Jack Della Barba gave everything he had to restore his daughter's life, career and dignity. The toll was high, but today she realizes her dream -- and salutes her family's sacrifice.

A FATHER'S DUTY

February 15, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

HINGHAM, Mass. -- Despite himself, when Jack Della Barba tearfully watches his daughter graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy today, he will find himself pondering all that is missing. No Blue Angels flying overhead. No cannon salute. No white caps thrown joyfully into a powder blue sky.

He will not be in Annapolis on a spring day but aboard the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor in the dead of winter.

He will think of the humiliation borne by his older child. Maybe he will momentarily consider his empty bank account or his own frailty after the loss of 30 pounds during these last nine months. Perhaps he will remember those terrible hours when he feared he might lose his daughter altogether.

But he will brush those negative thoughts away, determined to keep his mind on two fixed points -- pride in 22-year-old Jennifer for realizing this lifelong ambition and the conviction that in the end, the system worked.

The system worked. Family and friends reach a different conclusion after weighing the emotional and financial costs suffered by the Della Barbas. But Jack is looking only at results now. Late last month, Navy Secretary John Dalton ended the family nightmare by overturning the Academy's decision to expel Jennifer for an alleged honor violation on the eve of her graduation. No matter what the toll, right triumphed. That is the lesson Jack Della Barba chooses to preach.

"They did the honorable thing in the end because they are honorable people," he says gravely. "The chain of command worked. Yes, it was painful. Yes, it was long. But it worked."

Della Barba's graciousness competes with more tumultuous emotions that are never deeply submerged. During interviews with him and his wife Goldie Eckl over two days this week in Massachusetts, his monologues sometimes erupted into tears, or rage. "My daughter was demeaned," he says in the kitchen of his sister's home in Hingham. "Her honor and her dignity were stripped from her -- or they tried. They never succeeded."

If the Navy eventually did do the honorable thing by Jennifer, they did so only because Jack Della Barba devoted his whole being to restoring Jennifer's reputation. He and Eckl turned themselves into a full-time, nearly round-the-clock "Save Jennifer Della Barba" Defense Team. If he wasn't faxing letters to Academy and Navy officials, he was soliciting help from congressmen or trying to pique the interest of selected reporters. He pored over the documents of the case, underlining discrepancies in her accusers' testimony and bringing them to her lawyers' attention.

"The one thing that had to be done was whatever had to be done for Jennifer," he says.

The loss of weight has left Jack, 55, a slight and shapeless figure with a mop of curly dark hair and eyes and sunken cheeks. Goldie is the same age and nearly the same size, although she seems heartier. Her hair is silver and bobbed, her face deeply lined, and she peers through thick lenses that enlarge her eyes, making her seem ever alert. He is all nerves and emotion. She is more controlled, restrained in her language and tone, more easily jollied. Her resentment is better masked.

Without the two of them, "I don't think I would have made it through this," Jennifer said Thursday from Goddard Space Flight Center, where she is completing an internship. Next summer, she will resume her naval career when she enters flight school, six months behind schedule.

No barriers

Flight school was Jennifer's aim since she saw the movie "Top Gun" in the seventh grade and announced she intended to go to the Naval Academy and become a fighter pilot.

It was not out of character. That same year, she decided to play Pop Warner football, the first girl in Weymouth, Mass., to do so. Jack, who always told her that gender would never be a barrier, rigged up special shoulder pads that would protect her chest, and sent her on her way. What little grumbling there was about her quickly evaporated as she became a star linebacker. One kid, who at first voiced reservations about playing with a girl, later confided to his parents, "There's one kid that I don't want to be hit by, and that's Della Barba."

Jack Della Barba still delights in the story. He dotes on his kids, Jennifer and her 20-year-old brother Timothy. He and Goldie, once a top aide to an Illinois congressman, met in Washington, where Jack owned a restaurant after his discharge from the Army. When the congressman retired, they decided to live where the kids would be surrounded by a big extended family. They chose Weymouth, in the area just south of Boston where Jack grew up. Jack dabbled in the carpentry business, but he really regarded himself as a full-time father and community volunteer. He coached soccer and was elected to the town council.

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