Sea battle book earns prize for professor

Retired Naval Academy educator's work on `crucial engagements' captures award

July 30, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

Among his colleagues at the Naval Academy, there is a running joke circulating about Craig Symonds.

When Harrison Ford came to Annapolis in 1991 to shoot a few scenes for Patriot Games, he shadowed Symonds for a couple of days to sample the life of a civilian history professor at the military college. And when the movie was shot, they used his classroom.

That brought some ribbing from fellow professors, who joked that Symonds - like Jack Ryan, the CIA agent turned academy history professor whom Ford was playing in the film - was a former spy.

"I am not and have never been a member of the CIA," Symonds said with a chuckle, noting that he worked in the academy's history department for almost 30 years before retiring in 2005. He became professor emeritus this year.

Lately, he has been the subject of renewed interest among his peers, but not for any mysterious past employment. Last month, Symonds was awarded the prestigious Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize for Decision at Sea: Five Battles that Shaped American History.

The book focuses on five "crucial engagements" in U.S. history and how they "manifest the transformation of technology and weaponry that revolutionized Naval combat," according to a written statement from the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, one of the three associations that sponsor the $5,000 award.

The engagements are: "the Battle of Lake Erie; the duel between the Monitor and the Virginia; Manila Bay; Midway; and the Persian Gulf operation Praying Mantis."

David Woolner, the executive director of the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, who also sat on the committee that awarded the prize, said "the book stood out from day one."

"We look for a number of things," said Woolner, who is also an associate professor of history at Marist College in upstate New York. "One of those is outstanding research, but we also want a book that is readable and a book that will appeal to not only historians but also to the general public. Decision at Sea met all the criteria. It was just a great combination of the quality of research, the quality of writing and its broad appeal."

Symonds, 59, of Annapolis said he was thrilled to find out about the award.

"It was one of the awards that was in the back of my mind, one that I dared to hope for," he said.

A fellow historian handed the idea for the book to Symonds after learning he wouldn't live long enough to complete it. Thomas Buell had already begun a "sea warrior trilogy" about several pivotal naval battles in different eras, but found out that he would likely die within weeks from leukemia.

Symonds agreed to take on the project, and although he tweaked the focus, the project eventually became Decision at Sea, which was published in 2005.

"I wanted to highlight the importance of changing technology," Symonds said. "So each battle reflects a different technology, a different place for the U.S. in the world, and most importantly, a different conception of how the U.S. perceived its place in the world. It went from a frontier republic struggling to survive to a world power with the fate of other nations in its hands."

In almost 30 years at the academy, Symonds taught naval history and an upper-level elective course on the Civil War. He arrived the first year women entered the academy, 1976, and said he saw the academy transform its academics to offer a "superb education in addition to a superb experience." He was honored with an outstanding teacher award from the academy in 1988 and an award for outstanding research in 1998, making him the first faculty member to receive both.

Since retiring last year, Symonds has focused on writing his 11th book, about President Lincoln and his relationship with his admirals. Ideally, the book will be ready for publication Feb. 12, 2009 - Lincoln's 200th birthday.

David Peeler, chairman of the history department at the Naval Academy, said Symonds was a popular teacher because of his ability to transcend the traditional historical retelling of battles and events and focus on the people who fought them.

He often took students to Gettysburg, a trip that Peeler said "had a reputation as being as exhausting as the battles themselves," although "the bus was always full."

On his last day, about 300 students gathered around his classroom to give him the three cheers normally used at graduation to bid farewell.

"There was no way he could have taught all 300 of those midshipmen," Peeler said, "but most of them knew who he was and knew his reputation. Craig was just amazed by this."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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