Pride goes with underdog status at Merchant Marine Academy

But 'this school is falling apart,' one midshipman on Long Island complains

November 29, 1999|By New York Times News Service

KINGS POINT, N.Y. -- The dining hall roof leaks. Decrepit plumbing makes the water undrinkable in some buildings. The temperature in the barracks fluctuates with the whims of clogged radiators.

"This school is falling apart," says Jason Hochevar, a midshipman in his last year at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. But don't get him wrong; Hochevar is otherwise very proud of the academy, an 82-acre training ground on Long Island's north shore for the country's commercial and military mariners.

Not that the midshipmen complain too loudly. The military culture here -- students dress in stark black uniforms, salutes abound, a formal procession precedes the march into lunch -- frowns on belly-aching. Hochevar's assessment came only after some prodding. But he and other classmates gathered at a dining table with a base official close by quickly emphasized the positive.

"You make do with what you have, like on a ship," said Kirsten Preisch, a senior midshipman (the term also applies to the school's 95 women).

Deeds, not words

"Acta non verba" -- deeds, not words -- is the school's motto but "make do" could serve just as well for a place that has withstood obscurity, the declining prominence of the United States in global shipping and whacks from federal bean counters.

Six years ago a commission headed by Vice President Al Gore to streamline the government proposed cutting the academy's funding in half and allowing it to charge tuition, something never done here or at the four other service academies, for the Coast Guard, Air Force, Army and Navy. Free tuition is a powerful recruitment tool, so supporters killed the idea through heavy lobbying by parents and alumni, such as the late Lane Kirkland, the labor leader.

But since then, federal money for the academy has remained relatively flat, despite rising operating costs and sorely needed maintenance to shore up buildings constructed during World War II.

People affiliated with the school by turns sound defensive and prideful of its underdog status. That is perhaps because the school's mission -- to prepare people to work in the maritime industry, both ashore and afloat -- seems unexciting when compared with those of the larger, better-funded, more glamorous service academies, such as West Point or Annapolis. "When was the last time you saw a movie about the Merchant Marine?" is how Martin Skrocki, the public information officer at Kings Point, put it.

But the school, with an enrollment this fall of 929, basks in its occasional brushes with fame. Last month, when EgyptAir Flight 990 fell out of the sky into the ocean off Massachusetts, it was the Kingspointer -- a surplus Navy ship that serves as the academy's chief training vessel -- that was first on the scene.

It had been on a training run from Kings Point to Boston with 17 students and happened to be the closest to the site of the crash, which killed 217 people. The midshipmen plucked sections of the aircraft and body parts out of the water in the dead of night, an hour before the Coast Guard arrived.

Academy officials have prohibited midshipmen from discussing the crash in detail pending the completion of the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which like the academy, is under the Department of Transportation.

"It certainly was a sobering experience," said Ben Lyons, a midshipman and navigation officer on the Kingspointer, a 224-foot former Navy intelligence ship. "I learned there are some things you have to do, and that is what needed to be done."

The academy traces its founding to the sinking of the Morro Castle in 1934 off Asbury Park, N.J., which claimed 134 lives. The disaster was attributed in part to the crew's inability to put out a devastating fire, raising concern about the lack of formal training for mariners.

But it was not until 1943 that the government formally established the academy, on grounds that once belonged to Walter Chrysler, the automotive tycoon. His white, Greek Revival mansion now serves as the administration building, a jewel among the more utilitarian sandstone structures built over 18 months during World War II.

In the postwar years, the emphasis of instruction was more on "ship driving" and mechanics, says Capt. Robert L. Safarik, a 1961 graduate who returned as an instructor in 1983 and is now chief of staff. "We were very hands on; it was almost like a trade school," he said.

"A grad could take apart a pump and put it back together again," Safarik said, his hands fluttering, suggesting he still knows how. "They still can, but it's more technological now. It is a much tougher school academically."

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