Classmates recall the young Perot as a leader

June 23, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

Ross Perot arrived at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949 a short, jug-eared Texas boy with a broken nose. It was his 19th birthday and he had never been on a ship or seen the ocean.

But he tackled the academy the way he did everything else -- with a confident vengeance.

Mr. Perot emerged four years later as president of the class of 1953 and a devoted champion of the academy.

"I hope that each midshipman here tonight realizes how fortunate you are to have this unique opportunity to attend the Naval Academy," an enthusiastic Mr. Perot told the midshipmen during a 1990 speech in Annapolis. Tomorrow, Mr. Perot will return to Annapolis by sea, leading a 24-boat armada of supporters bringing more than 140,000 signatures on the petition to put his name on the state's presidential ballot in November.

Mr. Perot came to Annapolis the first time by bus. Now 61 and a billionaire, Mr. Perot recently claimed that his Naval Academy uniforms were the first and only tailored suits he has ever worn.

By all accounts, Mr. Perot was not a natural scholar. Several classmates recall him studying vigorously simply to stay afloat. He finished in the middle of his class, No. 453 out of a class of 925.

What he was, his classmates said, was a natural leader.

"He was that type, he was always political," said Francis R. McCleskey, one of the 30 members of Mr. Perot's company. "He just had a way with people. People sort of respected him and looked to him."

To others, that confidence bordered on the obnoxious.

"I was more a party kind of guy. He was more of a straight arrow," said classmate Max Wakitch. "For me, because I was a flake-off, a goof-off, his attitude seemed to be, 'Why don't you square away, kid?' "

"I guess a few people thought he was a little opinionated," said classmate Alan Jay Personette of Houston. Mr. Personette could not recall anyone disliking the young Mr. Perot, however.

Mr. Perot played a little soccer at the academy. He was coxswain of a successful rowing crew during his first year. By his own admission, he was also a cheapskate. He did go out occasionally, and met his wife, Margot Birmingham, a Goucher College student, on a blind date.

Despite his mediocre academics, Mr. Perot was ranked first in his class in aptitude for military service after his freshman year.

"I was just stunned," Mr. Perot told the academy audience in 1990. "In retrospect, the greatest things I learned from the academy were the principles of leadership."

By his senior year, Mr. Perot was a battalion commander, the third-highest military ranking for students.

"You knew the guy was so wrapped up in what he was doing, from the standpoint of the military side of it, he loved it," said Frederick A. Alden III, a classmate who now lives on the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Perot's run for president of his class was a model of grass-roots campaigning, going around the mammoth Bancroft Hall, talking to as many as he could.

"We would just go from company to company, told 'em what we thought we should be doing," recalled, Gerald E. Weinstein, a classmate now retired and living in Albuquerque, N.M. Mr. Weinstein ran informally with Mr. Perot and was elected class secretary. Vice president and No. 1 student in the class was Carlisle A.H. Trost, who would go on to become chief of naval operations.

Mr. Perot sailed through the academy but found frustrations on sea duty. In 1953, with the Korean War over, Mr. Perot spent his first two years as chief engineer on the destroyer Sigourney. In 1955, after clashes with the ship's captain, Mr. Perot wrote his father asking to be released from his Navy service commitment.

"I have found the Navy to be a fairly Godless organization," he wrote, complaining about his shipmates' drinking and womanizing.

Mr. Perot's father, an East Texas cotton broker, wrote U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and Rep. Wright Patman. But the Navy rejected Mr. Perot's request for an early release. He served two more years on the aircraft carrier Leyte, and left the Navy in

1957.

But he has remained loyal to the academy, making unpublicized gifts and serving as chairman of the school's Board of Visitors from 1968 to 1972. He set up a scholarship fund to pay for !B college for the children of his classmates who were still in the military and couldn't afford tuition. Several classmates took him up on the offer.

Mr. Perot, who followed the rules during college, got a second chance to run wild several years later. He gave an account in his 1990 academy speech:

Just before the game against hated Army one year, when he was already an established businessman, Mr. Perot led a band of 16 marauding midshipmen to West Point. While Mr. Perot appeared at a West Point pep rally as a diversion, taking "all kinds of heat" from the Army cadets, "those 16 just trashed the hell out of the place. Nobody was in the dormitory. So it was free rein," Mr. Perot recounted.

Mr. Perot went so far as to persuade an Army chaplain to leave the West Point chapel unlocked.

"We made arrangements to have someone go up at 2 in the morning and play Navy songs on the West Point bells," Mr. Perot said. "It was beautiful. I was standing up on top of the tower, the lights came on in all of the barracks, cadets came pouring out and I was waving the Texas Stetson.

"I love it."

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