The U.S. Naval Academy, alma mater to some of the nation's brightest stars and biggest heroes, will begin a yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary with a gala tonight -- being held, appropriately, at Alumni Hall.
Rich in history and the source of the largest number of U.S. astronauts from an undergraduate institution, the academy numbers among its graduates President Jimmy Carter, billionaire Ross Perot and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Heroes include World War II Adms. William F. Halsey, Chester W. Nimitz and William D. Leahy, and Adm. Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy.
Albert A. Michelson, Class of 1873, began to measure the speed of light along the Severn River long before he won the Nobel Prize in physics. On a less lofty note, the leather football helmet was developed by Joseph M. Reeves, Class of 1894, when he was a midshipman.
A highlight of tonight's celebration will be the premiere of a documentary film about the school whose founding in 1845 was spurred by, of all things, a hanging.
Midshipman Philip Spencer, son of then-Secretary of War John C. Spencer, was hanged along with two enlisted men in 1842 for plotting a mutiny aboard the U.S. brig-of-war Somers, the Navy's school ship.
Afterward, Navy Secretary George Bancroft -- whose name now adorns the school's massive dormitory -- was convinced that replacing the ship with an onshore school might offer more supervised officer training.
Secretary Bancroft suggested Fort Severn in Annapolis, and received approval from President James K. Polk. Cmdr. Franklin Buchanan, the first superintendent, assembled the staff and student body for the first time at 1100 hours Oct. 10, 1845.
Current and former NASA astronauts who are Naval Academy graduates will be at the gala, which starts at 7:30 p.m.
Among those expected are Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wendy Lawrence, a 1981 graduate who will be a mission specialist aboard the March 2 flight of the shuttle Endeavour, and Marine Col. Charles Bolden, a 1968 graduate and former shuttle astronaut who is deputy commandant at the academy.
Although the academy's reputation was besmirched last year by a cheating scandal, it has attracted many of the country's best and brightest since Richmond Aulick became the first graduate in 1846.
In the current freshman class, 80 percent ranked in the top fifth of their high school graduating classes, 59 percent were members of the National Honor Society, 65 percent took part in dramatics, public speaking or debating and 86 percent were involved in varsity athletics.
Of the academy's curious origin, James W. Cheevers, curator of the academy museum, recalled how when he arrived there 28 years ago, an anonymous donor made a gift of Philip Spencer's sword. Mr. Cheevers said he thought the anonymity of such a gift unusual -- until he read about Midshipman Spencer.
The midshipman, who was "quite a problem child," said Mr. Cheevers, conspired with two enlisted men to take over the ship while it was on a training mission in the Atlantic. The three were caught and hanged from the yardarm.
The anniversary opener, "An Evening Under the Stars," is the first of a series of events scheduled through December. Others include an exhibit at the Naval Academy Museum in Preble Hall in March; a space "hook-up" in which midshipmen can talk to Commander Lawrence aboard the shuttle; a performance in April of Verdi's "Requiem," and an expanded commissioning week in May.
Other events include a "Great Illumination" -- a combined U.S. Naval Academy 150th Anniversary and Annapolis 300th Anniversary in September; a USNA Birthday Ball at Long Beach, Calif., in October; and an International Nautical Competition in Annapolis. Academy officials also are planning a special half-time event at the Army-Navy football game in December.
Tonight's premiere, which will include music by the academy band and glee club, is open to the public. For complimentary tickets, call (800) US-4-NAVY. For information on any of the 150th anniversary events, call (410) 293-0150.