. But he had no intention of enlisting.
“What are you doing here?” the recruiter wanted to know.
“He got me signed up as quickly as possible,” Reynolds said.
Coming out ahead
His family welcomed the news.
“It would give him back the structure sports had given him, on a more permanent basis, time to find himself, a strong hand,” said his mother.
“It took something besides family to give him a shove in the right direction,” said his sister.
Reynolds served in the Navy from 2001 to 2005, including a six-month tour in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS John F. Kennedy. He ended his service after herniating two discs in his lower back during the course of duty.
In 2008, he was working in the electronics industry and was on business in the Boston area when he met his future wife, Stephanie. For the following year and a half, he commuted from Washington, D.C., to see her every other weekend. They moved in together in 2009, married, and their son was born in September 2010.
Reynolds has kept moving forward. Jesse, Stephanie, and Cole moved to North Reading, where they bought a home in October. “It was the house, the area, and the school system” that attracted them there, Reynolds said.
For the past several years, while working full time and shouldering responsibilities as a husband and father, he has been earning A’s in college.
Jesse said he will be honest with his son about his past. “My path has been rough and a lot harder than it needed to be because I made mistakes . . . I would want to sit him down and tell him about my path so his path will be a lot easier than mine.”
On Mother’s Day weekend, he’ll be thinking of a bond that has withstood the test of hard times and been strengthened by the power of unconditional love.
“She’s always been there,” Reynolds said of his mother. “No matter what I did, she was there to help. I wish she could be here for the graduation.”