An enduring passion Tense affection: For 150 years, Annapolis and the Naval Academy have weathered their occasional storms


Without the U.S. Naval Academy, thhe city of Annapolis would still be the state capital, a tourist attraction a sailing mecca.

But it wouldn't be Annapolis.

The two have become one - a 4,000-student military college and a city of 35,000 sharing the same Chesapeake Bay peninsula, cheering the return of war heroes and victories over Army.

That union, however, bears scars from passionate battles over land, women and power. As the military school celebrates its 150th birthday this fall and the city marks its 300th year as the state's capital, the occasions are as much about the two institutions' shared history as their separate pasts.

For generations, the academy has exerted a romantic hold on Annapolis. Its mayors dined with presidents, princes and generals. Its public school classrooms filled with Navy children and tales of the Orient, Hawaii places local kids had only dreamed about.

For the midshipmen, the city is a place to be human again. For 150 years each class has ventured into private homes and city hang-outs for a drink, a smoke, a date.

It has been a passionate, though not always peaceful relationship, sometimes tense, but always affectionate.

The locals - especially younger ones- sometimes chafe at the deals merchants cut with midshipmen, or the way the men in white steal their girls.

And the academy believes it doesn't need the city to survive. It has its own police, its own trash collection, even its own street sweepers. The academy, so focused on its mission, often treats the city as little more than a point on a nautical map: 38 degrees 59 minutes north latitude, 76 degrees 29 minutes west longitude.

The first academy employees planted their feet in the Annapolis mud in 1845 and promptly made departure plans.

"Confound the place, I hate the thought of it," Dr. Edmond L. DuBarry, chosen to head the medical department, wrote to his son that year.

"Agues [fevers] prevail in the Autumn - no schools for small children - houses in dilapidated condition and the rent risen 100 percent since the institution of a naval school there has been decided upon - Servants very bad - and to crown it all, the dullest and most horrible place in the U. States," he wrote.

From the beginning, Annapolis alternately irritated and charmed the young men who passed through The Naval Academy. Sometimes it gave midshipmen a refuge from the outside world. Other times it was too much the sleepy Southern city.

"You should have seen the celebration here yesterday," sneered Midshipman Orin Shepley Haskell in a Nov. 12, 1918, letter to his girlfriend. "You know the people down here don't know how to celebrate the way we do up north and haven't any more pep than a lot of old women.... The census man says that there are 10,000 people here, but I believe that most of them are in the graveyard."

A half-century later, Annapolis offered something quite different for midshipmen caught in the soical twister of the 1960s: a locale that wasn't quite the military but steered clear of outright social revolution.

"I felt really comfortable there, like we were accepted in the town," said Jerry Welch, class of 1964. "I never craved anonymity."

Stealing the local girls

The year was 1935. Annapolis was nicknamed Crabtown, the girls were known as "crabs," and a midshipman's date was called a Drag."

"If you had a local girl, it was called dragging a crab," said retired Adm. Maurice Rindskopf, a 1935 graduate who did just that.

Admiral Rindskopf, who lives in Severna Park, remembers gathering with local girls and classmates in the Main Street apartment of a woman they called "Mom."

"I guess she would be known as a midshipman sponsor these days he said. "I don't remember how we all came to know her, but her name was Mrs. Miller. There were always local girls around there. That was a hangout for us."

The admiral said girls poured off buses from all over the area every Sunday afternoon for dances or "tea fights"-in Memorial Hall. The couples danced the waltz, the shag, the Charleston - even the fanny waddle.

One of those women was Margaret Dowsett, a wispy young woman with large eyes and long ash-blonde hair. During Prohibition she used the academy to find high-quality liquor and a suitable husband.

Mrs. Dowsett, now 84, was at the center of the social whirl in those days-always the one in a tapered black velvet dress at the dances. There was a mystique to the midshipmen. They were unwrinkled and close-shaved. They could say, "Yes ma'am," just so. And even as students, they had money - $10 a month in the 1930s - and a future.

Two midshipmen proposed marriage to her; she said yes to Frederick R. Dowsett in 1938. The bride cut their wedding cake with his sword and put on a dainty version of his class ring, which she stir wears.

Local boys did what they could to break up these couples. Young townies, who called midshipmen "bellhops" for their white uniforms, threw some midshipmen off the Eastport Bridge if they dared to cross on Saturday nights. Others tried to humiliate the mids shuffling their white hats in the cloakroom while the midshipmen watched movies with an arm draped around a local girl's shoulder.

Some simply resorted to "late dating." Since midshipmen had to be back on the Yard by midnight the local kids would wait until the women returned and take them out for a second date.

