FEATURED ALUMNUS: Thomas Reynolds '88


FEATURED ALUMNUS: Thomas Reynolds '88

FEATURED ALUMNUS: Thomas Reynolds '88

Lessons in Leadership Begin at Avon Old Farms

From the athletic field to the Naval Academy, and from the battlefield to the board room, Avon alumnus Thomas Reynolds ’88 says many of the same leadership qualities apply—and, for him, a lot of those were formed at Avon Old Farms School.

“Avon doesn’t just turn boys into men; Avon develops leaders of strong moral character,” Reynolds says. And as someone with 20 years of active military duty who now serves as the vice president of business development for unmanned systems at HII (formerly known as Huntington Ingalls Industries), he knows a little bit about character. “Avon teaches you perseverance and compassion … Avon teaches you to be humble when you win and to stay confident when you lose. Leadership is about never giving up, and loving the people you lead without needing them to love you back. Nothing could be a truer example of that than life at Avon Old Farms.”

Reynolds first came to Avon as a sophomore. He grew up on a farm near Potomac, Maryland, where he did okay in school but wasn’t living up to his potential. He was “an average kid with struggles and was treading water.” But, a family friend suggested looking at a Connecticut school attended by his own son. Like so many Avonians, Reynolds says right away he knew it was what he needed.

“During my admission interview, I told Dean Leavitt about my aspirations to attend the United States Naval Academy. He said, ‘Let’s talk about what you’ll need to do to make that happen,’ and laid out a whole plan of which classes I’d need to take and positions I’d need to hold,” he explains. Beyond that guidance, Reynolds also says that Avon’s value system aligns with the military. Instead of telling students what to do, Avon presents young men with challenges and then offers guidance and resources to overcome them themselves.

“I learned inside the classroom, but a lot of what deeply impacted my development came from peers. When I got to Avon I wasn’t a complete kid. I didn’t have it all buttoned up. I didn’t have good grades, and I wasn’t the strongest guy on the team. But I never felt that a varsity player would snub a guy on thirds or fourths. We all knew and appreciated each others’ talents because it's such a small and tight-knit community.”

Aside from learning to value each persons’ talents, Reynolds also shares that he is now grateful for the mistakes he made while at Avon, and is glad to have learned those lessons sooner rather than later.

“There’s a lot of reflection time built into life at Avon. Trudging up the back hill from football practice—tired and sweaty with a helmet still on—I had a lot of time to think about what Coach Driscoll just put us through on the field. Walking between classes was the same thing. There were no shortcuts to take,” he says. “That’s not to say that I left Avon a finished product … but I did leave on the right track.”

With several life lessons already learned at Avon, Reynolds did make it to the Naval Academy. He graduated in 1993, was selected for and completed training as a special operations officer in ’99, and completed multiple deployments: six to Iraq, as well as time in the Balkans, Africa, and Southeast Asia. He is also a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College, Joint Forces Staff College, holds an MBA from Benedictine College and was the first American to graduate from the Republic of Singapore, Naval Advance School.

Tom in 2001 training with 2 teammates

Tom in 2001 training with two teammates.

Reynolds says that in the military he again wasn’t the smartest or the strongest, but what he did have was mental determination. As a Winged Beaver he had learned to aspire and persevere, which led to military success. In special operations, he had three core competencies: explosive ordnance disposal, deep sea diver, and military freefall parachutist. His wartime experience includes planning and leading a combined SEAL, Marine Corps, EOD unit during the invasion to secure and clear the areas around Umm Qasr and Az Zubyar Iraq for humanitarian aid. He was the first chief of staff for special operations on the navy’s first Expeditionary Task Group going to Iraq, the first operations officer of the Counter IED Task Force in Iraq and has also served as the EOD Branch Chief of Joint Special Operations Command. His command experience includes being the commanding officer of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit TWO, being forward deployed as the commander of the EOD and Diving Task Group, and the commander of the Underwater Mine Countermeasures Task Unit in 5th Fleet.

“As a commander, I had to care about and trust in my people,” Reynolds says. “Of course disarming bombs, deep sea diving, and jumping out of planes was exciting, but I didn’t do it because it was exciting. I wasn’t a thrill-seeker. What I really liked about the military was working with and leading the kind of people who volunteer to do those things.” When times of crisis arose, he fell back on his style of leadership that he believes began at Avon: let them make the decisions, offer them whatever support they need to be successful, and ask questions later. “Sometimes all I would want to do was run in there and help, but a lot of the time that wouldn’t actually help anyone. What would help was putting trust in my people, giving them the support they asked for, and helping them develop confidence to get the job done themselves.”

Tom on a captured Iraqi mine laying vessel Iraq March 2003

Tom on a captured Iraqi mine laying vessel Iraq March 2003.

After retiring from the military in 2013, Reynolds realized that the same thing applies in the business world. “The vocabulary might be different—on the battlefield I might be yelling it and in the boardroom it might be in a PowerPoint—but the fundamentals are the same. It’s caring about others. It’s doing the right thing. It’s giving people the space and time needed to sort things out.”

Initially Reynolds wanted to put his MBA to work as an entrepreneur, but as a married man in his early 40s with two children and a surprise third on the way, the risk of starting his own business was just a bit too much. Instead, he went to work for the company that shared his values and happened to build the unmanned underwater vehicles he used in Iraq.

Bill Rose, James Hayes and Tom Reynolds on 15 April 2022

Bill Rose, James Hayes and Tom Reynolds on 15 April 2022, taken at James Hayes retirement from the Army.

“I had developed a passion for robotics that helped save lives by eliminating hazardous things. By working with those products, I was still serving the same community. I was coming to the same table, but sitting in a new chair.”

Reynolds became one of the first combat veterans with field experience with the unmanned underwater vehicles products to join the company. When the operators have read too many sci-fi novels and think anything is possible and the engineers have never carried their device on their back through the desert, or used it underwater in freezing temperatures, Reynolds becomes a translator who facilitates both sides coming together to find the best solutions. “I know that the technology is going to be used in combat, so it has to be right. Once again, there are no shortcuts. You can’t hide if it doesn’t work. I care very much about the people who will be affected, because they’re my people and I need to look out for them. It’s the same thing I learned at Avon.”

After his time in the military, Reynolds had more time to reflect, and took that opportunity to give back to the communities that supported him for so long. “I’ll be the first to say that I didn’t do it alone. I wouldn’t be where I am without so many people helping me.” Now that he’s returned to civilian life, he’s found time to volunteer. He serves on the Board of Directors of Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Yellow Ribbon Fund and is a member of the Advisory Council of the Naval Submarine League. He also served on the US Naval Academy Foundation Board where he has ready access to AOF alums who attend the Naval Academy.

This spring, Avon Old Farms School will commemorate military veterans during Reunion Weekend 2022. We hope our service members will stop by the Tiernan Room over Reunion Weekend as we celebrate their patriotism with a special archival display.