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Decades old letters between a Naval Academy ‘supe’ and West Point cadet offer lessons on leadership and the Army-Navy relationship | COMMENTARY

Since 2008, the Navy Midshipmen football team has worn special uniforms for its rivalry game against Army. Here's how we rank them.
Since 2008, the Navy Midshipmen football team has worn special uniforms for its rivalry game against Army. Here's how we rank them.

My grandfather, William P. Mack, was the U.S. Naval Academy superintendent from 1972 to 1975. By the time I came along in the mid-’80s, he was long-retired and had traded his naval uniform for an untucked button-down — sometimes with a cardigan — or a swimsuit with a fishing cap. His demeanor was easy-going, not demanding, as one might expect an officer’s to be. He let my parents do the parenting, and he kept his focus on pizza lunches and afternoon fun in the swimming pool.

That’s how I remember him with my grandmother on their property overlooking Aberdeen Creek. I only knew of his other life, as a three-star vice admiral and “supe,” through pictures — pictures of him saluting presidents, grinning ear to ear at graduating midshipman and posing with his beautiful family near the institution’s chapel. He earned numerous ribbons for his achievements throughout his career, but usually wore only a modest few of them at a time.

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When I was in high school, my family cared for him when he could no longer care for himself. Vice Admiral Mack, as he was known even in retirement, passed away of cerebral vascular disease in January of 2003.

In the years since, I’ve thought an awful lot about him. After college, I became a journalist and wanted to know more about my grandfather’s military history. I dug into his past, flipping through giant scrapbooks of photos and Naval Academy yearbooks — each known as the “Lucky Bag” — and renting DVDs filled with evening news reports in which he was interviewed.

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But the one story of the past that truly brought him to life as a military man was told in two letters written 45 years ago. The correspondence is between my grandfather and a United States Military Academy cadet named Jeffrey Bruckner, and it concerns forgiveness and leadership.

The 1975 exchange occurred after my grandfather was introduced at a luncheon with cadets at West Point. Apparently, young Mr. Bruckner made a hissing sound at the time.

“My actions were not intended to be disrespectful toward you or any member of your party,” Mr. Bruckner wrote in an apology to my grandfather. “On the contrary, I believe it was an involuntary manifestation of the great competitive spirit I feel exists between our two academies.”

The cadet went on to mention that he has played in the “academy rivalries” each year as a member of West Point’s football team, noting that he has spent nearly 11 months of the past three years preparing for them.

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My grandfather wrote back, saying he did not hear any hissing sound, and if he had, he would have thought it was part of the “competitiveness and spirit of fun” that comes with meetings between USNA and West Point.

The Superintendent Mack then offered Mr. Bruckner a token of appreciation: cufflinks. He explained that the pair consisted of one from the Naval Academy and the other from West Point; he had traded links decades ago, when he himself was a midshipman, after a baseball game in which West Point “beat us rather soundly.”

“I am sending them to you in hope that in the years to come, they will serve to remind you of the value of competitiveness,” my grandfather wrote. He clearly recognized that although West Point and the Naval Academy’s football teams are rivals once a year — like they will be on Dec. 12, when the 121st Army-Navy game is set to be played — they are partners on any other day, and a camaraderie like no other endures between them. He closed his letter by saying, “May West Point win them all, except one.”

My mom first became aware of the letters in 2015 over dinner with a former flag lieutenant and his wife. Once mom received them, she emailed Mr. Bruckner, who currently resides in Virginia and works for a company that provides information technology support for the military and other governmental entities.

Mr. Bruckner called my mom in response, telling her he wished he had reached out to my grandfather again. He still had the cufflinks, and he had framed my grandfather’s letter, which he kept in his home office. The story of it, he had told often, he said, pointing to it as a prime example of leadership.

The fact that I am still learning little insights about the kind of person and officer my grandfather was, all these years after his death, is reassuring to me. It keeps his memory alive.

And I’m sure that if it were possible to write a letter and postmark it from Heaven, he’d have one more message for Mr. Bruckner: “Go Navy, Beat Army!”

Kevin Opsahl (kevinopsahl@yahoo.com) is a freelance journalist based in Kirkland, Washington. He was born and raised in Maryland.

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