Three of them collectively won more than 50 medals and commendations. One became a captain of industry and a philanthropist.
All four are Naval Academy graduates who will be awarded the Distinguished Graduate Award by the college's alumni association. The recipients announced last week are retired Rear Adm. Maurice H. Rindskopf, Class of 1938; retired Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, Class of 1948; Ralph Hooper, Class of 1951; and retired Adm. Leighton W. Smith Jr., Class of 1962.
The award, created in 1999, honors graduates who are "living role models" to the academy's midshipmen, said George P. Watt Jr., president and chief executive officer of the alumni association and academy foundation, which funds the awards ceremony. Recipients must provide a lifetime of service to the armed forces, have made significant contributions to the nation through public service, and support the Navy or Marine Corps and the academy. Previous winners include former President Jimmy Carter, presidential candidate H. Ross Perot and Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell.
The selection committee is made up of retired admirals and past recipients. That is partly why this year's winners, who will be honored March 30, said this was one of the highest honors they have ever received.
"I was just blown away because I have such great respect for them," said Smith, who at age 67 is the youngest of the four awardees. "I just can't even describe it."
Smith credits Capt. William Bringle for preventing him from flunking out of his freshman year at the academy. Bringle told Smith that it was up to him to turn things around.
The message of personal accountability resonated with Smith, who went on to receive two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 29 air medals flying combat missions in Vietnam. He said his greatest challenge was commanding the 34-nation NATO military in Bosnia as the chief of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe.
"We literally were writing the book every day on peace-enforcement operations," said Smith, who is on the Naval Academy Board of Visitors, the school's civilian oversight panel.
Rindskopf, 89, became a submariner when he graduated because he heard he could rise quickly through the ranks. He got his wish. During World War II, he served in the Pacific on the USS Drum, eventually becoming its commander at the age of 26. The submarine sank 15 enemy ships and damaged 11 others.
"All the sudden, you realize you're the leader," Rindskopf said. "You're the one they're looking up to."
During a 34-year military career, Rindskopf won nearly every award the Navy offers, including the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and a letter of commendation. He became the commander of two submarine flotillas and director of naval intelligence. He retired from active duty in 1972 and moved to the Annapolis area.
Rindskopf has been president of the Class of 1938 for the past 14 years and helped form the Council of Class Presidents. The leadership forum that his class started shortly after graduation has grown from a small event with 30 midshipmen to an annual conference involving seven military academies and more than a dozen universities.
Hayward, 82, rose from midshipman to chief of naval operations, the Navy's senior officer. He became a pilot in 1950 and flew 146 combat missions over Korea. He earned more than a dozen medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also earned medals flying 36 missions during the Vietnam War.
As chief of naval operations, he became known for strengthening fleet readiness and instituting a zero-tolerance drug policy in the early 1980s.
Hayward said the academy helped him build character and learn accountability, something that midshipmen can use throughout their lives.
"They should graduate with a lot of confidence that they are well prepared to answer what the nation asks of them," he said.
Hooper, 78, served aboard the cruiser USS Des Moines, the submarine USS Grampus and was an aide to the commander of the submarine forces during his eight years in the Navy. In 1959, he took over his family business, Interstate Ocean Transport Co., which became one of the largest U.S. shipping companies.
"During the Cold War era, he made significant contributions to national defense through the use of his company and his assets," Watt said. He did not offer specifics because the information is classified, he said.
Hooper has donated money to the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation campaigns and scholarship programs. He also helped create the academy's Museum Ship Gallery, a temperature-controlled environment to store model displays dating to the 1600s.
"It's the greatest honor I could imagine having," Hooper said.