At the academy's helm Superintendent: Adm. Charles R. Larson could have retired in 1994 after a distinguished naval career. Instead, he returned to Annapolis to resurrect his beloved Naval Academy.

March 02, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

He commanded a nuclear submarine on some of the most daring spy missions of the Cold War. He directed U.S. fleets from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan. He honed his political skills in the White House and in the Pentagon's inner circles. As a four-star admiral, he held the world's largest military command.

Then, after nearly 40 years matching wits with Soviet, Chinese and North Korean armed forces, he took on an adversary still more treacherous: the conduct of 4,000 young Americans at the Naval Academy.

Adm. Charles R. Larson, the academy's 51st superintendent, returned to Annapolis in 1994 to become the 55th superintendent, the only such repeat performance in academy history. In the wake of a devastating cheating scandal, the Navy brass thought Larson was just the man to restore the midshipmen's understanding of honor.

Despite a confounding run of student misconduct over the past year, Larson's many Navy admirers say he is doing just that. But they also say that of all the jobs he has held in a varied and successful career, this one has brought him more bad luck and bad press than any other.

A few Larson-watchers would add bad judgment to the list. In his handling of a professor's critical newspaper essay, the murder investigation of a first-year midshipman and the expulsion of a senior who was reinstated by Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, some say Larson appeared uncharacteristically imperious and thin-skinned.

"Chuck is almost 19th century in his sense of honor and devotion to the academy," says Charles E. Stuart, a Maryland developer and old friend who met Larson when both worked in the Nixon White House. "He feels very, very poignantly when the public thinks badly of the U.S. Naval Academy. It may cloud his judgment."

Says retired Adm. Stanley R. Arthur, a longtime Navy colleague: "My take is he's found it harder to get his arms around the job than he thought. But he hasn't backed away. Any college president would tell you that trying to corral a bunch of 18- to 20-year-olds is quite a task."

From his own academy days in the 1950s, Larson has impressed those around him with his gift for leadership. He has devoted his life to the Navy, in 80-hour-a-week jobs that left little leisure for other pursuits.

Asked about his hobbies, friends think for a moment, then mention that he likes to ride a stationary bike, often while perusing a stack of papers from work. In private, they say, he can be warm and humorous; on the job, his manner is strictly business.

"His nickname is 'Sir,' " says retired Adm. Steve Chadwick.

Now Larson, 60, has brought this intensity of focus to a crusade for the academy. Midshipmen speak of him in worshipful tones. His pep talks and his very presence ratify their belief in the once and future greatness of Annapolis. They share his frustration with the relentless public attention to the institution's troubles.

When Larson commanded 354,000 troops as chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, few took notice if a handful of sailors in Hawaii or Japan stole cars or sold drugs. Certainly no one blamed him.

At the Naval Academy, a command numerically about one-70th the size, a single teen-ager doing something stupid can become a news story for days. Before long, legions of alumni are asking: What the heck is going on at the Naval Academy, and why isn't Larson doing something about it?

In his 2 1/2 years back at the academy, he has done plenty, his fans say. He has restricted midshipmen's privileges to leave campus, drive cars and wear civilian clothes. He has expanded training on character and leadership, exposing Mids to the dialogues of Plato and the lessons of the Holocaust.

He is a bracing presence on the Yard, midshipmen and officers say, dropping in on classes, eating lunch with midshipmen every Wednesday and having the senior class to a series of dinners each autumn. Everywhere he repeats the superintendent's 10 -- not commandments, but "guiding principles" -- from "Do your best" to "Speak well of others."

"I think the Naval Academy's a better place than it was two years ago," says former Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr., Class of '68.

Richard Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense who chaired a review panel after the 1992 cheating scandal, praises Larson for tightening discipline without alienating the students.

"I'm very much in favor of what he's done," says Armitage, Class of 1967.

Now a panel of outsiders, headed by former Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner and Goucher College President Judy Jolley Mohraz, is taking a look. Publicly, he says he welcomes any "course corrections" the group might offer, though colleagues say he fears its proposals could interfere with his reforms.

Larson declined to be interviewed for this article, though he offered written answers to some questions. In 18 years in command positions, he wrote, "I've made a lot of tough decisions. The tough ones are easy to criticize because there will always be someone who will disagree with you."

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