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Living -- and writing -- the academy's history

The Baltimore Sun

It was a small moment, but decades later, Martha Thorn remembers it well.

Decorated Vietnam War veteran and best-selling author James Webb was returning to the Naval Academy in the 1980s and had to prepare for an interview in Annapolis with Good Morning America.

Webb, now a Democratic senator from Virginia, wanted a refresher on the "Boat School" from which he had graduated in 1968, so he sent a host of questions to the academy's public affairs office, hoping to be ready for anything the morning show would throw at him.

Thorn prepared "gobs and gobs of information" and faxed it to Webb just before the interview, and when he arrived at the academy, he noticed her name tag and thanked her graciously.

"It was kind of insignificant, but it still felt really good," she said. "That's how all the great ones are. They always remember you."

Thorn, an Annapolis resident, retired last month as perhaps the most prolific chronicler of academy life in the institution's 162-year history, building up countless moments in a career that dates to when the academy had just begun admitting women.

In her 30 years, superintendents and commandants have come and gone, buildings including Alumni Hall have risen on the school grounds, and strapping Mids, including Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, who graduated two years after she arrived, have left and come back in the Navy's upper echelon. Fowler became the school's new superintendent in June.

Combining news releases she wrote for the public affairs office and features about hundreds of midshipmen, for Mids' hometown newspapers or for the Trident, the academy's weekly newspaper, Thorn might have written more about the place than anyone else.

"Martha is one of the most dedicated, hard-working individuals I have met," said Deborah Goode, the academy's media relations director. "Everything she's ever done has been for the Naval Academy, and when she started working for the Trident, she totally immersed herself and wrote as many articles as she could write."

Initially, when she came to the academy in 1977, Thorn worked in the public affairs office, spending most of her time writing stories she hoped would be printed in local newspapers near the hometowns of midshipmen. About 99 percent of what she submitted found its way into print, from small blurbs to "monster spreads" in a paper in the Virgin Islands or a news item in Colorado Springs, Colo. - which she is particularly proud of because it landed in the Air Force Academy's backyard.

All of it played into the office's goal at the time, which was to build national renown for the Naval Academy.

Thorn, now 55, also saw some of the academy's more difficult times in the 1990s, such as the cheating scandal in 1994, and trying events including the involvement of midshipmen in a murder, a car-theft ring, LSD dealing and several sex cases.

Tom Jurkowski, the academy's chief public affairs officer from 1994 to 1998, recalled one instance when national media outlets - including The New York Times and CNN, and reporters from local TV and radio stations, The Sun and the Washington Post - were lined up to speak to Adm. Charles Larson about the latest errant Mids. Thorn was a helpful presence in those times, and Jurkowski said he found her valuable for all she remembered about the academy's past.

"Martha is one of those go-to people in any organization who is the corporate memory," said Jurkowski, now vice president of media relations for Lockheed Martin.

"A lot of things happen cyclically - graduation, the Herndon climb, plebe summer - and it's the same thing every year. But things do change and things are done differently, so you need someone who can tell you how it was done before and who can give you that perspective."

Thorn "was terrific" with the aggressive Baltimore-Washington media, he recalled. "She would help me sort through all these problems."

As perhaps one of the academy's greatest civilian fans, Thorn said, she always lamented when one negative event could lead to so many tough stories. But she tried to work hard enough so that media outlets would come back and see "all the great things that are always happening here."

"I think they were so impressed by the way their questions were answered honestly and that we were cooperative," she said. "It wasn't quite what we would have wanted to be publicizing, but what I noticed was, they came back and grasped the good. It really is such a phenomenal place that does so many great things."

As a writer for the Trident, beginning in 1996, Thorn quickly adapted to the cycle of annual stories but also found more than a few diamonds in the rough.

Academy officials gave her free rein and allowed her to write about whatever she wanted to, she said. Much to her surprise, many of the stories she later won awards for came in areas of perceived weakness as a writer.

In 1998, she won a Thomas Jefferson Award - the most distinguished journalism prize given by the Defense Department - for a sports feature on cycling. She was also recognized in the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association's contest.

"Every now and then, I would get a story and I was like, 'Well ... '" she said, noting that not every assignment about hyper-technical engineering projects or the slightest changes in academy procedure would seem like a story. "But that's a situation where your professionalism is on the line, so I would always try to see what I could make of it. And sometimes they turn out really well, and some of my ideas, which I thought were great ideas, didn't meet my expectations."

Thorn wrote about midshipmen who won awards, traveled abroad or built or designed satellites, and she interviewed more Navy brass in her career than perhaps any other dozen of Defense Department journalists.

She remembered a number of special moments from those events, such as Webb's swearing-in as secretary of the Navy in 1987 in Tecumseh Court, when Lee Greenwood sang "I'm Proud to be an American."

"It was so amazing to get to see that," Thorn said. "I've been so lucky. I just kind of fumble along trying to do the best I can, and then these marvelous things happen to me."

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