Fencing came so easily to Eric Sollee that he was elected captain of Harvard’s freshman squad not long after picking up the sport, and went on to become an All-American, placing fifth in the NCAA championships in 1952.
Then one day a friend asked him to stop by the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton and take on some sightless opponents.
“Eric, wearing a blindfold, lost all three bouts to the blind students,” the center said in a tribute on its website, “and was greatly intrigued by their ability and the value of fencing to the rehabilitation training of persons who are blind.”
Beginning in the late 1960s, Mr. Sollee started teaching the blind to fence at the Carroll Center.
As a fencer and a teacher, he won matches around the world and coached at MIT and Harvard.
Mr. Sollee died June 30 in Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, not far from his Dover, N.H., home.
He was 82 and previously had lived in Newton for more than four decades.
“Eric’s enthusiasm is infectious, it’s absolutely great,” Rabih Dow, rehabilitation director at the Carroll Center, told the Globe in 2005. “His understanding of the application of fencing skills to orientation for the blind is quite deep; he knows it well. He’s a fantastic coach, there’s no question about it. Students worship this guy.”
And Mr. Sollee worshiped fencing, a sport to which he was introduced while serving in the Army.
“He picked up fencing from this guy who he was trying to teach boxing to,” Alison Sollee of Durham, N.H., said of her father. “This guy knew some fencing skills and taught them to my father, and that became the love of his life - except for my mother.”
At Harvard, from which he graduated in 1952, Mr. Sollee also was captain of the varsity squad as a senior.
In one American Fencing League Association tournament, he won all three divisions - foil, epee, and saber - and he also won the Greater Boston Open Foils Championship, according to the Harvard Varsity Club website. Mr. Sollee was inducted into the club’s hall of fame in 1999.
While he knew from the outset that fencing was his calling, it took a while before he turned his pastime into a full-time pursuit.
“I huckstered pharmaceuticals and investments abroad and domestically for 22 years after graduating,” he wrote in the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “When my wife, Natalie, earned a PhD in psychology and joined Children’s Hospital, we became a two-income family. I used the opportunity to switch my work to fencing for a living - teaching and coaching, that is.”
Having already begun teaching blind students to fence at the Carroll Center, Mr. Sollee became head fencing coach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1970s, launching a women’s program soon after.
He coached until the early 1990s and counted among his students Johan Harmenberg, who went on to win a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics.
Sometimes, he instructed his college varsity players to don blindfolds and fence in matches against blind students from the Carroll Center.
And like their coach had years earlier, the college team members often were outmatched by the sightless fencers.
Eric Tennyson Sollee was born in Los Angeles.
His father was a Norwegian immigrant and his mother was from the Philippines. During World War II, the family was in his mother’s country, where his father was working as an engineer when the Japanese army began placing US citizens in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila.
At 14, Mr. Sollee was listed as a child traveling with his father, who had a US passport, so they were held in the camp.
His sister was listed on the Filipino passport of their mother, and the two of them waited in the Philippines until the family was reunited when the war ended.
The Sollees moved to Newton, where Mr. Sollee graduated from high school.
After serving in the Army to take advantage of the GI Bill, which paid for his college expenses, he went to Harvard. There he met Natalie Dosick, a student at Radcliffe College.
“They were both English majors and they both loved literature,” their daughter said. “In their older years, they would read Shakespeare aloud together.”
Athletic in a number of pursuits, Mr. Sollee noted in the 10th anniversary report of his Harvard class that he also enjoyed “skin diving, water skiing, and fishing in the reefs that abound in the seven thousand islands of the Philippines.”