For Mids, a dash to make history

Women hope this is their year to reach top of monument first

May 17, 2007|By Bradley Olson and Jamie Stiehm | Bradley Olson and Jamie Stiehm,sun reporters

Barbara Morris almost had it.

Standing on the shoulders of her male classmates on a humid spring day in 1977, she clung to the top of a 21-foot obelisk coated with lard and reached to pull off the hat perched on the top.

By lore, the Naval Academy plebe who replaces the "Dixie cup" cap worn by freshmen with a midshipman's hat will be the first to become an admiral. Morris was on the brink of a historic moment for the 81 who had just become the first women to make it through a year in Annapolis.

Instead, with the prize literally within her grasp, she was yanked down by her classmates, an incident still remembered as emblematic of all the insults, abuse and derision the women had fought so hard to root out.

Thirty years later, a woman has yet to finish what Morris started. More female Mids have made it to the top only to be pulled off the monument, although academy leaders in recent years have threatened to expel anyone who does so intentionally.

As midshipmen and spectators gather around the monument this morning for the 100th annual climb, some wonder whether this year could be different. This crop of plebes, which has the highest proportion of women in the academy's history, 21.5 percent, has been dubbed "the class of change."

"The males in our class of '10 have less bias, and we are treated as equals," said Amanda Schoenthaler, a 19-year-old plebe from Port Charlotte, Fla. "The culture and atmosphere is much different now than 30 years ago."

A classmate concurred that women have a fighting chance to shake up tradition and succeed where other academy women fell - or were pushed. After all, it would make sense for the Mid weighing the least to be hoisted to the top by her classmates.

"I don't see why not. It's possible our company could say, `Hey, let's get a girl up there,'" said Matthew Graham, 20, of Clinton, Conn. "I've heard that in the boathouse during crew team practice."

Propelling anyone to the top of the monument isn't easy. The Herndon climb is like a mad scrum that can go on for hours. A few classes have successfully planned and finished in minutes, but most succumb to fatigue, and strategies give way to chaos.

Human pyramid

The plebes usually build a human pyramid around the granite monolith, with the stockier set linking arms around the base. Another tier stands on their shoulders, leading to a third. Shoulders, arms and heads are used like grips on a rock climbing wall, and although they work hard not to hurt one another, the plebes fall to the ground frequently, and hard.

In Morris' time, nearly a thousand plebes would make a mad dash from Bancroft Hall, the academy dorm, and shed their shirts as soon as they reached the Herndon monument, which honors a mid-19th-century captain who went down with his ship.

In the days before the 1977 climb, described in detail in the 1998 book First Class, by 1980 graduate Sharon Hanley Disher, seniors had printed and sold shirts with a picture of the statue and the acronym NGOH, which stood for "No Girls On Herndon."

A few were punished, and the shirts were confiscated, but word spread quickly.

Several other women were pulled down in the course of the climb, including Morris, but she wouldn't give up. A sailor on the varsity team who stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 110 pounds, Morris knew she could make it.

Morris reached the top quickly, and the crowd's chant of "Go! Go! Go!" turned to "No! No! No!" She clasped hands with a male midshipman, and together they tried to pull off the cap, which seniors had cut into several pieces and glued to the cusp. In a moment captured by a photographer, Morris snatched a few pieces of the "Dixie cup." Then, suddenly, she was yanked down by several male hands.

`A good grip'

"I had a good grip," said Morris, now Barbara Morris Ives, a math teacher at St. Mary's Ryken High School in Leonardtown. "I don't know who pulled me down, but in the end, I was just glad that I had been up there and my parents and all my classmates knew it."

The 1977 incident wasn't the last time a woman was pulled down from Herndon.

`An embarrassment'

According to a 1987 report by a group of female midshipmen assigned to examine the integration of women in the brigade, male midshipmen continued "preventing" females from reaching the top, a practice they called "an embarrassment," noting that the academy had continually failed to stop them.

"The fact that such behavior occurs at all subverts the creation of a cohesive, team-oriented brigade," the report said.

It remained a problem nearly every year until 2000, when Commandant Samuel J. Locklear III said he would expel any male midshipman who pulled a female down intentionally, according to Sea Change at Annapolis, a 50-year history of the institution published in 2006.

H. Michael Gelfand, who wrote the book, said many women he spoke with in his research said they felt they were being groped during the ceremony, although they weren't sure it was intentional because of all the midshipmen climbing over one another.

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