By Don Manley
It’s hard to turn on the television or read anything pertaining to American politics without encountering the name Donald Trump.
The real estate mogul, reality show star, author and now, politician, has captured the national news media’s attention, if not the country’s, with his bold and provocative remarks while on the campaign trail.
“The Donald,” with his outsized personality, showman’s flamboyance, plainspoken pronouncements, and high-profile business dealings and personal life, has long been a lightning rod for controversy. Now, it is his campaign to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee that has attracted both ardent support and rapid detractors.
Few members of the general public have insight into the human being behind the public persona, but long term Collier County resident Roy Eaton, of Verona Walk and formerly Marco Island, is someone who does, having become friends with Donald Trump in the early 1960s, when they were cadets at The New York Military Academy.
They met in 1962, when Eaton was a sophomore and Trump, a junior, at the academy, located in Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, and they have maintained a friendship for over a half-century. In fact, Trump wrote an endorsement for Eaton’s first book, “Soldier Boy,” and third book, “Makers, Shakers & Takers,” a collection of essays that includes a story about their first meeting.
Trump’s endorsement in that first book reads: “I thoroughly enjoyed reading Roy’s Soldier Boy. He brings back many memories of The New York Military Academy, and has done a fine job. Roy was always a winner, and nothing has changed.” Trump’s endorsement in the third book reads: “Roy writes with compassion, skill and insight. “Makers, Shakers and Takers” is a terrific collection of stories and essays, and definitely worth your time and attention. A great read from someone who knows and respects Roy.”
Eaton said that Trump’s example and advice during their high school years had a profound effect on his life, an impact that continues to this day.
“I never got in trouble,” said Eaton, an author, and retired high school math teacher and wrestling coach. “I never did drugs, nor drank. I have to attribute that to my parents and who they were. But it’s also the people you meet along the way, and he was one of the most influential. Even if he didn’t try to be, he was.”
Eaton, the child of a working-class, Connecticut family, and Trump, the scion of prosperous New York City real estate developer Fred Trump, met one evening when Eaton was on guard duty. Trump and another cadet were roughhousing in a phone booth in what was supposed to be a quiet area.
“I said, ‘C’mon guys. Can you hold it down, please? This is a quiet area,’ ” said Eaton, a cadet no more than five-foot-two, at the time. “They just looked at me awkwardly, but they
held it down. They respected what I said. After they were done, Donald came over and said, ‘Hey, my name is Donald Trump. You really take your job seriously.’ I told him, ‘Most people mess up on this. I take it seriously.’ ” Eaton’s commanding officer and sergeant were ill with the flu, and the commandant-of-cadets was about to replace them when Trump went to bat for Eaton, telling the commandant he believed that Eaton could handle the job.
“He came down in the morning and asked me how I was and if I needed any help, and that sort of formed our friendship,” said Eaton. “It showed me that he valued people who are committed and accountable, people who are honest and will stand up to anybody. I mean, I was standing up to two six-foot-one-inch guys. They could have pulverized me.”
From there, the friendship flourished, with the teens getting to know each other, learning about each other’s families, and Trump revealing his hope of taking over his father’s business one day. Eaton said Trump also discussed personal matters with him, things that he’s never divulged to anyone.
“I was no competition to him,” said Eaton. “I was the poorest. He was the richest. Everybody was always trying to outdo him. They were jealous of what his family had and his confident demeanor. I didn’t know, didn’t care. I knew he was wealthy, eventually, because people would say it. But it didn’t mean anything to me. The things that I got from him were the same thing as I got from my parents, core values – be honest, be straightforward, be outspoken, dress immaculately, be clean shaven, do it with class or don’t do it all, and you have to spend money to make money.”
Trump invited Eaton along on the academy’s junior class trip to Bermuda, and even called Eaton’s mother to convince her to let her son attend. “My mom was a great judge of character, and although she could see through the hype, she respected Donald and truly loved his persona.”
Eaton said the Trump he observed interacting with young women on that trip, and his days at the academy, is at odds with his current public image in that area.
“I never heard him swear, I never heard him belittle a woman, he was always gracious,” said Eaton. “He was always respectful. He always spoke favorably of his mother, his sister and all women. I never heard him degrade a woman, so I was kind of shocked at some of the things he was quoted as saying about women during the campaign. People can change, but I’m one who believes your demeanor can change, but I don’t think your core values change from when you were a kid.”
Eaton said that as is true today, the
Trump he knew at the academy was supremely confident, principled, a perfectionist and someone who spoke his mind, while also possessing a witty, but dry sense of humor. “He always had that grin,” he added. “I could read him quite well, because when he had that smirk, I usually knew what he was thinking. It was always like, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”
Trump’s affection for the real estate profession and the locale that dominates his life were apparent back then.
“He knew real estate,” said Eaton. “He loved real estate and he loved New York City with a passion. And, I know he deeply loves his country.”
They went their separate ways after Trump’s 1964 graduation, which saw him attend Fordham University, and then the University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School for his bachelor’s degree.
After graduating from the academy in 1965, Eaton earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Pennsylvania Military College — now Widener University, near Philadelphia. He later received a master’s degree at Connecticut College in New London.
The duo reconnected during Eaton’s junior year at Pennsylvania Military College, when Trump called him from out of the blue and asked him to dinner. To Eaton’s surprise, Trump offered him a job on the executive staff of the real estate firm he was forming, making him the first person to receive such an offer. He said Trump was even willing to wait until his military obligation as an officer in the army was completed.
