Homecoming festivities march on at academy

Determination: Alumni proceed not quite as they planned but attend the events and say they feel a renewed sense of community and pride.

October 13, 2001|By LAURA SULLIVAN | LAURA SULLIVAN,SUN STAFF

On the first day of what is normally a raucous and festive homecoming weekend at the Naval Academy, Joe Schartung stood under the dome in Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy, staring at a display of 14 photographs of alumni who died in the attacks Sept. 11. Two of them were his classmates.

"There's a seriousness to things here this year," said Schartung, who returned for his 20-year reunion. "There are a lot of people here who knew one or both of these guys in my class. We want to remember them."

Yesterday, the academy opened its gates for its first major event since the attacks, welcoming back more than 2,000 alumni. Despite heightened security at the gates and warnings about the possibility of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, alumni came back this year in record numbers, school officials said.

Some alumni attended a memorial service in the chapel for 1981 graduate Robert Dolan, who died at the Pentagon. Others gathered outside Bancroft Hall, also the school's main dormitory, to watch the midshipmen fall into formation before lunch.

All the while, military jets flew overhead and armed Marines stood at barricades near the academy's gates.

"It's a much more somber atmosphere this year," said Skid Heyworth, a 1970 graduate and communications director for the Naval Academy Alumni Association.

"We lost 14 of our graduates last month, and now we're at war," he said. "We've got thousands of graduates flying jets and commanding ships right now."

The homecoming weekend is being held at a time when the school has been trying to keep a low profile for fear of drawing an attack on the base. Yet school Superintendent John R. Ryan wanted the alumni to feel welcome and urged them to come, school officials said.

Many of the alumni said they returned this year with a renewed sense of patriotism and pride in the school, which was evident in the run on football tickets. Sports department officials said they expect the game to set attendance records this year.

"If you want to feel patriotic, these are the games to come to," said Navy sports information director Scott Strasemeier. From the brigade march-on at the beginning of the game to the flyover by four F-14 Tomcats, today's game will be no different.

Most of the annual events, including yesterday's homecoming parade and alumni baseball and water polo games, went on as usual.

But large events such as the annual cocktail party at the officers' club on campus were moved to the more secure Alumni Hall, alumni officials said. Still, more than 500 alumni signed up for the party, compared with fewer than 200 last year.

Of the 14 academy alumni who were victims in the attacks, two came from recent classes, which weighed heavily on many of the alumni as they watched the brigade in formation. Darin H. Pontell, Class of 1998, and Jonas M. Panik, Class of 1997, died at the Pentagon.

"You see the brigade of midshipmen march on, and you suddenly realize that these young men and women are going into harm's way sooner than we could have imagined," Heyworth said.

Class of 1986 alumnus Terry McElroy - whose classmate William H. Donovan was killed at the Pentagon - said that coming back to the academy brought him a sense of comfort.

His wife, Mary McElroy, graduated from the academy in 1987. She said that returning to the academy during war was another reminder of how things have changed.

"This is a way of life now," she said, looking at the chapel where she was married. A memorial service held there for Dolan was ending. "Something everyone here understands is the sacrifice you make," she said.

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