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New London - One of his first wrestlers, Tom Mills, presented Steve Eldridge with a commemorative brick Thursday afternoon, an enduring symbol of Eldridge's contribution to Coast Guard Academy.
A brick that will sit inside the Alumni Center with Eldridge's name, alongside many other of the Academy's greats in its storied history.
A brick: part of a foundation. Sturdy, strong, steadfast.
The man whose retirement ceremony commenced Thursday at Billard Hall, honoring his 47 years at Coast Guard as an instructor, cross country coach and most notably, its wrestling coach.
Leave it to Coast Guard's affable Commendant, Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., to tell the gathering Thursday that Eldridge has served Coast Guard longer than some ships have.
"I'm at a lot of these kinds of things," Papp said. "Some I have to do, some I get to do. This is one I wanted to do."
Eldridge earned four Coach of the Year honors in his 47 years and led the Bears to five New England team championships. He coached seven All-Americans and belongs to the Coast Guard Academy Hall of Fame, National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) Division III Hall of Fame and was presented the Lifetime Service to Wrestling Award recipient by the NWCA Hall of Fame last year.
Eldridge also coached men's cross country for 43 seasons and led the Bears to the NCAA Division III Championships in both 1989 and 2001. He was the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Coach of the Year in 2008 and 2010.
"I can't tell you how humbled I am by the folks that have come back," Eldridge said. "Many traveled long distances. Probably the thing I'm most proud of is seeing the successes many of them have had, whether they stayed in the Coast Guard or not. A number of them did and went right to the top. It warms my heart that I was part of helping them."
Many of Eldridge's current and former wrestlers were in attendance.
Eldridge, born in Fairbanks, Alaska, and grew up in Massachusetts and Missouri before settling in Salem.
He made the drive down Route 85 for 47 years.
"I loved coming to work every day," he said. "It was a job that once I found my niche here, working with these kids, they weren't always the best athletes, but they always had the biggest hearts."
Eldridge retired in January. He had no idea such an event would happen.
"When I retired in January, I thought I was done," he said. "I will cherish this the rest of my life. This shows how great the Coast Guard family is."