“The salary was incredibly generous,” said Eaton. “What he offered me for my first year in ’68, if I worked for him when I graduated – it would have been more than four or five times what I would make as an officer. Trump said, ‘I’ll do that for two or three years and when you prove yourself, I’ll double it.’ I may have been well on my way to eventually becoming a millionaire in a couple of years after that,” Eaton said. But Eaton had other plans.
“I told him I didn’t particularly like New York City, and I really don’t want to work there. I said, ‘I want to go home. I’ve been away for 11 years and I want to know my parents. I’m very close to them, I love them and I miss them.’ ”
Eaton said, at the time, he also had concerns about the wisdom of working for an old friend.
What Eaton didn’t tell Trump was he wanted to return home to help his parents care for his handicapped older sister, and he had recently learned that his father, LeRoy, had been diagnosed with terminal emphysema and had only a short time to live.
Instead, Eaton returned to Connecticut, where he taught and coached at St. Bernard High School in Uncasville, CT for 20 years, where he was also a member of
the board of trustees. During this same time period, he also worked as a teen center director, a private beach manager, and for 10 years, he worked a second full time job as a night security guard to earn additional money to help his parents build their first home.
Over the years, there have been some regrets over not accepting Trump’s offer because of what the job would have meant financially and personally. “If I had gone with him, he would have brought out the best in me, because I work well under pressure and it would have made life much easier,” he added. “There were many nights I patrolled the college campus in bitter cold, and blinding rain and snow. But, I think things worked out for the best, because I wouldn’t have met my wife or had the additional time with my Mom and Dad.”
Trump’s entrance into politics hasn’t been a surprise for Eaton, but he was somewhat surprised by his friend’s candid comments about politicians such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., illegal immigrants from Mexico and Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host who was a panel member at the recent Republican presidential candidate debate.
Eaton said he believes Trump has great respect for the military and veterans, but simply doesn’t care for McCain.
“He may have gone a little over the top with the things he initially said about Mexico,” Eaton said. “I think what happens is he gets a little caught up and he says things sometimes that often get taken out of context. Our school was about 30 percent Hispanics from all over the world. He got along with everybody. I never saw him be racist or sexist toward anyone, never, ever. I just never saw that.”
Regarding the post-debate comment about Kelly and “blood coming out of her wherever,” Eaton agreed Trump’s meaning is open to interpretation.
“Perhaps some people can interpret that as hormonal,” he said. “Some people can interpret it, like he (Trump) said, ‘Its eyes or nose, etcetera. It’s normal.’ Or you can interpret the way I did, which is he started giving an answer and simply went on to something else. I give him the benefit of the doubt there from knowing him and knowing his true character.”
Eaton described the debate panel’s treatment of Trump as a “set-up,” exemplified by their opening question, which asked the participants whether they would pledge not to run as a third party candidate against the eventual Republican nominee, knowing ahead of time what Trump’s answer would be. Trump was the only one of the 10 to refuse to make that pledge.
“You’re going to ask a question that’s geared exclusively to him only, to put him off guard and ruin his train of thought, which it didn’t?” he said. “I was proud of Donald for keeping
his composure and I was proud of him when he stuck his hand up right away, for two reasons. One, if you’re going to pick the very best and be a man who says he’d do that, why would you unequivocally say you’re going to support someone when you don’t know who is going to be nominated. And this is America. Don’t you have the right to say you might vote for someone who is not a Republican?”
“The questions pertaining to issues raised by Trump such as immigration, mistreatment of veterans, and GNP were, instead, mistakenly directed to others.”
Eaton said Trump is much more sensitive, compassionate – he supports universal healthcare –and politically progressive than the public may perceive. But Eaton believes he is monetarily and fiscally conservative, and that his candidacy is not simply an ego-driven lark.
“As Trump would say, ‘Don’t take on anything you’re not going to finish,’ ” said Eaton.
Trump and Eaton haven’t met face-to-face since that dinner many years ago, but they have stayed in touch by corresponding.
“If he does get in, I think the one thing people can count on is there would not be incompetence in government, there would not be a lack of integrity. There would be transparency.” Eaton added. “I don’t think special interest groups would totally control Congress. Put it this way, they wouldn’t control him. The people in positions who aren’t doing a good job, I think he’d fire immediately.”
“America is truly at a crossroads and needs a strong leader that can protect our nation from those wishing to destroy us. And, we need a really smart executive who will steer us away from the potential economic Armageddon that bureaucratic incompetence, irresponsibility, and greed, helped to create.”
Eaton predicted four years ago, in “Makers, Shakers & Takers,” that Trump might seek the White House.
On that topic, he wrote: “Can you imagine a relentlessly decisive candidate with no fear of failure, who can multi-task and macro-and-micro manage, who answers to no special interest groups, who readily expresses his own controversial views, who refuses to accept failure and can most likely finance much of his campaign? Most candidates would not be willing or able to handle his dominant, aggressive demeanor and condescending, brash behavior. Yes, Donald can be charming, personable and humorous, but when engaged in confrontation, his intimidating style can unravel the best of strategies.”
When asked what has enabled the friendship to endure this long, Eaton laughed and said, “Maybe because we don’t see each other. Honestly, I think what it is, is we have a mutual respect for each other. He respects me as a person. He always thought that whatever I did, I’d do well, and I knew he would be incredibly successful. Having mutual respect doesn’t mean that you don’t think a person has flaws. But having that mutual respect, that’s what’s important.”