John Reilly

Year of Graduation: 
John Reilly

“I feel that I got a second chance and, in turn, I owe something back. I am happy I get to do it."

When John Reilly ’68 was in the ninth grade, his grandparents sent him a book about energy, with a chapter titled, “The Fantastic World of Dr. Einstein.” “The physics read like science fiction,” Reilly recalls. “I was fascinated. From then on, I knew that’s what I wanted to study.” Young Reilly was correct in his prophecy — he grew up to be a college physics instructor. What he could not possibly predict is that his career would first take a 40-year detour.

After earning a master’s degree in physics from Duke University in 1974, Reilly taught for two years at a junior high school in North Carolina. Looking for a summer job, he was hired as a vacation replacement by a local TV station. After a few weeks, the station offered him a permanent position. Just like that, his summer gig turned into a long career in sports broadcasting.

Reilly worked for nearly 20 years in Charlotte, analyzing ratings and supporting advertising sales. He then spent 19 years with ESPN Regional Television, the college sports syndication division of ESPN. In 2014 he moved to Raycom Sports as a research and sales consultant

Reilly traces the inspiration for that life-changing summer job back to his Academy days. He came to Exeter, a long way from his hometown, Norfolk, Virginia, as an upper and says he had to “work really hard to stay above water.” Still, he allowed himself time off for one activity: spinning records at the school radio station, WPEA-FM.

Although broadcasting became the focus of Reilly’s career, his passion for physics remained constant. In 1981 he began volunteering at Charlotte’s new hands-on science museum, Discovery Place. He manned the demonstration stations, including “Upside-Down Water,” in which the force of atmospheric pressure bests the force of gravity. He loves it, he says, “because it surprises people so.”

Science, just like life, can do that. In March 2016, life dealt Reilly a monumental surprise: He had a stroke. “I was writing a note and my pen slipped out of my hand,” Reilly recalls. “I went to pick it up, then I began to slip out of my chair. A colleague saw me hit the floor. She knew immediately to call 911.”

He had lost all sensation in the right side of his body. His speech was limited, and he used a wheelchair. It was only after a month in the hospital, and three months of residential rehab, that he could return to live at home. With steadfast support from his wife, Kate, and extended family, he made remarkable progress.

In 2018, he took his first trip since the stroke: a flight north to the Academy for his 50th reunion. “Attending the reunion was the start of a new post-stroke chapter for me,” Reilly says. “Even though I still had impairments, I began to resume exercise at the YMCA, volunteering at the museum, and French language conversation at the International House.”

The “new chapter” also included a his 55th Exeter reunion. second chance to embrace the career he had left behind. He devoted his energy to reviewing the science and preparing to teach again. The profession had changed substantially since the ’70s. Film projectors, mimeographs and slide rules were no longer the norm. Reilly had also changed. “I wanted to make sure I could still do the work,” he says. “So I took the modern version of the certification test to teach high school physics in North Carolina — the same one I had taken nearly 40 years ago. Luckily, it worked out OK!”

In August 2019, Reilly stood in front of a classroom of physics students at Central Piedmont Community College, armed with PowerPoints and passion. Four years later, he says, he has found his true calling as an adjunct instructor. “Finally, I am using what I learned in school,” he says. “I feel that I got a second chance and, in turn, I owe something back. I am happy I get to do it.”

— Danielle Cantor

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.