LTC Stephen Suhr passionate about Benedictine

By Noell Barnidge
The journey that led Lt. Col. Stephen Suhr to Savannah, where he has served as Benedictine Military School’s Senior Army Instructor (SAI) since 2017, is remarkable.

LTC Suhr, 44, (pronounced “sir”) was a United States Army Aviation Intelligence Officer with an active TS/SCI Security Clearance and 20 years of experience as a combat-proven leader, educator and resource manager. He came to BC from the University of California Berkeley, where he was the Professor and Chair of Military Science. Suhr is a 1997 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering while lettering in varsity baseball for four years. He also earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2006.

“I had never planned to serve a full career (in the Army) but it was one of those things where we (he and his wife, Laurisa) joked that the Army dangled the right carrot in front of you at the right time with each kind of decision point along the way,” he said. “Once I had made the decision to stay in, go back to grad school, and the Army paid for my grad school, my commitments took me out to about the 15-year mark in terms of what I owed. So I said I would stay in until 20 (years) to get the military retirement. I was at that point, I was out in Berkeley, Calif., and I knew as much as we loved California, and loved the bay area, that it’s just so expensive. We’re both east coast people; I’m from New Jersey, my wife’s from St. Petersburg, Fla., so it had kind of long been an agreement between me and my wife that we’ll go back to the east coast, and probably the southeast.”

Suhr applied for “all sorts of jobs,” he said, unsure of whether he wanted to pursue a career using his engineering background or one that utilized the leadership component from his military background. He attended job fairs for academy graduates. He also interviewed with several businesses, including Amazon and various medical companies. Suhr wanted a job he would feel passionate about.

“And then I said, ‘Well, let me look at JROTC’ because I was in Cadet Command at UC Berkeley as a senior ROTC guy, and so I started looking around at high schools. I thought, ‘That’d be cool, teach high school.’ I always said I wanted to teach high school in my retirement years because I love teaching and I love trying to have an influence on a generation or a population of people that I think are ready, old enough; I think high-school age is ideal.”

Suhr began studying very dense spreadsheets of job openings throughout the country at every high school.

“And I’m looking in Florida, and I’m going down and looking in the St. Pete area, and just unbeknownst to myself, I had just literally had my finger on the screen, and I had gone into Georgia without realizing it,” he said. “It’s by state, alphabetically. And it’s alphabetical within the state, not by location, so I had hit the B’s of Georgia without realizing it. I see Benedictine and I start looking at this school and I was like ‘Wow, this is interesting. Catholic. Private school. This is really a unique JROTC.’ As JROTCs go, we’re very unique. I started looking at the school. It’s just one of those things, you start peeling back the onion and each layer kept getting better and better. I’m like, ‘I really like what this school is about.’ Looking at the web page, I reached out to COL (Richard) LaRossa, who was the point of contact. I sent him my resume. He said, ‘Your resume looks great.’ I flew out to do an interview and meeting with the people here. I immediately fell in love, and I knew. I literally had the conversation with my wife, who was back in California, I said, ‘I think I’m going to turn off all the other interviews.’ I was a couple of interview levels deep with a bunch of companies and I said, ‘I think I’m going to turn it off. This is the spot.’ It just felt like a great fit.”

Suhr was offered the job by BC Principal Jacob Horne, who had recently been promoted from Assistant Principal. He accepted and BC Headmaster Fr. Frank Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B., announced Suhr’s hiring effective July 2017. Suhr replaced LaRossa, who retired in 2017 after four years as BC’s SAI. LaRossa had replaced LTC John Manson Owens III ’61, BC’s legendary SAI for 27 years until he retired in 2013.

“It gave me peace of mind,” said Suhr, who has three children with Laurisa: daughter, Alivia, 17, now a senior at Richmond Hill High School; son, Joseph, 16, now a junior at BC; and son, Jake, 10, now a fourth-grader at McAllister Elementary School in Richmond Hill. “As you’re transitioning from the military, it’s a stressful time. I had never had another job, essentially, since I was a paper boy in high school. At 17 years old, I went to West Point. It just felt good. I knew where I was headed. I was excited about Savannah. I had always tried to get to Savannah during my active-duty career. The helicopter I flew and then the airplane I flew, I could just never pull it off with the timing of the job openings. I joke now that I had to retire to get here but it was well worth it.”

Prior to arriving at UC Berkeley, Suhr was assigned to the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Va., where he served as the deputy commanding officer for rear operations for TF ODIN-Enhanced, a state-of-the-art aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance unit operating in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Combat Action Badge, Master Aviator Badge, and Basic Parachutist Badge.

“COL LaRossa, when I was looking at videos and anything I could get my hands on before coming here, I saw him commenting on, I don’t know if it was Commissioning or another ceremony, but he said, ‘I’m just trying to polish the diamond. (BC is) already a diamond. I’m just trying to keep it polished.’ I’ve taken that same approach,” Suhr said. “Certainly, we’ve made some changes in my short time here, trying to make the program better, but I inherited just an awesome setup. These are tweaks. These aren’t the kind of changes where I have to re-navigate at all.”

In spring 2019, under Suhr’s leadership, BC scored 98 percent during the JROTC Program of Accreditation (JPA) inspection. BC earned “Honor Unit with Distinction, Gold Star” for a 33rd consecutive year, allowing BC to nominate five Cadets each year to our nation’s five service academies.

“You say, ‘What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?’ I would put it more into the category of me trying to understand,” Suhr said. “There’s so much tradition at the school. Navigating what is my left and right limits of what we can change? What’s fair game? That’s been more on me understanding how to navigate that. This school has an alumni network like a college. It’s not like a high school. I mean, shoot, I look at my high school. My 25th reunion, we’re struggling to even put something together. We don’t even do it until year 26, whereas, here it’s just everybody, from giving money to just being at social events and being at every event and supporting it, it’s just unlike anything I’ve seen. And so fitting into that has been not so much like a challenge but an opportunity.

“I’m an outsider,” Suhr continued. “I’m not an alum like LTC Owens was. And COL LaRossa was a Savannah guy. He’s a boater. His kids went here. I don’t have that connection to the school, and so I guess I run the risk of if I push it too far that people will say, ‘Hey, what’s this guy doing?’ But the thing that I would add to that is, coming in, I was excited to come in with a new principal. Jacob (Horne) had just moved from assistant principal to principal. And then I helped with baseball, coaching that first year, and I got to know (BC Assistant Principal) Mr. (Kevin) Farmer a lot there. So I feel really in there. I also knew (BC Theology Department Chair) Kevin Knight. That’s a small-world story about coming here. I talked to Kevin Knight on the phone. We’re both Kiowa pilots. We’re in the same unit at the same time (in Hawaii). I didn’t know him, like, as a great friend or anything but we knew of each other. We all know the same people. How does that happen? Small world. That tells you this is a good situation. And my wife’s friend, one of her best friends from college, was dating another person who is an alum of the school. So we’re looking on Facebook and she’s got a BC ski cap on in this photo. And my wife is like, ‘Hey, Steve just interviewed at that school. Do you know somebody from there?’ And (her friend) is like, ‘I’m dating a guy who went there.’ The small-world stuff started to add up. It was like this is the place to be. Those kind of things don’t happen if it’s not the right situation. It just seemed like every arrow was pointing to (BC). And I have no regrets.”