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Navy ritual scrutinized

The Baltimore Sun

It's one of the Naval Academy's most enduring traditions: Hundreds of shirtless plebes mark the end of their first year by swarming a grease-slicked, 21-foot-obelisk, climbing over one another in a race to the top.

Now, academy officials are asking: Is this safe?

In a terse statement this week, academy officials said they will assemble a student committee to study changes to the Herndon Monument Climb.

"Like many customs and traditions, they evolve, they change over time," said Cmdr. Ed Austin, an academy spokesman. "We're taking a look at this one and trying to make a decision on whether we make some adjustments to it."

Austin declined to elaborate on possible changes to the tradition, scheduled for May 15.

Officials said they know of no serious injuries incurred by midshipmen in recent years during the event. But the review comes at a time when the new superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, has been bringing broad changes to life on the Annapolis campus.

Under Fowler, the academy has reduced students' leisure time, required three hours of study nightly, required attendance at 15 meals a week, and switched seniors' uniforms from blue to khaki.

The prospect of changing the Herndon Monument ritual - believed to date back to 1907 - touched a nerve with at least one alumnus.

"It's just political correctness gone wrong again," said Dwight Crevelt, who climbed atop the monument in 1976. "Everybody's so worried about everybody else - nonsense. It's a tradition, and no one's ever been seriously hurt doing that."

According to legend, the freshman to reach the top of the monument - and replace a waiting "Dixie cup" cap worn by freshmen with an upperclassman's hat - will be the first in the class to become an admiral, the Navy's highest rank. But, at least according to academy records that date back to the 1950s, that has never happened.

Women first participated in the exercise in 1977, and more women have taken part in the climb as the academy's female population has increased.

The exercise involves the obelisk being slathered in grease and the base surrounded by mud. At the blast of a cannon, plebes rush the monument and form a human pyramid of sorts. Some freshmen near the top are inevitably pulled off, and falls are not uncommon. The scene can be chaotic.

"It's humanity climbing over humanity, over a marble obelisk that's greased," said Lawrence "Skid" Heyworth III, a 1970 graduate and a spokesman for the alumni association. "I'm amazed that nobody has been injured in it."

Heyworth said it is reasonable for the academy to review the safety of the climb.

"In my view, this is normal. New commanding officer comes on board. As events come up, as programs come up, you look at them and you ask questions, 'Why are we doing this? Does this support the mission. To me, this is normal."

The Capital newspaper, quoting an unidentified source, reported that one change being considered is restricting the number of participants.

W. Minor Carter, an academy graduate and an Annapolis lobbyist, said the tradition might have some significance over the years. Freshmen have become less distinct as a class as more take advanced courses and play on sports teams with older midshipmen, he said. He said that freshmen also have more freedoms than earlier generations of plebes.

"It's a whole different era. Plebe year was a different deal then," he said.

Still, the tradition has survived, and hundreds participate every year.

The tradition is one of many on college campuses across the country.

In November 1999, one such tradition turned tragic. Students at Texas A&M; University were building a huge bonfire when the structure collapsed, killing 12 people.

Crevelt, 51, of Las Vegas, said it would be unfair to compare the bonfire tradition at Texas A&M; to the Herndon Monument climb. "We're not building Herndon Monument. The thing's only 30 feet tall at most."

He recalled the day he climbed Herndon.

"I was almost up there one point earlier, 10 or 15 minutes earlier. People collapsed and I fell down face first in the mud," Crevelt said, adding he was not seriously hurt. "Big deal. I got up."


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