Academy's rite of passage proves a slippery predictor

Since 1957, none of plebes who topped obelisk has been first admiral in class

May 20, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

On a glorious spring day in 1976, as his classmates cheered from below, Dwight Crevelt clung to the top of a grease-slicked granite monument at the Naval Academy and tore a sailor's cap from the peak.

This boded well. One of the academy's most enduring legends is that the freshman who climbs to the top of Herndon Monument is fated to be the first in his class to make admiral, the Navy's highest rank.

It didn't work out that way. Crevelt's eyesight went from bad to worse, and he dropped out of the academy the next year. He has since made a living designing slot machines in Las Vegas and writing books with such titles as Video Poker Mania.

"The tradition says you're the first admiral," Crevelt said. "The reality is that most never made it to graduation."

That's a bit of an overstatement. But it's not as brazen as you might think.

The military college has kept a nearly complete list of Herndon summiteers since 1957. A look through alumni records shows that not one was the first in his class to make admiral. None made admiral, period.

They were not even more likely than the rest of their class to graduate: Six of 37 on record never received diplomas.

"The tradition was a bunch of bunk - everyone knew it," said Thomas L. Gibson, who topped Herndon in 1963. "I'm living proof."

Gibson rose to the respectable rank of lieutenant commander before diabetes cut short his career as a Navy pilot.

Perhaps folks should have paid more heed to the story of the man for whom the monument is named, Cmdr. William Louis Herndon. Yes, Herndon displayed heroism and dignity as he struggled to save his mail steamer during a violent storm in 1857. But after all was said and done, he sank with his ship.

And yet at 2 p.m. today, hundreds of members of the Class of 2005 will gather at the base of a gray, 21-foot obelisk in one of the school's best-known and most peculiar rites of passage.

Historians believe it all began about 1915, as the raucous culmination of freshman year. It was the final trial by ordeal in a year full of them.

At the start of graduation week, upperclassmen glue the floppy blue-and-white cap worn by plebes, or freshmen, to the top of the abstract monument. They dump water around the base, brewing mud. Then they slather the shaft with a gooey lubricant. The toxic car-axle grease of decades past has given way in recent years to lard, nicer to the environment but no less slippery - or fragrant.

A cannon blasts, and the plebes charge.

They take off their T-shirts to sop up the 200 pounds of rendered hog fat. Then they climb atop one another, forming a human house of cards as they attempt to topple the cap - the hated symbol of plebe year - and replace it with the stiffer variety worn by upperclassmen. The midshipman who does the deed is cheered as a conquering hero, and the school's superintendent rewards him with a plaque bearing admiral's shoulder boards, a harbinger of his supposed destiny.

Yet the closest thing to a common strand among summiteers is their lithe proportions. Like Crevelt, who stood 5 feet 8 and weighed 114 pounds, they tend to be feathery enough to scale the precarious scaffolding of arms and legs without upsetting it.

Maybe that's the rub: Napoleon notwithstanding, some studies have found short people are less likely than taller ones to occupy leadership positions.

Morgan P. Ames Jr., president of the Class of 1974, remembers some classmates despairing when their class' Herndon hero, Bill Jackson, dropped out the year after his summit.

"We all thought, `Gee, does that mean no one's going to make admiral in our class?'" said Ames, who roomed with Jackson. "But at the same time, you realize it's chance who gets to the top - and also being lighter and smaller and willing to risk climbing an obelisk."

Jackson left the academy for Arizona State University. But more than a dozen members of the Class of 1974 went on to make admiral. Still more are in line for promotion to the rank.

Retired Vice Adm. John S. "Scott" Redd was the first person from the Class of 1966 to rise to admiral. He founded and commanded the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and went on to work for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Not too shabby.

But at 5 feet 11 and 165 pounds, his body type was of scant use, Herndon-wise.

"My vaguest recollection is that I was three or four deep at the bottom," he recalls. "I remember I got greasy. I was probably one of the foundation guys."

People who study modern legends say that their truth is of secondary importance to their value as symbols. Colleges, like many high-pressure settings where futures are made or broken, are rife with superstitions that give students an illusion of control over their fates.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, students rub the nose of a bronze terrapin for good luck on exams. At Ohio State University, they sidestep the large university seal on the main green lest they flunk out.

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