Perot, Annapolis-bound, impresses classmates Naval Academy alumni recall Class of '53's president.

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

Ross Perot arrived at the 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. His nose had been broken by one of his father's horses. He already had a crew cut, so the ritual trip to the barber was redundant. He says he was astonished to be given 12 pairs of underwear and a blue suit that was tailored to fit. Now 61 and a billionaire, Mr. Perot says his Naval Academy uniforms were the first and only tailored suits he has ever worn.

His classmates quickly noticed him four decades ago.

Gerald E. Weinstein, a classmate, first ran into Mr. Perot and his powerful voice during a freshman debating session. The topic was the Taft-Hartley labor relations act. The lesson was humbling.

"I decided debating really wasn't my fate," says Mr. Weinstein, who is retired and living in Albuquerque, N.M. "But debating was his."

By all accounts, Mr. Perot was not a natural scholar. Several classmates recall him studying methodically and 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 say, was a natural leader.

"He was that type, he was always political," says 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," says 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," says classmate Alan Jay Personette of Houston. "But I suspect with what he's done since then, he could afford to be." Like others in the class, Mr. Personette does not recall anyone disliking the young Mr. Perot. Many found him amusing.

James A. Burgess, a Baltimore native who was in Mr. Perot's company, can still remember a story Mr. Perot told in a public speaking class about East Texas alligator hunting. "He talked about how the moonlight would glint off their red eyes at night," Mr. Burgess says.

Mr. Weinstein remembers the night he and his roommate had a battle with a moth in their dorm room. A piece of glass covering a lamp broke during the encounter and Mr. Weinstein was cut in the foot. The next day, Mr. Perot stood on his chair during a meal, made a few remarks, and presented the two moth-battlers with purple hearts he had made.

"It was a beautiful purple heart," Mr. Weinstein says.

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 in Annapolis.

As a ranking officer of his class, Mr. Perot also was invited to attend fancy Sunday affairs at the commandant's house.

"It taught us some of the social niceties," Mr. Weinstein recalls.

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. A picture in the 1953 yearbook shows him proudly holding a gleaming sword -- a model military man.

"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," says 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, where all the midshipmen lived, talking with as many as he could.

"We would just go from company to company, told 'em what we thought we should be doing," recalls Mr. Weinstein, who 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.

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