As a teenager in Holyoke in the 1950s, John J. “Jack” Sbrega dreamed of one day coaching baseball and teaching at a local prep school near his hometown.
He saw himself on the baseball diamond “with leather patches on my jacket. Maybe I’d take up pipe smoking,” he said with a laugh.
He aimed to follow the footsteps of his dad — a high school teacher and professor at Westfield State College, now Westfield State University.
“Education was something I grew up with in the house,” he said. “I’d been influenced by my teachers and saw that an educator could play a valuable role in changing a student’s life. That was attractive to me: to be able to change the world.”
Sbrega never got those leather patches or pipe — but he did become a Fulbright Scholar and decorated U.S. Air Force captain, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross with some 18 other air medals.
He’s piloted SouthCoast’s Bristol Community College for the last 17 years. And as he readies to retire from his post as college president in August, the president/Air Force pilot/Fulbright Scholar/U.S. historian reflected on his life and career in education.
Born in Holyoke in 1941 to John and Rita Sbrega, young Jack had two passions: baseball and football.
When the high school athlete graduated in 1959, he attended Union College in New York, where he majored in history and political science, and turned his penchant for athletics toward ROTC. Soon, he fell in love with the romantic idea of piloting airplanes and seeing the world.
“In ROTC, we went to summer camp in Otis on the Cape. We were given introductory rides in a jet plane. I have a picture in my house of me with President Kennedy — he’d fly up there on the weekends,” Sbrega said, reminiscing with a boyish excitement in his voice. “I decided then to volunteer for pilot training.”
So after graduating college in 1963, Sbrega joined the Air Force and was given orders to go to Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama, “the week Kennedy was shot. It was an interesting time to be in Selma.”
He earned his wings in December 1964, “just as Vietnam was getting underway. We were full of vim and vigor; we wanted to go to Vietnam where the action was. We were saying: ‘Send us to Vietnam!’”
By June, 2nd Lt. Sbrega was there.
For the next four years, he’d pilot missions all over Southeast Asia and once to the Dominican Republic.
In April of 1965, U.S. Air Force pilot John J. “Jack” Sbrega flew his C-130 to the Dominican Republic, responding after President Lyndon B. Johnson had a “short blip of a hemispheric crisis” during the Vietnam War.
By June of that year, then 2nd Lt. Sbrega was flying a mission to Saigon.
For the next three years during the Vietnam War, he’d fly various resupply missions and respond to medical emergencies “from coastal cities into the hinterlands. It was always exciting. I’d get to land on dirt strips,” the septuagenarian says with enthusiasm.
“It was fun. I picked up a few bullet holes in my plane. That was a badge of honor,” said the Fall River resident.
By the time his service ended in 1968, he was a decorated captain, with a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Expeditionary Medal among other honors.
Although he “loved flying,” he wasted no time in getting back into education, jumping right into graduate school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to study history.
At 26, Sbrega still had a vague plan to earn his masters in history, then teach and coach at a prep school while flying for the National Guard in the summers.
“[M]y eyesight went down in grad school. So my dream changed,” he said.
He stayed at Georgetown and received a Fulbright Scholarship to England in 1972 to study at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
In 1974, he earned his Ph.D. in History — graduating “with Distinction” from Georgetown. He married his hometown sweetheart, Jo-Anne, and began teaching at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va., where he was a professor of history and founding program head for the social sciences.
He was “attracted” by “those student stories that come out of community colleges in underserved populations,” he said. “Here was education being brought to their front door. Access, affordability, and opportunity.”
In 1979, he took a job teaching history at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va. In 1986, with two young children — Daniel and Christianne — Sbrega took a job closer to family in Holyoke, as associate dean at Community College of Rhode Island, where he helped start CCRI’s Providence campus.
He moved on to Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, in 1997, where he was vice president of both academic affairs and student affairs. In 1999, he began looking for a president position, and found BCC in his native Massachusetts.
He started as president of BCC in July of 2000.
“I chose BCC because it had an excellent reputation, and it was in my home state. It was like coming home,” Sbrega said. “The people were wonderful, and the school was in a wonderful position. I came in after a wonderful president (Eileen Farley), who left the school in great shape, which I thought would enable me to put my own stamp on it, as opposed to fixing something that was broken.”
“I’ll miss the interaction with students, same with the BCC family,” he said. “This has been a wonderful family atmosphere.”
But it doesn’t look like he wants to stay away in retirement: “Perhaps I’ll teach at BCC — just a course or so,” Sbrega said.