More than 4,000 of Rear Adm. Edgar Keats' biggest fans sang "Happy Birthday" to him Friday afternoon.
That's what happens when you turn 100 and the entire Brigade at the U.S. Naval Academy turns out for the party.
Keats, invited to share lunch with the academy brigade in honor of hitting the century mark, happily basked in the adulation. Still sharp and vigorous — family members talk with amusement about how, after everyone forgot to send a car to pick him up, he drove himself to the party they held for his 99th birthday — the retired admiral accepted well wishes from nearly the entire academy brass as well as from the assembled midshipmen.
"Happy birthday to a man who is clearly a member of the greatest generation, a protector of our nation and our Constitution," Vice Adm. Walter Carter Jr., the academy superintendent, said to the assembled brigade after they had greeted Keats with several minutes of sustained applause.
"I'm very fortunate, and most grateful," Keats, a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1935, said later during a reception at Buchanan House, the home of the academy superintendent. "I think it was wonderful. Whoever can get 4,300 people more or less in tune?"
It was the least they could do. A Chicago native, Keats entered the academy at 16. He was on the gymnastics team ("I was never one of the stars," he insisted). He won the academy's history prize upon graduation.
During World War II, he saw action at Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He flew planes off carriers. As the air officer for the Commander, Amphibious Force, Pacific, he planned the air portion of amphibious assaults. He was promoted to admiral shortly before retiring in 1958.
Armed with a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he later worked at Westinghouse, building radio tracking equipment for Polaris submarines; as vice president of Urban Systems; and as president of Baltimore's Standard Dredging Corp., according to a history provided by the family.
Midshipman 1st Class Joshua Steves, who was lucky enough to be one of a half-dozen midshipmen chosen to sit at the VIP table with the admiral and his family, relished the opportunity to hear the admiral's tales from his days at the academy.
"It was incredible, sitting with someone who has so much experience," Steves said. "It means a lot. It shows how much of an impact this place has on your life, even beyond what you may feel while you are here."
Added Midshipman 2nd Class Ben Radeff, who didn't get to sit at the VIP table but sang and applauded with gusto just the same: "He brings a different perspective than anyone else in the Brigade, or than any of the leadership brings. The commandant, the superintendent — he's seen a whole different side of the world, a whole different part of this nation's history, than even they have."
Keats, who lives in Lutherville, is the junior member of a select club. He is one of only three living admirals who have reached the age of 100. Rear Adm. Robert Fulton, Naval Academy Class of '32, is 104 and living in Collierville, Tenn. And Vice Adm. David Richardson, Naval Academy Class of '36, turned 100 last April in San Diego.
A busload of Keats' family members gathered beforehand at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Suzi and David Cordish — the prominent developer who himself turned 75 Friday. The bus making its way to Annapolis also carried Keats' other daughter, Ellen Stifler, as well as four of his six grandchildren and five of his eight great-grandchildren.
"My father is a remarkable man. He just is," said Stifler. "He's as sharp as he was when he graduated from the academy."
Keats, taking a moment to reflect after all the songs had been sung, the birthday cake eaten and the champagne toasts raised, said he couldn't point to any secret to making it to 100.
"I've never smoked. I drank very little, except when I was a young aviator — we all drank, but I gave it up long ago. And I of course never took any drugs. I eat sensibly and I exercise faithfully.
"Whether that made it, or just good luck, I don't know." Then, with a smile and a wink, he added, "I put my money on luck."