Cheering the last among the best

Anchor: By Navy tradition, coming in at the bottom of the academy's graduating class is an honor.

May 27, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Of all the men and women who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy yesterday, the one who received the loudest and most sustained cheers was the one who finished last.

Manuel J. "Manny" Metcalf was the Class of 1999's "anchor" -- the 868th ranked midshipman of 868.

At the academy, coming in last is no reason to hang your head.

The thinking is: if Annapolis-trained officers are among the best and brightest of the nation's collegians, emerging at the end of four arduous years as the worst of the best of the best ain't bad.

According to one of the many obscure traditions at this 152-year-old school, there is a serious financial perk to graduating at the bottom.

Each year, classmates each give $1 to their anchor.

Metcalf, of Anaheim, Calif., learned at graduation rehearsal Tuesday that he would be the anchor. He watched bewildered -- and a little excited -- as classmates coughed up dollar bills and stuffed them into his hat. He had to borrow a friend's hat when his began to overflow.

"I was kind of surprised. But it was cool," Metcalf said. "All that money! I couldn't complain."

Metcalf carried a bag of 783 dollar bills to his Annapolis bank and deposited them. That night, he treated 11 of the 15 family members visiting from California to a $255 dinner. He planned to pick up the tab for another dinner last night.

"It's free money, so I'll spend it on them," he said.

Standing outside the Navy-Marines Corps stadium, waiting to march onto the football field where he'd performed for four years with Navy's football team, Metcalf accepted congratulations, high-fives and backslaps from his peers.

They yelled, "Buy me a drink, Manny" and "Can I borrow 20 bucks?"

When his name was read over the loudspeaker and he stood to accept his diploma, the Class of 1999 rose to its feet with him, cheering and pumping their fists. The ceremony was delayed a moment as the Mids honored their anchor.

Decades ago, the anchorman was the last name announced at graduation, and he was given a cardboard or wooden anchor and paraded around the field on classmates' shoulders. Academy leaders decided in the 1970s to downplay honors for the last-ranked mid and began calling off names in a different order, but the tradition has survived.

Mids say the teamwork ethic of the academy makes the anchor a beloved figure on graduation day. Though no one seems sure when or why the $1 donations became part of the tradition, it is seen as a message: You made it, you survived, we all did.

"Everybody remembers their anchorman," said former Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, a 1964 academy graduate, whose anchorman was named Robinson. "Nobody remembers who the No. 1 man is."

For the record, 1999's No. 1 was Mary L. Godfrey of Wisconsin, who will serve in the civil engineering corps.

Dalton's classmate, outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak, said, "I think a lot of anchormen have gone on to do very well in the Navy." Academy historians estimate that at least 12 anchors have become admirals.

Midshipmen are ranked in "order of merit," which is determined by a weighted computation of academic performance (65 percent), military performance (17.7 percent), athletic performance (10 percent) and conduct (7.8 percent).

Metcalf graduated with a 2.13 grade-point average. The political science major said his toughest courses were calculus and chemistry. "I think that says a lot about everybody else if 2.13 is the lowest," he said.

Because he is colorblind and "not physically qualified" to serve aboard a ship, Metcalf will serve in the Navy's supply corps. After six months at supply school in Georgia, he hopes to be posted to a California base to be near home. He also hopes to parlay the finance and management skills of his supply-corps job in the business world when he leaves the Navy after his five-year commitment.

Academy superintendent Vice Adm. John R. Ryan said of Metcalf: "He'll go off and do great things, I'm sure."

No one -- least of all those in the military -- likes to lose. But there's a certain mystique to being dead last. The last person to finish the New York City Marathon is often noted for finishing at all. There's a party thrown each year for the last player picked in the NFL draft. There's even a parlance for it: low man on the totem pole, in the cellar, on the bottom rung, at the bottom of the heap.

During their four years, Mids struggling with grades and military requirements love to remind each other that Arizona Sen. John McCain graduated near the bottom of the heap when he ranked fifth from last in the academy's Class of 1958.

Metcalf said he doesn't feel any stigma attached to his class rank, especially since all academy graduates are hired by the same employer and given the same opportunities in the military. "It doesn't matter," he said. "You basically get a $783 bonus for graduating."

Women lead

* The No. 1 graduate at the Naval Academy this year was a woman, as was No. 2. In fact, half of the top 10 grads were women, who made up only 15 percent of the 868-member class.

* One-fourth of the original class -- those who started out at the academy on June 30, 1995 -- did not make it to graduation.

* Ten of the grads were exchange students who will serve in the navies of their homelands, including Barbados, Thailand and El Salvador.

* The greatest percentage of graduates (25 percent) will train to become pilots, followed by those who will serve on ships (21 percent) and submarines (14 percent). Others are headed into the Marine Corps, medicine, civil engineering, to the Navy SEALS and to intelligence.

From staff and wire reports.

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