East Lyme -- Mike Hartzell's friends say he is kind; his teachers say he can make everyone smile, and the mention of his name at a cafeteria table loaded with members of the grunge crowd elicits a chorus of compliments.
“He doesn't come to our parties, but he could,” said one student at East Lyme High School. “He's a cool guy. He's cool 'cause he's not mean, he's not down on anybody and he's funny.”
“He's just a really good guy,” said Sara Morton, who graduated Tuesday night, as did Hartzell. “There are a lot of nice guys. But it's like everybody likes Mike — everybody. If you had a daughter, he's the kind of boy you would want her to be with.”
Hartzell will attend Penn State in the fall on an ROTC scholarship and plans to continue a family tradition by entering the Navy after he graduates from college. His father, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Hartzell, has been in the Navy for 24 years. His grandfather, Joe Pow, Laura Hartzell's father, served in the Navy for 32 years.
“I went on the USS Enterprise and saw the jets take off and how the missiles fire,” Mike Hartzell said . “I said, 'Yeah, that's my job, right there.'”
And that was that. When Hartzell decides, his folks say, it's as good as done. With family tradition and childhood fantasy lighting the way, Hartzell was pragmatic in deciding to follow his forefathers to the sea.
“I just thought that the Navy would get me pointed in the right direction,” he said. “It's a job straight out of college and I'll get to travel a lot.”
Hartzell doesn't like talking much, especially about himself. He's just a little shy, his mother says. Others call him a leader by example. Even those who don't follow in his footsteps seem to respect his path.
“I get along good with the kids who party, but they wouldn't invite me,” Hartzell said while stretching before a recent track meet. His best friend and teammate elaborated.
“The kids who party like him,” said Andrew O'Reilly. “That's why they don't invite him. They respect him.”
But Hartzell doesn't think he's anything special. He spoke humbly of the time that his team lost a basketball game when he missed what would have been the winning basket. His parents provide the details –– the team trailed with two seconds left in the game and Mike had to shoot from the other team's end of the court after getting a rebound.
“I'm no big deal,” Hartzell says. “I'm just a goof. I'm nice to people and I like to joke around. My dad calls me a real go-getter. We're building a deck. It's huge. And every time he wants a new two-by-four, I go get it.”
Hartzell, an honor student, ranked 34th in his class of 253. He took an advanced placement and honors curriculum.
“This is a tough class,” said calculus teacher Mike Devanney. “But Mike always meets the challenge with a smile. When the stress of a lesson gets to everybody, Mike knows just when and how to make a joke that cracks the class up. Then we all can get back to it. He's made it more enjoyable for me to teach.”
Hartzell was the small forward on East Lyme's Eastern Connecticut Conference championship basketball team. He threw the javelin for the school's outdoor track team, finishing third in the conference tournament, and he was a key member of the track team's 800-meter relay squad. On a team, Hartzell is a stabilizing force, his coaches said.
Basketball coach Dan Spellman said that Hartzell was able to keep up his 3.68 grade point average while maintaining the most challenging course schedule on the team. The fact that he was able to excel on the court and in the classroom made him a role model, Spellman said.
“I remember Mike's junior year. We weren't very good and I was running out of motivational halftime speeches,” Spellman said. “I asked the guys if they had seen the movie 'Gladiator.' Mike gets this big grin and says, 'Yeah, we have to be like Maximus.' Then he started saying it, 'Maximus, Maximus, Maximus.' It worked. So after that I always called him Maximus.”
The Hartzells are a close-knit family. When Mike visited Penn State, his mother scouted out houses near the State College, Pa., campus, fantasizing about moving there. His grandmother, Ann Pow, keeps a spare key to his 1989 Pontiac Grand Am so she can stock it with after-school snacks for him.
Nevertheless, his career choice was his own, family members said.
“We never discussed it as an option, but I wasn't surprised at his decision,” his father said. “He certainly has the mettle and the commitment to do it. I think he's seen how much I've enjoyed it. He knows when it's time for me to retire, they're going to have to take me out kicking and screaming.”
“I encouraged him to have an open mind about it,” Laura Hartzell said. “Just because his father and grandfather were in the Navy didn't mean that he had to choose it too. Mike likes things organized. He likes to know what he's doing and where he's going. He knew he had to go to college, and he has to have a career. This way he has taken care of both.”