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Leading a Horse to Water

Updated on December 7, 2017
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Jack is currently a volunteer at the Westchester County Archives. Jack has worked at IBM for over 28 years.


I am reminded of this old quote “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. definition. You can show people the way to do things, but you can't force them to act.” This applied to my recent efforts to help my Alma Mater Women’s Fencing team. As hard as we tried to offer suggestions, they seem reluctant at first. Some signs are changing for the better. I am hopeful...

- Dec. 2017


As a former fencer, and a trained engineer, my instinct is to first gather all the information and come up with a plan to solve the problem at hand. This was the case over the past year when I learned about the plight of the CCNY Varsity Fencing team. They had a rough few years with budget cuts and declining membership. Last season, their star player, who carried the team, graduated. They are left with mostly freshmen and a very inexperienced team.

After the initial discussions and fact finding, I quickly learned that the problem with the fencing team is systemic and applied across the board to all of CCNY and in fact across most of CUNY schools. Recent events with financial scandals at the highest level of administration did not help. The acting President and acting Athletic Director were put into a very difficult position. How to keep the programs going with a $6 million short fall?

Our Small Group of Alumni...

The problems of the team are numerous. It included lack of funding, lack of proper facilities, lack of equipment and maintenance, and lack of student participation...and lack of training and discipline.

The timing of these events coincided with the retirement of a few of our former teammates including myself. We now have the time and resources to do something.

We started by gathering our group for a long overdue reunion dinner. We reached out to some family members of our former coaches. We created a small group of core supporters. We wanted to help but was not sure how to get started.

By reaching out to other Friends Group like Harvard, we received great advice on what can and cannot be done. It was a long learning process with lots of detours. Finally, we settled on a simple plan to move forward.

What Can Be Done...

I am very persistent by nature and I have lots of patience. So, I like to modify this old adage and say - “you can lead a horse to water...however, you can make an offer too good to pass up.” Or stealing from the Godfather movie, “making him an offer he can’t refuse.”

We did something right by engaging the CCNY administration. We offered them some donation of equipment with no strings attached. We then followed with meeting to suggest ideas for long term. Finally, we gave the coach space and freedom to act. Our ideas were always common sense and with few drawbacks. We help make it easy to change.

We abide by all rules and regulations of NCAA and the school. At times, it seems they were overly concerned about these rules when much more pressing issues are on the table and at times, the rules did not apply.

We always gave credit to the head coach for his efforts of keeping the team going in spite of all these challenges and adversity over the years. Without him, the team would have been disbanded years ago.

Some Positive Signs...

Here are a few tangible signs of progress...

  • the school have purchased a new van for travel to team events
  • the school have purchased new uniforms needed by some new team members
  • the Athletic Department website has been updated on schedules and results
  • the Campus News is open to publishing fencing related articles to help promote the team
  • the CCNY donation website has made allowances for donors to designate targeted teams - this was one of our suggestions.
  • an Alumni meet is put on the team schedule first time after many years of inactivity
  • the coach is actively recruiting on campus...
  • the Alumni Association is stepping up to help with fund raising...
  • a meeting to be setup with the Athletic Department to discuss holding a “subway series” home tournament - another suggestion made by our group.
  • a new website of Friends of CCNY Fencing created to track our progress.

Some Other Suggestions...

  • Hiring a team manager
  • getting a permanent room for fencing practice
  • recruiting at least 12-15 girls for the team
  • getting a fencing strip
  • donating a mirror
  • donating a practice dummy
  • improve the practice regiment
  • Hosting an annual home tournament “subway series”
  • holding an annual Alumni meet
  • publish regular article on The Campus magazine
  • help the Alumni organization reach out to alumni fencers
  • help with annual fund raising event
  • publicize activities via social media like Facebook
  • invite speakers on campus talk about the sport of fencing and how it can help...
  • reachout to local community organizations like the Peter Westbrook Foundation


This effort is a long term project. I envision it will take 5 years at least to see some significant progress. A good team takes years to rebuild. From recruitment to training to funding to publicity...and finally success, it is a long and winding road. We have started on this journey and it can only lead us higher. How high we can reach is anybody’s guess.

© 2017 Jack Lee


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