Butch Williams guesses that in 25 years at the U.S. Naval Academy, he's seen to it that well over 1,000 of the nation's best and brightest have gone with dignity to their rest.
As supervisor of tractor operations, the Annapolis native heads the eight-person grounds-keeping and grave-digging crews that prepare burial sites and trim the grass and shrubs of the 129-year-old cemetery.
His job puts him face to face with the history and heroes of the Navy.
"Sometimes you realize what you just did that particular day. You'll realize who that person was you put in the ground," said Williams, a smiling man with a gold, star-shaped filling in one tooth and wearing a white leather baseball cap. "And I can say, 'Yeah, I was there. I did that.' "
Far from the recent debate in Washington over whether the Clinton administration allowed political supporters to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the cemetery at the U.S. Naval Academy is not a place where politics interferes with the hereafter.
True, it is a place where some of the nation's heroes are buried -- powerful names such as Burke and King and Fuller that when mentioned aloud cause Navy officers and Marines to puff out their chests, stand at attention.
But those heroes lie side by side with midshipmen who died before seeing graduation day, 19th-century seamen killed in action, former academy professors and more than 200 babies born at the nearby Naval hospital, who lived a few hours or a few days and were buried here, on this point of hilly land jutting into the confluence of the Severn River and College Creek.
A walk through the 3 3/4 -acre waterfront cemetery with Butch Williams is like a walk through a textbook of naval history, its thousands of pages etched in stone.
Here rests Adm. Arleigh Burke, the architect of the modern Navy. Yonder is Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King, the only five-star admiral here. There's the modest headstone of Maj. Gen. Ben H. Fuller, whose 48-year career elevated him to the status of Marine Corps hero.
But nearby are other, lesser-known names -- names such as Pegram and Pevzner.
Four years ago, a carload of midshipmen was returning early in the morning from the annual Army-Navy football game in New Jersey when it slammed into a fallen tree. Three midshipmen died, and two of them are buried here, side by side, their headstones decorated with flowers, seashells, pebbles and pictures left by visitors.
Robin Pegram and Autumn Pevzner are among a handful of female midshipmen here. Because the academy only began accepting women in 1976, most of the women buried here were wives.
Tour of graves
Walk with Butch Williams past the towering pines and the few remaining oaks to the grave of a captain with his first and $H second wives, buried to the left and right. Williams recalls the modest scandal after being told by the captain to dig up the casket of the first wife to make room for the second, whom the captain wanted on the other side of his headstone.
On this slope is Charles A. Zimmerman, one of the academy's early bandmasters who wrote the music to the classic "Anchors Aweigh" in 1906. Down on the flats is Kamekichi Ando, a Japanese student who died in 1889. His name is significant because the academy would not see another exchange student from Japan until a century later, because U.S. law barred foreigners from the service academies from 1906 to 1983. Then walk toward the river.
"I call this the baby section," Williams said, strolling past row after row of tiny headstones, some with granite lambs on top: "Baby Girl Smith" and "Baby Boy Vanderbeck."
Once known as Strawberry Hill, the cemetery property was sold to the academy in 1968.
A space shortage prompted restrictions on who can be buried here, said Pat Taylor, who handles the academy's funerals and memorial services.
Now, burials are limited to admirals who graduated from the academy; midshipmen who died while attending the academy; naval officers who died while stationed here and family members of deceased officers already buried here.
To compensate for the restrictions, the Naval Academy Alumni Association in 1988 raised a half-million dollars to build a columbarium where the ashes of all academy graduates and their families can be interred behind etched granite squares.
Cross-section of honor
At a school that teaches honor, ethics and character, at a school that stays afloat on the buoys of tradition, at a school that builds the nation's future leaders, it helps to have a place nearby that honors a cross-section of its people, heroes and stillborns alike.
A few years ago, English Professor Mike Parker began using the cemetery as a classroom. He had students walk past these stones, choose one and write about the life of that person.
"A number of them said this was the most interesting thing they had done here at the academy," Parker said. "For me, it was more than just a historical exercise. It clarified what we try to do with literature. It was re-creating a life."
Alive with history
For Jim Cheevers, the cemetery is a place of life, not death. Cheevers, curator of the academy's museum, who hopes to write a book about the famous and not-so-famous people buried there, said the cemetery symbolizes the "full circle" of a naval officer's life.
"A lot of of guys come here as a midshipman. They get married in the chapel. Then go off for 75 years and come back to be buried here," he said.
That's what happened to Roberta and Arleigh Burke, who were married in the academy chapel in 1923 after Burke graduated.
Burke died and was buried here in 1996 in an elaborate ceremony attended by President Clinton, and his wife was buried with him in July, beneath a polished black-marble tombstone etched with an admiral's four stars.
Sometimes, it makes a gravedigger's job seem like the most important in the world.
"Me and my guys, we feel sad after seeing the family members," Williams said. "But you really feel a part of something. Of history. It makes you feel good about yourself. Like you're part of a family."
Pub Date: 12/22/97