These days tea dances have been replaced by gatherings at pubs and midshipmen dating each other. Ensigns Cheryl L. Pence and Richard J. Harrison fell in love while sweating over calculus and engineering in Bancroft hall.

* They were married in June.

An adoring town

Local politicians are devoted to the academy.

It brings sophistication and stateliness to the small-town Maryland political scene-with just a touch of disdain.

Dennis M. Callahan, who was the Annapolis mayor in the late 1980s, still talks about how his wife, Brenda, was seated between the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Saudi Arabian prince at a dinner party at the academy superintendent's house. She told them both what a big nose she thought her husband had, and asked if they agreed.

"So after dinner," Mr. Callahan said, "the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff comes up to me and looks at my nose and says, 'It's not that big.' "

His successor, Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, shouts, "Beat Army!" at large civic gatherings and says his great disappointment as a young man was getting a rejection letter from the school. He speaks often of the time the academy let him be a midshipman for a day.

"It was one of the best days of my life," said Mr. Hopkins, 70. "Like the day I got married and when my first child was born."

Annapolis residents who had never even been to Baltimore hungered for the academy's worldliness.

Tom Worthington, who was a boy in Annapolis in the 1940s, would seek out Marshall Rehn, a midshipman from Chicago.

"He told us hair-raising tales about Al Capone, and he talked about cars screaming around corners with tommy guns blaring," Mr. Worthington said. "In Annapolis, that was pretty big stuff. I mean, in Annapolis, if you had a dog bite, it was in the paper."

But sometimes the academy kept the city at arm's length. The gates and the brick wall were there for a reason, and in the Depression era the academy employed "Jimmy-Legs," civilians who patrolled the gates on bicycles, to keep the locals out.

Even today, the handbook given to every midshipman refers to Annapolis as "a small village on the banks of the Naval Academy."

Fighting over land over land

When it came to land, the relationship turned hostile.

The academy had expanded onto city land six times by the Civil War. The Navy argued that the country couldn't expect it to settle on roughly 300 acres when the Army had 15,000 at West Point.

"The academy people resented the town taking advantage of them being there and providing jobs and doing so much for the economy," said retired Capt. Roy Smith, a sixth-generation academy graduate.

Taking over even half a block in the densely populated area around the academy was not easy. The academy's biggest victory came in 1941, when it expanded into Hell Point, a colonial-era neighborhood next to the Yard. Roughly 100 homes were knocked down for what eventually became a sports complex. The Navy made a convincing pitch. There was a war.

"The academy said, 'Have to have it! Have to have it! War, war, war, war, war effort!' They lied." Robert Campbell, 75, said from his home a few blocks from the demolition site of more than 50 years ago. His grandmother, who named two other I7 children for academy superintendents, lost her sixroom tin-roof house on Holland Street.

"They threw her onto the street," he said.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, a combative public confronted academy officials when they tried to expand onto 3 1/2 blocks along Prince George Street.

They launched petition drives, lobbied Capitol Hill and sent a plea to President John F. Kennedy. Newspaper editorials urged the academy to stop acting like a bully. The city council banned expansion in Annapolis.

The academy offered to truck the historic homes elsewhere, until Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara passed the word he didn't want to get involved in small-town squabble. The academy found room behind its walls, and the dispute blew over.

It got even tougher for the academy as more newcomers moved to the city.

When the Navy lobbied to build a Naval Academy Hotel next to its stadium on Rowe Boulevard, the city council rejected the notion seconds after it was introduced.

"It was the only legislation in four years that the council defeated on first reader," said then Mayor Callahan. "The Navy was public enemy No. 1."

For all of the disagreements of a century and a half, the love affair between town and academy endures. Despite the guarded gates and brick walls, the academy is rooted in the city's identity, and the reverse is also true.

At least 25 retirees from the class of 1943 lunch together every other Tuesday at the Little Campus restaurant on Maryland Avenue, just outside Gate 3. Their usual waitress, Vernyce Hight, seats them at the back of the restaurant because they make too much noise for the rest of the crowd.

Bill Busik, 75, a retired captain who served in World War II, is among the retirees. "It's like a second home to me here," he said. "I can walk around the streets of Annapolis and see so many people that I've grown up with in the community and at the academy. It's just a comfy feeling. I just want to be close to it."

From his house overlooking the Severn River, he can see the academy's lights. When he waters the red and white azaleas in his back yard, he can see his old dormitory.

L "Oh yeah, it's beautiful," he said. "It's a beautiful view."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad