An enduring passion Tense affection: For 150 years, Annapolis and the Naval Academy have weathered their occasional storms

September 24, 1995|By ELLEN GAMERMAN AND KRIS ANTONELLI | ELLEN GAMERMAN AND KRIS ANTONELLI,SUN STAFF

Without the U.S. Naval Academy, thhe city of Annapolis would still be the state capital, a tourist attraction a sailing mecca.

But it wouldn't be Annapolis.

The two have become one - a 4,000-student military college and a city of 35,000 sharing the same Chesapeake Bay peninsula, cheering the return of war heroes and victories over Army.

That union, however, bears scars from passionate battles over land, women and power. As the military school celebrates its 150th birthday this fall and the city marks its 300th year as the state's capital, the occasions are as much about the two institutions' shared history as their separate pasts.

For generations, the academy has exerted a romantic hold on Annapolis. Its mayors dined with presidents, princes and generals. Its public school classrooms filled with Navy children and tales of the Orient, Hawaii places local kids had only dreamed about.

For the midshipmen, the city is a place to be human again. For 150 years each class has ventured into private homes and city hang-outs for a drink, a smoke, a date.

It has been a passionate, though not always peaceful relationship, sometimes tense, but always affectionate.

The locals - especially younger ones- sometimes chafe at the deals merchants cut with midshipmen, or the way the men in white steal their girls.

And the academy believes it doesn't need the city to survive. It has its own police, its own trash collection, even its own street sweepers. The academy, so focused on its mission, often treats the city as little more than a point on a nautical map: 38 degrees 59 minutes north latitude, 76 degrees 29 minutes west longitude.

The first academy employees planted their feet in the Annapolis mud in 1845 and promptly made departure plans.

"Confound the place, I hate the thought of it," Dr. Edmond L. DuBarry, chosen to head the medical department, wrote to his son that year.

"Agues [fevers] prevail in the Autumn - no schools for small children - houses in dilapidated condition and the rent risen 100 percent since the institution of a naval school there has been decided upon - Servants very bad - and to crown it all, the dullest and most horrible place in the U. States," he wrote.

From the beginning, Annapolis alternately irritated and charmed the young men who passed through The Naval Academy. Sometimes it gave midshipmen a refuge from the outside world. Other times it was too much the sleepy Southern city.

"You should have seen the celebration here yesterday," sneered Midshipman Orin Shepley Haskell in a Nov. 12, 1918, letter to his girlfriend. "You know the people down here don't know how to celebrate the way we do up north and haven't any more pep than a lot of old women.... The census man says that there are 10,000 people here, but I believe that most of them are in the graveyard."

A half-century later, Annapolis offered something quite different for midshipmen caught in the soical twister of the 1960s: a locale that wasn't quite the military but steered clear of outright social revolution.

"I felt really comfortable there, like we were accepted in the town," said Jerry Welch, class of 1964. "I never craved anonymity."

Stealing the local girls

The year was 1935. Annapolis was nicknamed Crabtown, the girls were known as "crabs," and a midshipman's date was called a Drag."

"If you had a local girl, it was called dragging a crab," said retired Adm. Maurice Rindskopf, a 1935 graduate who did just that.

Admiral Rindskopf, who lives in Severna Park, remembers gathering with local girls and classmates in the Main Street apartment of a woman they called "Mom."

"I guess she would be known as a midshipman sponsor these days he said. "I don't remember how we all came to know her, but her name was Mrs. Miller. There were always local girls around there. That was a hangout for us."

The admiral said girls poured off buses from all over the area every Sunday afternoon for dances or "tea fights"-in Memorial Hall. The couples danced the waltz, the shag, the Charleston - even the fanny waddle.

One of those women was Margaret Dowsett, a wispy young woman with large eyes and long ash-blonde hair. During Prohibition she used the academy to find high-quality liquor and a suitable husband.

Mrs. Dowsett, now 84, was at the center of the social whirl in those days-always the one in a tapered black velvet dress at the dances. There was a mystique to the midshipmen. They were unwrinkled and close-shaved. They could say, "Yes ma'am," just so. And even as students, they had money - $10 a month in the 1930s - and a future.

Two midshipmen proposed marriage to her; she said yes to Frederick R. Dowsett in 1938. The bride cut their wedding cake with his sword and put on a dainty version of his class ring, which she stir wears.

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