Pick for academy chief a quiet leader

Naughton worked to improve posts with large, small changes

May 03, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

When Rear Adm. Richard J. Naughton took command of training the Navy's top fighter pilots two years ago, he didn't wait long to make changes.

Within a few months, he had pushed through a plan to gain oversight of 11 weapons schools around the country. And he soon turned an undistinguished tactics school in San Diego into a streamlined command he termed the Center of Maritime Dominance.

But he also worried about the small stuff.

Unhappy with the menu at the enlisted mess hall, he got the Navy to install a hamburger joint and a taco stand.

"He said, `I want that, because the young guys - the 18-, 19- and 21-year-olds - that's what they eat,"' said Lt. Scott Farr, Naughton's aide at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center.

Naughton's colleagues say that he is likely to bring a similar, activist style to his next assignment: superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.

"He will insert his own personality into the job requirements," said Dennis W. Irelan, a retired captain and academy classmate of Naughton's in the 1960s.

Though an exacting boss known to quiz subordinates on the smallest details of their jobs, he lacks the swagger often associated with men of his rank, people who have worked with him say.

Last year, Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called congressional hearings to investigate a cluster of childhood leukemia cases around the sprawling Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nev., where Naughton's command is based. Naughton testified at the hearings and, Reid said, offered more records about base fuel spills than had been requested.

"He was alarmingly disarming," Reid said yesterday in an interview. "He didn't give you the persona of an admiral. He gave you more the persona of a guy who worked there someplace."

Naughton, 55, is the Pentagon's choice to be the next academy superintendent. If nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate, as is likely, Naughton would succeed Vice Adm. John R. Ryan. Ryan is retiring next month to become president of the State University of New York Maritime College.

Naughton declined to talk about any goals for the new post. He said it would be premature to do so before his confirmation by the Senate.

But decidedly, the job would mark a shift in pace for Naughton, a veteran aviator reared on the derring-do of high-stakes aerial combat. He oversees the training of some 55,000 people each year, including the elite "Top Gun" strike fighter instructors who are the namesake of the 1986 film.

(Some wonder whether the fictional flight officer in Top Gun, Goose, took his name from Naughton, who has the same nickname and commanded an F-14 squadron at Miramar, Calif., when filmmakers were shooting at the base there. "A lot of my friends want it to be, but it's not," says Naughton, who insists that the movie's Goose is based on another naval flight officer.)

One close friend of Naughton's said that leading the 4,000-student military college was not the product of any "burning desire" or long-nourished dream.

"But he's very appreciative of the opportunity to be able to shape some people," said Theodore P. Naydan, a 1968 classmate and friend whose son is Naughton's godson. "I know he has some strong feelings about the kinds of officers we need in the fleet."

Naughton was born into a working-class family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father was a foreman in a cinderblock plant and his mother served hot lunches at a Catholic school.

When he entered Annapolis in 1964, he brought with him a Middle American reticence.

"He was kind of a quiet leader," recalled R. Gillem Lucas, a retired Navy captain who was Naughton's roommate during the grueling rituals of plebe summer. "He was levelheaded, even when things were just probably as bad as life could be."

James H. Webb Jr., the former Navy secretary and best-selling author; Oliver L. North, the Iran-Contra figure and radio talk show host; and Jay Johnson, the retired chief of naval operations, all share pages with Naughton in the 1968 yearbook.

But unlike some of his classmates, Naughton during his Annapolis days was scarcely known outside his company. After graduation he became a naval flight officer, earning a reputation as an adroit aviator with a gift for using radar to lock onto enemy targets.

Military duty took on a more personal hue, friends say, when his brother, Robert Naughton, became a prisoner of war during Vietnam.

Naughton was studying for a master's degree at the Naval Post Graduate School at the time. Friends say his brother's plight deepened his sense of purpose and his Catholic faith.

"It made him serious about what he was doing," said Naydan, his friend. "When his brother got released, it affirmed his faith."

As classmates left the military or settled into a quieter pace in the reserves, Naughton continued to scale the Navy hierarchy. In 1991, he took command of the USS New Orleans, an amphibious helicopter assault ship that landed Marines in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf war.

Two years later he became commander of the USS Enterprise as the carrier underwent a $2 billion, four-year overhaul, the biggest in Navy history.

His current assignment, at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, made him the Navy's top trainer of combat pilots. He engineered a major consolidation of the jumble of pilot training programs scattered across the country.

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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