Sitting at his desk inside the office of a major financial institution, Reid Lester ’02 shifts his gaze toward the television. His beloved team – the Chicago Cubs – is playing a matinee at Wrigley Field. And for Reid, a lifelong sports fan, the heap of spreadsheets and portfolios on his desk doesn’t command his attention like the Cubs do.
After a friendly, albeit honest, discussion with his supervisor, Reid decided to make the leap from the corporate world to pursue his passion. He attended Major League Baseball’s Umpire School, spent three years in professional baseball, and prompted a series of events that would lead him to develop a nonprofit organization to help United States veterans.
Reid’s story began to write itself well before he arrived at Valparaiso University. The Rockford, Ill., native’s upbringing revolved around two constants: sports and church. Reid developed a sense of service to others around the same time he learned mechanics of a bounce pass or a sacrifice bunt.
“Between playing a number of sports and church, our calendars were always full growing up,” Reid says.
His father John spent many of his days as a sports official following the conclusion of his semi-professional career on the diamond. Baseball was Reid’s love, but tennis was his sport. He also excelled on the basketball court. Reid reminisced how a quasi-controversial call on the hardwood thrust him into his father’s footsteps.
“My team was up 20 points with about a minute to go, I’m driving down the lane, and I get hacked. I mean, hacked. The referee, who was a long-time friend of my dad, doesn’t call the foul. I knew him well enough to call him out, and he replied ‘If you think you know the game better than I do, bring a pair of black shorts and a whistle next weekend.’ So, I did.” Reid says.
From that day, Reid began officiating basketball and baseball at the age of 16. Little did he know, his lucrative part-time job would form the basis of something much more altruistic.
Following a successful prep career at Rockford East High School, Reid enrolled at Rock Valley Junior College. There, he helped the Golden Eagles’ tennis team to a national title in 2000. It was at Rock Valley where Reid entered the radar of Valpo head men’s tennis coach Jim Daugherty. He arrived in Northwest Indiana for the final two years of his collegiate journey with sports still at the forefront.
His time as a Crusader on the court was a brief one. An injury ended his playing career, but Reid found a new brotherhood within the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
In the classroom, Reid earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Valpo’s tenets rang a familiar bell with the Midwesterner.
“The biggest thing that Valpo provided was a sense of serving others. We were required to complete a certain number of service hours as part of our fraternity. That aspect of campus life meshed with what my parents instilled in me at a young age,” Reid says.
Throughout myriad changes from his first days at Rock Valley Junior College to the afternoon he walked across the stage to receive his diploma from Valpo, one constant remained: sports officiating.
So Reid continued umpiring baseball part-time while he worked his first full-time job out of college as a financial advisor. While it’s not out of the ordinary for a youth umpire to fetch a few hundred dollars during a busy weekend, umpiring also provided an outlet for his first love: sports.
His second and most important love blossomed when he returned to Rockford following graduation. Reid reconnected with his eventual wife, RuthAnn, and the young couple relocated to Colorado in 2010 so she could pursue her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.
Reid immediately began officiating in Denver. He joined the Mile High Umpiring Clinic and gained a new network of colleagues. While with the organization, Reid was assigned to mentor a young umpire named Clint Greer.
Clint had just returned to American soil after stints in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division. He sustained a number of combat-related injuries that prompted a medical discharge. Medical issues compounded by unemployment left Clint searching for a spark and longing to again be part of a community. Umpiring provided that flame.
The closer the two became, the more they realized they had in common. Clint was also a multi-sport athlete in high school. His military service particularly struck a chord, as Reid had also started service with the Civil Air Patrol as a search and rescue pilot.
Reid began to realize that Clint wasn’t an outlier. It’s an alarming figure, but according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the unemployment rate for veterans age 18-34 is 20 percent higher than the rate for non-veterans.
“The transition can be extremely difficult. A person goes from having the most important job you can have – protecting our freedom and country – to returning to a desk job in an office where it’s not life or death,” Reid says.
As a result, Reid and Clint collaborated on the Lester Foundation. Inspired by Reid’s grandfathers who served in the Navy, the foundation was established as a means for veterans to receive the certification necessary to officiate basketball and baseball games.
“I think the assumption is that it takes weeks to become eligible to umpire baseball or referee basketball. The truth is, in just one week of intensive training, a veteran can gain the skills and experience necessary to start officiating and earning money immediately,” Reid says.
The foundation’s goal is to prepare every participant for freshmen level competition.
Reid currently operates clinics in the Denver area and will soon expand into San Diego. Clint is carrying the torch on the East Coast while his fiancé completes her law degree at George Washington.
Reid and Clint continue to discuss ways to impact lives across the country.
The Lester Foundation has already assisted more than two dozen veterans, and that number is expected to double once its efforts commence in Southern California.
Reid possesses a level of purpose knowing his work is helping those who have sacrificed themselves for their country. He acknowledges the risk he took when he stepped out of the corporate sector and ventured into the relative unknown, but he’d do it all over again.
His days of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds are long gone, but even in something as unassuming as training sports officials, he’s found a way for his work to pay big dividends.