Catholic Relief to get a rare leader Fear, fire and fun


PHILADELPHIA -- Pity the moving man. He stealthily enters the office that is roughly the size of a basketball court, looking over the polished wooden furniture, the thick carpets, the stacks of books and the collectibles of a 30-year Naval career piled high in handcrafted oak cabinets.

But he can't get past the admiral's radar.

The admiral slowly puts down her fine china coffee cup, arises from her chair, draws a bead on the man and begins talking, first in a whisper, then in a playful shout, her face flushed, her right index finger bobbing up and down in the air, a smile never leaving her lips.

"You will not break the Lladro," she says. "You will not chip the Lladro."

The moving man, a civilian, is so flustered he nearly salutes, vowing to handle the porcelain figures imported from Spain personally. The admiral lets out a belly laugh that echoes off the office walls and down the hall.

This is Rear Adm. Louise Wilmot, in action, using equal parts fear, fire and fun to get what she wants when she wants it in her final days as the Navy's highest-ranking woman.

Later this month, Admiral Wilmot will retire from the Navy and join Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services as a deputy director in charge of domestic outreach. At first glance, the switch from serving America's military to serving the Roman Catholic Church makes little sense.

But it's a seamless fit. Devout Catholic, practiced organizer, relentless recruiter, gifted public speaker, Admiral Wilmot has all the tools necessary to raise the profile of a world-wide relief agency.

Besides, it takes courage to say "no" to this admiral. When she asks for donations, the audience will deliver, or else.

"Catholic Relief," she said, "is an organization that I can believe in."

"They want my organizational skills," she said. "They want my speaking skills. And they want my laugh."

The admiral is big on old-fashioned values like trust, duty and honor. At 51, she has carved out a ground-breaking career, rising from ensign to become the first woman to command a naval base.

Navy old and new

There is a certain symbolism about her final assignment as commander of the Philadelphia Naval Base, due to shut down in 1996. Admiral Wilmot is helping scrap a place that defined the Navy of old, a place that has been turning out ships since 1797. On the wall outside the admiral's office, there are black and white photos of 80 previous base commanders, men with beards, mustaches, flowing hair or crew cuts.

And then, there is Admiral Wilmot, red-haired, blue-eyed, with a touch of red lipstick. She earned her admiral's stars the hard way, by clearing a path for others.

She crashed the all-boys' club. Her career, she said, "is a tour de force of the changes in society in America in the last 30 years."

The Navy that Louise Currie of Wayne, N.J., joined in 1964 is far different from the one from which she will retire.

"A woman couldn't be an admiral," she said. "She couldn't be in command of anything."

And a woman couldn't serve on a ship.

A better job

But the future admiral didn't care about sea duty. The eldest of seven, who worked as a telephone operator while attending the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J., she was disillusioned by the jobs available to her after graduation.

"I could stay with the phone company," she said. "Or become a secretary." Instead, she joined the Navy. And then, she worked harder and longer than nearly everyone else, mastering the service's political games, working inside the system to change the system.

You want tough? Try recruiting sailors near the height of the Vietnam War or meeting enlistment targets during the first faltering days of the all-volunteer force when high school principals wouldn't even let her on their campuses.

She got results.

"Big Red really understands marketing and sales and dealing with people," said Adm. Floyd "Hoss" Miller, former head of Navy recruiting. "She knows how to make people perform."

She wouldn't let the Navy's old salts stand in the way of progress, either. During the mid-1970s, she began the fight to transform the role of women in the Navy as head of an equal opportunity board. She was among the first to push for women to be placed on combat ships.

Who laughs last

The initial reaction from some male officers, she recalled, was laughter. Earlier this year, women were assigned to an aircraft carrier, and the Navy plans to have women on eight more combat ships by the end of the year,

"Now, you have . . . this nation deciding it wants women as part of its military," she said. "An all-volunteer force would be impossible to do without women."

Of course, the Navy has stumbled along the way as it melds women into what was once a fiercely male fighting terrain. The 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas symbolized the Navy's problems, as drunken officers chased after women in the corridors of a hotel.

"I hope the Navy does not forget the lesson of Tailhook," Admiral Wilmot said. "The mark of a great organization is to recover and learn from its serious mistakes. And that was a serious mistake for the U.S. Navy."

A year before Tailhook, though, Admiral Wilmot was embroiled in a controversy while running the Orlando Naval Training Center. Before then, her resume had been perfect, a mixture of international assignments and Washington experience that all but screamed "fast track." And that got her to Orlando. She had taken over a training center in 1989 that had low morale and a high failure rate of recruits. She shook up her staff of officers and established contacts with the local community.

But when the Washington Post reported in October 1990 that six rapes at the training center had gone unpunished within 18 months, Admiral Wilmot found herself at the center of a storm. Within a year, Department of Defense investigators determined that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the alleged rapes. The admiral was also cleared of allegations that she had allowed assaults and harassment to go unpunished.

In the end, she said, the message went out: "On this base, if you get caught [assaulting or harassing], you get hurt."

Rear Adm. Marsha Evans, commander of Navy recruiting, said Admiral Wilmot deserved credit for dealing head-on with the problems at the training center.

"She is the one who cleaned up something that had been happening before she got there, who led that organization into the light," Admiral Evans said.

Now, Admiral Wilmot is helping close an era in Philadelphia.

These are tough days at the Naval Shipyard, as 5,000 civilian workers retool the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy while civic planners and neighborhood leaders decide what to do with a base that is the size of Philadelphia's center city retail and business district.

"It's exciting here," she said. "You get to write a new page every day."

But the admiral won't be around to see the base closed and then refashioned for the next century. She'll retire from the Navy Aug. 18, and just a few days later, with her husband, Jim, a salesman for Dun & Bradstreet, she'll move to Baltimore.

How they met

The couple met Dec. 23, 1971, at Union Station in Washington. She was trying to buy a rail ticket to Newark, N.J., and was dropping Christmas packages on the floor. He was on the way to Connecticut. He stopped and helped. They talked. They talked some more on the train. Two years later they were married in the chapel at the Naval Academy.

Now, they'll set up their 15th home together in the Otterbein section of Baltimore.

Her job at Catholic Relief is to spread a message, to make the agency as well known in the United States as it is in the 70 countries where it operates on a budget of $300 million. She is reluctant to speak of her initial goals with the organization, saying: "My first job is to learn."

Ken Hackett, the agency's executive director, spent nearly six months looking for someone like Admiral Wilmot. Someone with toughness, intelligence, and charisma. It was a recommendation from a nun that turned his attention to the admiral.

"The old-timers were a little bit shocked when I hired her," he said. "They were asking themselves, 'What does this mean? An admiral?' "

Admiral Wilmot will be speaking. And raising money. And generally making a lot of noise about the work that Catholic Relief does.

"I've told people that I'm going to Catholic Relief, and they smile and they think it's Catholic Charities," she said.

That's going to change.

"I've explained and inspired for the Navy," she said. "I think I can do the same thing for Catholic Relief."

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