An astronaut, a vice admiral, an admiral and the longest assistant Navy secretary will all be honored Thursday at the Naval Academy Alumni Association’s annual Distinguished Graduate Award ceremony.
The four honorees are the 2020 recipients, originally scheduled to be honored in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country. They’ll be honored at a ceremony Thursday.
The four distinguished graduates come from the classes of 1975, 1979, 1961 and 1971.
Vice Adm. (retired) Edward Straw
Vice Adm. (retired) Edward Straw has 10 pieces of advice for midshipmen. Straw’s Laws, as he calls them.
They start with “professional reputation trumps class standing,” which is to say work hard and do the best every day. People and employers do not care about what rank a person was in their class, but they do care about how they perform in a role, Straw said.
He’ll share the others in the speech he will give on Thursday.
Straw had been nominated before, but he was not expecting to be named a distinguished graduate. He was surprised, overwhelmed and honored when he learned he received the award.
“I find words almost inadequate to describe how it feels to stand alongside of the people, of the selectees in my class of 2020, and also to describe how it feels alongside the giants of the past,” Straw said.
Straw’s journey to the Naval Academy included an important conversation with his father. He had gotten into the academy as well as the Naval ROTC program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was torn between the two schools, until his father took him to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars.
His father told him that there had never been a Naval Academy graduate or admiral from Perry County, where Straw lived, despite the county’s namesake being an admiral. If Straw attended the academy, he could be the first.
His father lived long enough for that to happen, Straw said.
Straw went into supply corps after graduating from the academy. Although he did not think he would initially like the work, he grew to respect the need for logistics.
“I kept staying, kept staying, kept staying, and all of a sudden, my goal of doing my four years to get out and seek my fortune lasted 35 years,” he said.
After retiring from the Navy, Straw worked as the president of Ryder Integrated Logistics, senior vice president of the Compaq Computer Corporation and president of global operations of The Estee Lauder Companies. He currently serves as the founder and managing director of Osprey Venture Partners.
“I’m 82 years old, but I don’t think I’m ever going to retire,” Straw said. “Just love what I’m doing.”
Col. (retired) Robert Cabana
Retired Col. Robert Cabana has been to space, not once but four times. He commanded Space Shuttle missions Endeavor STS-88, as well as Columbia STS-65 and piloted Discovery STS-53 and STS-41.
His last flight led him to be one of the first people to enter the International Space Station.
“So to be able to be part of the crew that actually activated the space station, laid the foundation and were the first ones to enter it, that was a unique historical experience,” Cabana said. “It meant an awful lot.”
Cabana, who now serves as the associate administrator for NASA, did not plan to be an astronaut while attending the academy. He wanted to be a pilot.
His eyes had other plans, and Cabana became a Naval flight officer in the Marine Corps after flunking his eye exam. After three years, and good eye tests, Cabana finally was able to go to flight school.
He loved it, he said. He excelled. But he wanted to continue using the math and engineering he learned at the academy and his flying experience, so he applied to be a test pilot. He didn’t make it into the program on his first try, so he applied again.
Then he applied for the astronaut program. It also took him two tries, but he was selected to be an astronaut candidate. While he was a candidate, the Challenger explosion happened, delaying his chance to go to space.
His first space flight was October 1990.
While at NASA, he retired from the Marine Corps. He worked in senior level positions at the Johnson Space Center and John C. Stennis Space Center before serving for 12.5 years as the director of the Kennedy Space Center.
His goal was always to be a colonel in the Marine Corps and be a pilot. He accomplished those goals, he said. If a person does good work, then more work tends to come their way.
He relies on his core values that he learned from the academy, he said. Courage. Honor. Commitment. He learned leadership and what he was capable of taking on. Attending the academy gave him the tools he needed in his career.
He is honored to be a distinguished graduate, he said, and thankful for classmates who nominated him.
Adm. (retired) Kirkland Donald
Retired Adm. Kirkland Donald was a career submarine officer and retired as director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.
His first experience on a submarine came as part of his time at the academy, when he had an option to do a submarine during one of his summer cruise periods. There were also submarine officers at the academy that he saw as positive examples, Donald said.
When he graduated in 1975, the country was at the height of the Cold War, and submarines were being produced quickly, which meant the Navy needed people to serve on them.
To be a submariner, he first needed to be interviewed by Adm. Hyman Rickover, whose name is now on a building at the academy. Rickover had a unique style of interviewing submarine candidates, Donald said.
He arrived on his first ship two years after graduating, due to the additional schooling needed. He stayed there for about three and a half years, during which he had four deployments.
“It was a great ship,” Donald said. “There were great people on that ship. people I’m still friends with to this day and admire to this day.”
Those people influenced his decision to make a career out of his service to the Navy. It was never a conscious decision, he said. He enjoyed the jobs he worked and the people, and he continued to stay in the service.
He was selected for flag rank and served as Submarine Force commander as three-star admiral then as the head of Naval Reactors as a four-star admiral.
“My opinion is that Naval Reactors is the finest technical organization in the world,” he said. “And it is staffed by some of the most dedicated, smart and creative, innovative people in the world, and that includes distinguished civil servants, distinguished contractors who supported the program, but it was the job of a lifetime.”
After retiring from the Navy, Donald went into the private sector where he now does consulting work, including with Australia.
The Honorable Sean Stackley
Retired Capt. Sean Stackley grew up in Maryland to an Army family, but he quickly overcame any loyalty to that branch when he went to the Naval Academy.
“It’s all about service,” Stackley said. “And it’s more about service than the branch of the service.”
After graduation from the academy, Stackley became a surface warfare officer and served 27 years in the fleet. After retiring, the late Sen. John Warner reached out to him to see if Stackley had any interest in serving as a staff for what is known as the sea power committee under the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Stackley agreed to the position. He retired from the Navy on a Friday, and showed up to his new occupation on the following Monday.
He enjoyed the work, so much so that when he was approached three years later for the position of assistant secretary for the Navy (Research, Development and Acquisition), he was conflicted.
When he approached Warner, the senator told him to take the opportunity.
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Stackley served in the assistant secretary for the Navy (Research, Development and Acquisition) position under the Bush administration, the Obama administration and the transition to the Trump administration, making him the person to hold the position the longest.
During those years, he faced budget challenges. The country was involved in wars. The job was consuming, he said.
“The days are long, but at the end of the day, you wish there were more hours in the day,” he said. “You wake up, looking forward to going to work. Every day you had the opportunity to make a difference.”
Stackley sponsors midshipmen, and he often reminds them it is not just the education that they learn on the Yard that they’ll carry with them into their careers. It is also the discipline and the ability to operate under stress.
The honor code, which the midshipmen adhere to while at the academy, becomes a part of who they are, and it is something they will rely on when they are in the fleet, Stackley said.
His advice to midshipmen is to take advantage of the opportunities they get while at the academy, including taking more classes if they can. He also recommends they develop fitness skills while at the academy.
And develop friendships, he said. Those will last a lifetime.