WORCESTER — His name is Jack and he sits alone in the front row of an academic amphitheater here at Worcester Polytechnic Institute on this late-summer afternoon as the professor discusses the intricacies of crystal geometry, atomic weights, and linear density.
The students, adopting the uniform of college kids everywhere — shorts and faded jeans, ball caps and backpacks — take careful notes and observe a pin-drop silence.
And as the material — dense and indecipherable to math-avoiders like me — washes over him, Jack Duffy-Protentis nods and then smiles. The confident telltale signs of a student signaling: I get this.
And that confidence is remarkable, a marvel all its own. “I’m going to prove you wrong,’’ he tells me, acknowledging the doubt he has encountered much of his young life. “I know I can do it.’’
Jack is dark-haired, 6-foot-1, and 168 pounds. He’s also blind. A beautiful seeing-eye dog named Adonis lies, ever vigilant, at his feet. And as he surveys the future that awaits him after his graduation in about a year, it looks, well, bright.
Every student in the class has a story to tell about the road they have traveled to associate professor Yu Zhong’s mechanical engineering classroom.
Jack Duffy-Protentis’s story begins in Easton, where he grew up the youngest of Paul Protentis and Barbara Duffy’s four children, a little boy who, they say, emerged from the womb smiling. And never stopped.
The kid was a whiz with his hands. He was a master builder with Legos. When his grandfather left an intricate little candy dish on the table in the den, young Jack took it apart and put it back together. No problem.
But reading? That was a different story. By the time his older siblings were diving into Harry Potter, Jack was struggling to read Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat.’’
And then there was that time in Little League when Jack was playing left field at a ball field in Easton and his parents watched as a fly ball dropped from the sky toward their son.
“He had the thing lined up and he had the glove up and the ball landed right next to him,’’ Paul Protentis recalled. “Something’s wrong.’’
Jack was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, an illness similar to macular degeneration that occurs in late childhood. It causes progressive damage of the macula, the small area in the center of the retina that delivers sharp, straight-ahead vision.
“You’re devastated,’’ Barbara Duffy told me. “This little, adorable 8-year-old boy is going to lose his vision. I wanted to keep Jack in bubble wrap in the bedroom.’’
But she didn’t.
Instead, Jack and his family accepted a new reality. And charted a new course.
“If I look straight at you, your whole head is gone,’’ he told me. “So what I am doing is looking up. I sort of lose the top of your head. I understand there’s a face there, but if you did something with your eyebrows, I couldn’t tell.’’
The disease robbed Jack of some important things.
He’s a car guy. He has restored a 1964 Mustang, a thing of beauty with a cherry red interior and a white vinyl top that he had worked on since he was 10 years old. And by the time he was 16, he knew he couldn’t drive it.
“It’s still my baby,’’ he said. “I plan on taking it with me whenever I have a house and it’s still running. I knew what I wanted to do and I wasn’t going to let being visually impaired stop me.’’
He didn’t stop working on cars, using his sense of touch to feel when the thread of a bolt caught, when an engine part slipped into place just perfectly. And he didn’t give up on college, either.
He got accepted into 10 of the dozen schools to which he applied, choosing WPI after charting each school’s strengths and weaknesses. He fell in love with the WPI campus and its hands-on approach to an education that, for Jack, had to be hands-on.
And he learned how to fight one of his disease’s cruel consequences: social isolation.
“I’ve become an extremely extroverted person,’’ he said. “Often when I’m on campus or maybe at a party or in a class and somebody says, ‘Oh, hey!’ I have no idea who that is. Not a clue. So that can be hard. Especially freshman year it was pretty tough because that’s how you make friends. ‘Hey, you’re in my calculus class?’ Right?’ Well, I can’t do that.
“So I have to go up to everybody and say, ‘Hello, I’m Jack.’ That’s definitely been the hardest part. You have to really aggressively throw yourself out there to pretty much everybody.’’
So that’s what Jack has done.
There are 6,870 men and women studying at WPI, including graduate students. Some 600 of them, like Jack, work with the school’s Office of Disability Services.
Jack’s grade in professor Yu Zhong’s class is a 99.
“Jack has achieved a high level academically,’’ Paul Reilly, assistant dean of student success at WPI, told me the other day. “He has negotiated his own challenges. He’s having a great college experience. And he’s a good guy.’’
In other words — and he would not have it otherwise — he’s a regular college student. He’s 21, living on his own, and approaching life’s launchpad.
When he was a kid, his parents sprinkled him with holy water from Medjugorje, where the faithful believe the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1981 to six Herzegovinian teenagers.
Jack’s eyesight did not improve. But who’s to say miracles don’t happen?
“I’m going to tell you that, as a parent, it is remarkable to live in these times,’’ his father said. “If Jack was born 100 years ago, he would have been banished to the periphery of society. Now, people are bending over backward to help him.’’
“The sky’s the limit for Jack,’’ his mother said. “He’s innovative. He’s all personality. The experience at WPI made me realize that it’s not a disability for Jack. He’s differently abled, that’s all.’’
And that’s exactly what it looked like the other day inside a mechanical engineering lab here, where Jack and two 21-year-old teammates — Michael Hartwick of Northbridge and Mason Kolb of Acton — went to work on a battery-powered Jet Ski.
There were battleship-gray metal racks holding batteries and tires. Trays of nuts and bolts. Tool chests taller than most men.
And as the three college kids assessed their progress, Jack’s vision impairment melted away.
“I think we’ll have a Jet Ski that moves,’’ Jack told the group, setting the bar low.
From his place on the floor, Adonis took it all in, the dog’s eyes fixed vigilantly on Jack.
“He knows more about this stuff than I will probably ever know,’’ Hartwick said.
“He’s also just a nice guy,’’ Kolb said.
And then the three friends went to work. They’re facing a tight deadline and an even tighter budget.
“We’re trying to get the right amount of power,’’ said Jack, who flashed that broad smile of confidence as he said it.