For more than 30 years, the physical therapy program has existed at Ohio University. For more than 30 years, Stephen Trotta has been part of the evolution of the program and while it continues to go strong, Trotta is preparing to close one chapter of his career.
In the Grover Center’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, Trotta readies a transition to retirement. The office is shared with a colleague and is adorned with a number of physical therapy-related postings and educational information. It also features some allusions to Superman — a constant reminder for Trotta to strive to do what’s right.
“Superman has always been about ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ Truth, justice and the American way … I apply that to (physical therapy),” Trotta said. “We should do what’s right, what’s best for our clients.”
Being born with hip and knee issues, Trotta was a poster child for the Massachusetts March of Dimes in 1965 and benefitted from the expertise of physical therapists. By the time he was in seventh grade, Trotta had made up his mind to pursue a career helping others through physical therapy.
“I knew I wanted to get into PT, I’d seen its benefits firsthand,” he said. “It was either that or orthopedic surgery but I didn’t want to go to school forever.”
“I ended up doing that anyway,” he added with a smile.
Trotta also developed a passion for exercise, using strength building to compensate for the hips and knees. To this day, he continues to exercise regularly and said he “hopefully always will.”
Trotta first stepped onto the campus of Ohio University in 1975 at the age of 18, and except for one year in 1980, he’s never left. He chose the Athens area because it reminded him of home in Massachusetts.
He studied what is now considered biomedical sciences but always kept his eye on the path toward becoming a physical therapist. At the time, the only two schools offering the program in Ohio were Cleveland State University and Ohio State University. Trotta considered several options upon graduating, but then came word that his alma mater was creating a physical therapy program. In 1984, Trotta became one of 18 students in the program’s first class and was named its first class president. Over two years, the close-knit group bonded. They studied together, they made memories together and they pioneered a new venture in the university.
Despite having to build the program from the ground up, facing accreditation uncertainty and other obstacles, all 18 graduated, passed the licensure exam and set the program on its way.
“It was easy to be friends with everybody,” Trotta said of the class. “We hung around together, helped each other … it was a real collaborative group. I was fortunate to be able to make some lifelong friends along the way.”
There happened to be an opening with the program’s practice and, upon graduating, Trotta was brought on board.
“The running joke is that they let me in to PT school and they haven’t been able to get rid of me,” said Trotta.
He began as a clinical faculty member and later became a geriatric clinical specialist. In the early ‘90s, he was asked by the medical school and then the PT program to help with anatomy and did so until 2001 when he was promoted to managing the physical therapy operations at the university. After 15 years, in 2012, he moved back to anatomy. On Sept. 4, Trotta celebrated his 31-year anniversary with Ohio University.
During his career, he was mentored by exercise physiologist Fritz Hagerman, whom Trotta said was a legend in the field. Hagerman pioneered physiological and training techniques in the sport of rowing and he was a consultant for several professional baseball teams, even earning World Series rings from two teams. Trotta wound up earning a ring as well in part due to Hagerman as he and his wife of 36 years, Jennifer, would meet while the two were teaching assistants for Hagerman. The two continue to live in Athens with their four golden retrievers.
Aside from Jennifer and his dogs, Trotta considers Ohio University and the physical therapy program a second family.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with students. The support from the faculty and staff since I’ve come here has been incredible. This is a great college to be part of. I have no complaints other than I wish my hip was not as irritable as it has been,” he said.
Trotta explained that his hip issue contributed to the decision to retire. However, just like the school couldn’t get rid of him after graduation, he doesn’t plan to go anywhere after retirement. In December, he’ll return to work a lesser schedule with anatomy and continue with his physical therapy practice.
The program’s enrollment has more than doubled since it began. Due to changes in the field of PT, the program evolved from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate-level program. Trotta describes it now as an “intense program but we graduate kids that are prepared really well to go out into the field.”
“I’ve seen (the program) grow and I’m very fortunate to have been a part of it,” he said.
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On Sept. 30, more than 60 people filled the second floor of Grover Center to pay tribute to Trotta during a retirement ceremony. With Superman cookies and Hershey bars adding that personal touch, the evening was filled with laughter and stories of a career that spanned three decades and impacted thousands of students.
“He’s absolutely loved it. He always says how fortunate he is to work with such a wonderful group of people,” Jennifer Trotta said of her husband. “This in itself is lovely. It’s been a great experience and he’s loved every minute of it. I’m very proud of him.”
Tara Legar, director of Therapy Services said Trotta is “the most loyal employee, above and beyond, that our practice has.”
“Any time anyone needs anything, Steve is right there to say yes,” said Legar. “He’s a great therapist and a great person. We’re sad to lose him but we’re happy for him.”
Gary Chleboun, director of the School of Rehabilitation and Communication Sciences,
joined Ohio University as Trotta was in his second year as a student and presented him with a box full of cards from past students who wanted to thank Trotta.
“He’s been the most dedicated, consistent employee we’ve ever had. He’s dedicated to OUTA, to the program, he’s done so much for the program it’s incredible and he’s a great friend,” Chleboun said of Trotta.
Trotta expressed his thanks and appreciation but emotions overwhelmed him on that night. Later, he said, “I was very touched by the reception and the response especially from some of the cards I got. You don’t realize what impact you might have on someone and it was all quite touching to say the least.”