McHenry teacher, coach Ray Hagerty transformed himself in the Army

‘Quitting was not an option,’ Hagerty said

McHenry High School teacher, U.S. Army veteran Ray Hagerty with his backpack on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.

When Ray Hagerty critiques his high school wresting career, it sounds a bit harsh.

Blessed with hindsight, he understands why he underachieved, although he was 35-3 as McHenry’s 112-pounder his senior year.

Hagerty, a 2000 McHenry graduate, lost to East Moline’s A.J. Lavender, 5-5, in the Class AA Jefferson Sectional, finishing fourth and missing a trip to state by one spot. Lavender went on to finish third in the Class AA 112-pound division.

Hagerty said he feels there was more he could have given.

“I never practiced hard enough, I never worked hard enough,” Hagerty said. “As a student or an athlete, it was not something I did. I didn’t have that work ethic.”

Hagerty readily admits that he made other poor decisions in high school that landed him in some trouble. But he figured out the path necessary – one that changed his life for the better in every way.

McHenry High School teacher, U.S. Army veteran, and golf coach Ray Hagerty talks with golfer Kilynn Axelson inside the weight room at school on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.

Hagerty joined the Army out of high school and served as an Army specialist in the 101st Airborne, 187th Infantry Regiment.

He saw challenges that he had never imagined and things in combat in Afghanistan that he doesn’t care to relive, but three years later, he said he left the the Army as a better man.

Today, Hagerty teaches physical education and is assistant girls golf coach at McHenry, where he often shares stories with his students and athletes about pushing their limitations and discovering what they can truly accomplish.

“The military is where I got the work ethic – in particular, in Afghanistan,” he said. “It was the first time in my life where I was put in the position that quitting was not an option. When things got real tough, do you want to just stop? In wrestling practice I’d be tired and just take it easy with my partner.

“In basic training, it wasn’t easy, but that wasn’t a breaking point for me. I could do pull-ups and pushups for days. I could do obstacle courses. Afghanistan was a different animal. It was 115 degrees on some of those missions. You’re walking up mountains, carrying all this stuff. It was the first time in my life where I couldn’t quit because you lose people. It was not an option to stop moving your feet.”

Hagerty, who has taught P.E. for five years, also worked with the Warriors’ wrestling team for three years but has cut back to spend more time for activities with his son Kellen, 10, and daughter Olivia, 7. His wife Annie is a real estate attorney in Crystal Lake, where they live.

Annie Hagerty, a 2003 McHenry graduate, started dating Ray when she was a freshman in high school, so most of their first three years together was when Ray was in the Army.

“[The Army] definitely made him a better person,” Annie Hagerty said. “The military gave him a lot of discipline. Ray was a a very different student than he is a person now. He got into some trouble. The military helped shape him into a responsible, dedicated, hardworking person that he is now. It instilled certain values.

“He went into the Army to get money to go to college. A lot of people do, and not all who do that end up going to college. But he just stuck with it. The determination was always in him. He was very determined as a boyfriend and kept things together. We both did. It brought out all the determination he had in him and kind of channeled all of that in him in a positive way.”

Hagerty, 41, graduated from Northeastern Illinois and taught social studies and coached wrestling at Chicago’s Gage Park High School for five years. He went to Northern Illinois University to get his P.E. teaching degree then took a job at McHenry in the social science division.

Hagerty would have preferred teaching P.E., but former athletic director Barry Burmeister urged him to take the job to get in the district.

Eventually, a P.E. job opened up, and Hagerty jumped at it.

“There’s transactional coaches, and you have transformational coaches,” said John Beerbower, a McHenry P.E. teacher who runs the school’s strength and conditioning. “I’ve always noticed in [Hagerty] that he’s a transformational person. He makes others around him better, and he makes the kids better.

“I also sense in Ray he truly knows why he’s doing what he wants to be doing. He’s very interested in relationships with the kids. He’s very intentional about that. That’s something I always talk about. It’s about building these kids and motivation and mindset. When you have a teacher or coach who’s really intentional about that being their mission, they can really make an impact.”

As social science division chair and head girls golf coach, Sean Sterner has spent a lot of time around Hagerty. When their golfers need swing advice, they turn to Sterner. When they need psychological help, Hagerty is who they lean on.

Sterner said Hagerty’s military background can be beneficial as a coach.

“He’s just a good guy, a guy who’s a good friend of mine, and we work really well together,” Sterner said. “One thing that really stands out is he brings a perspective. He’s like, ‘Listen, you got an 8 on that hole, it’s OK. You’re on the golf course, you’re playing with your friends, you’re playing with your teammates.’ He gets the girls to realize it’s a privilege to be able to play high school sports, and he’s been through a lot.

“He shares his story with our team and in classes as well. He talks about enjoying every moment and don’t take it for granted. Not everyone has the freedom we have, and it’s something that has been earned based on the sacrifice of those who fought for our country.”

Hagerty does not share the more gruesome parts of war, but he enjoys talking about the parts that challenged him.

“There’s a story I tell all my students. One mission in particular, where my legs were so tired going up this mountain that I thought that was it, I was done, I couldn’t take another step,” Hagerty said. “But it wasn’t an option to stop. I remember grabbing my pant legs and pulling myself up this mountain. We went up the mountain and down the mountain – we took a village. We were out there for a couple more weeks. I look back on that moment and, man, where I thought was my breaking point, I went that much further.”

Hagerty maintains contact with his Army buddies, particularly Nick Grant. Hagerty and Nick’s wife Hannah ran the Nashville Marathon last year, and the families visit each other regularly.

Annie Hagerty likes that Ray can offer life lessons and stories with his students and athletes.

“He does put it in perspective,” she said. “I know his past and current students know he’s seen a lot and met children in other countries, and he tries to instill in the kids here that they have so much going for them, don’t waste it.

“Some people see things you don’t want to see and no matter how bad you think your situation is, people around the world have it a lot worse. That is kind of how he helps. He shows pictures of kids he met in Afghanistan, the Afghani army they worked with. There were children who were part of the war, unfortunately.”

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