Eugene Price ‘Spike’ Sanders Jr. was born in Kansas City, MO to Mary Alice Reilly and Eugene Price Sanders. Later, having grown up in Lancaster, PA, he came to West Point as a bright 17-year-old with a record of scholastic and athletic achievement at J.P. McCaskey High School that ensured his congressional appointment.
At West Point, Spike seemed to lead a charmed life. He was unfazed by the ups and downs of plebe year, out of reach of the tactical department, and generally untroubled by academic challenges. He took the place in stride, befriended everyone, and, over time, played host to an array of beautiful young women on the weekends. West Point’s trials never dampened his spirit, never led him to lose sight of what had to be done to make a mark and to live a full life. Watching him walk-the-walk was sometimes eerie, even intimidating. It was ever so easy to imagine that he was harboring a secret about survival that escaped the rest of us.
Although Spike was a member of the Debate Council and Forum and eventually became associate editor of Bugle Notes, nothing mattered to him so much as the Swimming Team. He held an Academy record, swam in the prestigious East-West meet, and played on the championship Water Polo Team, earning a major “A” in swimming during his last three years. Besides being a quiet but forceful leader among teammates, he was also an exceptional recruiter of swimmers who joined future Army teams and broke records.
Coach Jack Ryan considered Spike, Drew Casani, and team captain Chuck Sollohub the backbone of the Swimming Team when they were First Classmen. “They led the team through a difficult season,” Ryan said. Although the team did not win them all, they broke records almost every meet. That year’s showdown with Navy highlighted the team’s fighting spirit. Although they lost, the team broke six Academy records. The Harvard and Colgate meets and a victory over Cornell were also exceptional team efforts. Spike, the star backstroker, played a major role in leading that team to a 7–5 season.
Drew Casani remembers Spike not only as his “closest friend” but also as “one of the finest backstrokers in the East.” And he saw him as an energizing spirit. Drew recalls that when the team travelled, he, Spike, and coach Ryan would study the upcoming meets and develop strategy. Alan Armstrong, a seasoned athlete himself, speaks of a “curious” thing about Spike: His “exceptional athleticism” and his tough competitiveness stood in stark contrast to the considerate, mild mannered, modest man that he was out of the water. Alan says that Spike’s “warmth” evoked the love and respect of “all who knew him.” Over time, everyone came to know him for his gifted ways, his devotion to his team, and his strong leadership under fire. But all admired him most for the simple joy he brought to their lives.
When Spike graduated, he was commissioned in the Artillery and headed to Fort Sill, OK for yet another bout of schooling, which was to be enriched along the way by Airborne and Ranger training. His long-term goal was to become an army doctor, but, a few months after graduation, his life was brought to a tragic and untimely end on a long, narrow road just outside Henrietta, TX on August 27, 1961. He and West Point classmates Tom Blanda and Don Anselm had left Fort Sill on Saturday to see a college football game in Dallas. They decided to stay there Saturday night and return Sunday so they could drive back during daylight. The next morning, after they had stopped for gas and gotten back on the road, an oncoming vehicle traveling at high speed crossed the centerline into their path. They swerved to avoid a collision, but the errant driver hit them head-on, and Spike was killed instantly. As word made its way across West Point’s extended community, all experienced a shock wave. His absence was unfathomable, almost unspeakable.
Those who knew Spike during those years when he graced lives still hold him dear to their hearts today, some 55 years later. He inspired them with his joie de vivre, his charming ways, and his never-ending good cheer. So it’s still easy to see him moving through the water with amazing grace, and to watch him yet again edge out a competitor with that magic touch at pool’s end . . . or, better yet, to see him with piercing clarity coming back to the barracks through the cold, misty gloom of a West Point winter evening after practice, always with a smile and a friendly greeting for everyone. Seeing him so clearly, we miss him intensely, feel his absence deep in our hearts, and recall the many things he taught us about living with gusto and purpose. He left us the gift of his example and his preternatural wisdom, along with a sure and rare sense that he is with us now, his boundless energy and good spirit still enriching our lives, drawing us together.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
from “To An Athlete Dying Young”
—A. E. Housman