Chuck Larson leaves behind 'a different' Naval Academy As superintendent, he guided school through tough times

June 05, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

When Chuck Larson wakes today, it'll be the first morning since Dwight D. Eisenhower was commander in chief that he's not U.S. Navy property.

He'll probably still rise at dawn to hoist dumbbells and watch CNN. Such routines became the ballast of the admiral's 40-year career, which began and ended in Annapolis.

Charles R. Larson, 61, retired yesterday as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, handing over the leadership duties to Vice Adm. John R. Ryan at a ceremony of bubbly optimism that belied some of the rocky moments of Larson's final few years in the Navy.

Now, as he ponders options such as consulting or writing a book, he can look back on a career capped by a rebound for a school some considered expendable just 24 months ago. In recent days, from President Clinton to the brigade of midshipmen, they're calling him the man who saved the Naval Academy.

"As discipline increased, so did morale. Because that's why a lot of us came here," says Tim Feist, who graduated last month. "We haven't always agreed with him, but we've seen that he's right. It's a different school."

When Larson arrived in 1994, midshipmen were carrying cell phones, wearing jeans, driving cars and getting drunk. Alumni groused that such "civilianization" led two years later to the handfuls of midshipmen in shackles, charged with selling drugs and stealing cars.

Larson put some military back into the 153-year-old academy, observers say. He took away freedoms and handed over more responsibility to midshipmen.

More important, he was seen as a sailor worth emulating.

Not a hotshot or a genius or a jokester. Just someone who worked hard, rarely lost his cool, embraced consistency, loved the Navy. Critics call him cold and unapproachable, but others say an academy adrift needed his 6-foot-2 stature and gentlemanly Nebraska demeanor.

"They didn't need a friend, they needed a role model," says Richard Armitage, a former U.S. ambassador whose committee reviewed academy problems after a 1992 cheating scandal.

Indeed, if the Navy had a hall of fame, he's got the stats: top midshipman senior year (1958); first in class, and second-youngest ever, to reach admiral (age 42); only two-term and longest serving superintendent (seven years).

But few confess to knowing just what churns behind the aviator glasses he sports. Partly it's because much of his career is

classified; he won't discuss the years spent in submarines spying on the Soviets. Even co-workers, old classmates and neighbors at the Annapolis condominium complex where he and his wife, Sally, kept a second home say Larson charmed them, but from behind a buffer zone.

"He's a friendly person, but I don't think he's one of those people who makes friends easily," says retired Adm. Steve Chadwick, who worked for Larson in Pearl Harbor and Annapolis. "He might say, 'Call me Chuck.' But he was still the admiral."

What people do know is that he's quietly competitive, sensitive to criticism, and a perfectionist not above tinkering with some visiting dignitary's itinerary.

Some friends also reveal a restrained pizazz. Few people know of the powder blue Austin-Healy convertible Larson bought his senior year, with savings from the paper route in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he got bonuses for delivering during snowstorms.

And few people recall that he and his long-time buddy John McCain, now an Arizona senator, nearly were caught drinking at an Annapolis bar their senior year.

McCain says Larson, despite his midwestern persona, "occasionally took a walk on the wild side."

Larson reluctantly admits he "went over the wall" with McCain, but is quick to add it was wrong. That, too, is consistent with the personality of a man who survived Vietnam, the Tailhook scandal and 40 years of war and peace unscathed.

Larson flew planes and commanded subs. He had a quiet first tour as superintendent in the pre-scandal mid-1980s. And he led all U.S. forces in the Pacific, giving President Clinton early warnings about nuclear sabers rattling between India and Pakistan.

Larson says his nearest brush with failure was in 1996, two years after beginning another tour as superintendent, under orders to use his admiral's stars to reshine a school smudged by a cheating scandal.

He banned cars for underclassmen, told mids to ship home civilian clothes and cut their free time in town. He expelled bad apples. Then, he learned the apples weren't the problem, it was the tree.

"I think April and May of '96 was the lowest point in my 40-year career," Larson says.

Midshipman were caught selling LSD and stealing cars, and observers asked whether Larson was more concerned with concealing problems than solving them.

Frank Gamboa, a classmate and friend, says pressure from Annapolis alumni, Washington politicians and the Pentagon was intense. "Quite frankly, I don't think he got used to such public criticism. It was a real testing period for him."

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