When retired Navy officer Sean Cate marched onto the Naval Academy parade ground yesterday, he noticed among the rows of uniformed midshipmen something he never saw when he arrived at the school as a freshman 24 years ago.
Cate is a member of the Class of 1979, a third of which has returned to Annapolis this weekend for a reunion. The class marks a turning point in the 154-year history of the officer-training school. It was the last all-male class. Its motto, etched inside class rings and sewn into the class crest, is omnes viri, Latin for "all male."
Today, one in six midshipmen is female, and it seems almost quaint to recall a time when the school was made up solely of men. But as members of the Class of 1979 attend receptions and tailgate parties this weekend, they are sure to recall the tumult of the school's move to coeducation.
"There was some resistance on some people's part," said Cate, the class vice president, who was invited to march with the superintendent, Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, to review a formal parade by the school's 4,000 students. "It was just very odd to see a female in the dorm."
Some members of Congress and many alumni fought hard to keep women out of the academy. Some members of the Class of 1979 wore T-shirts that said, "NGOH," which stood for "No Girls On Herndon," a reference to the granite obelisk freshmen climb in a year-end tradition.
The flames were fanned in 1979 by a Washingtonian magazine article, "Women Can't Fight," written by James H. Webb, a 1968 graduate and decorated Marine who went on to become secretary of the Navy and a novelist. He argued that women would have a "poisoning" effect on the school's training. Some members of the Class of 1979 brandished the article defiantly and adopted Webb as their class hero.
Last year, Sharon Disher, one of the first 81 women to attend and graduate from the academy, published "First Class," a book in which she recounted "the taunts and the insults" faced by that group. She angrily derided Webb's reference to the school dormitory, Bancroft Hall, as a "woman's dream."
All of that seems far away, Cate said.
He's proud to be part of a class that bridged two eras at the academy, though. "But the significance of that is probably not very much at this point," said Cate, who left the Navy as a lieutenant commander in 1996. "Being the last class of males is probably more important for some people than others."
Congress opened the academy to women in 1976, making the Class of 1980 the first coeducational one to graduate. Only 6 percent of that first class was female; these days, about 16 percent of the midshipmen are women, and many hold leadership positions. In May, the top two graduates -- and half of the top 10 -- were women.
Tom Gehrki, another 1979 graduate, says he and his classmates realized soon after women began arriving during his sophomore year that some were probably better qualified than the men, possibly because there was intense competition for a limited number of openings. "And a lot of the women, you realized, were there for the same reasons you were."
"We were the end of an era -- and the beginning of a new era. I'm not saying one era was better than the other. They were just different. I think people realized it was time for a transition," Gehrki said.
Each academy class likes to have a distinguishing characteristic. The Class of 1945 graduated in 1944, so its members could fight in World War II; the Class of 1949 had the first black graduate, Wesley Brown; and the Class of 1979 watched a male bastion change.
That transition remains a sensitive subject for some class members. The academy's spokesman, Cmdr. Mike Brady, a 1979 graduate, declined to discuss his thoughts on the historic significance of his class. "We're proud of that, but our class was no different from the other all-male class that graduated before us," he said.
Of 934 graduates from the 1979 class, 370 registered to attend the reunion, including two space shuttle astronauts, Dan Bursh and Dominic Gorie, and pro football star Phil McConkey, who returned kickoffs and punts for the New York Giants.
Gehrki, who retired from the Marine Corps last week, said the strong opinions about being "the last bastion of masculinity" 20 years ago have faded. But this weekend, it will be nice to look back with pride on the days of omnes viri, he said.
"It wasn't an anti-female thing," he said. "It was merely the distinction that we were the end of an era."