Wednesday, August 3, 2011

UC, the Coast Guard, and me

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of both my alma maters—the University of Charleston as well as West Virginia University. Despite my love for my undergraduate school, going to the University of Charleston was actually my back-up plan. Several of my fellow Class of 1976 Parkersburg High School crew team members were going there (Roger B., "Meat" C., Jay S., and Eric F.), since the Golden Eagles had the only collegiate rowing program in the state at that time. Scottie Wilson, our coxswain who had graduated in 1975, was already down there.

My original plan as a high school senior was to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Our family vacations generally were to the beach—mostly Myrtle Beach but also Virginia Beach as well as the Outer Banks. During those beach trips (especially at the Outer Banks), I realized as a high school student that the Coast Guard would be a cool job. You are likely going to live along the coast line (bikinis!), you don't generally get called into battle until the war is at your shore (the draft had ended, but Viet Nam was still fresh in everyone’s mind), and you can retire after 20 years like other military members (they get treated as if they are military, but technically the Coast Guard is under the Transportation Department, not the Department of Defense). Plus their academy had a crew team!

I had never visited New London, Connecticut, much less the Coast Guard Academy itself, but I decided that I would give it a try. Part of me liked the structure of a service academy, where I would be pushed to do my best. Plus, it would be cheap to attend, because the government pays for it in exchange for service after graduation. My high school counselors seemed to think that I had a good shot, especially considering my high standardized test scores (I had a tendency to do well on such tests—better than my grades sometimes reflected).

Unlike the other service academies, the Coast Guard Academy asserted that they did not use Congressional endorsements (e.g., to get into West Point, your Congressman or Senator must give you a recommendation, which is sometimes very competitive—and sometimes can be political). Since my family had no political connections, that idea sounded great to me. The Coast Guard Academy had a complicated and unpublicized formula for making their selections, based on what they called quality points. There were three “cuts” over the course of the year before making their final selections. I made the first two cuts, which then required me as a finalist to go to Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus for a complete military physical (it was there that they decided I had some distant vision problems, resulting in my first pair of glasses). Finally, late in the spring, just before high school graduation, I got a letter from them in the mail. Knowing that my entire future hinged on what was inside, I opened it with trepidation. It turns out that I had 5954 quality points (the exact number has lived since then in my brain), and the cutoff for that year ended up being 6000. By 46 mysterious points (less than 1%), I just missed grabbing the golden ring!

Indeed, if I had graduated in 1975 rather than 1976, I am sure that I would have been selected. You see, 1976 was the first year that women were brought into the service academies, which had previously been restricted to only males. Although I harbor no resentment towards equality for women, I feel confident that I would have made the cutoff for the old program. But apparently, it wasn't meant to be. So I fell back to my second option—go to UC with my friends.

What started off as my second choice ended up being a good fit for someone like me. I liked going to a small school (PHS was the largest high school in the state at that time, and UC was only about half its size). As much as I also love WVU, I fear that I might have got “lost in the crowd” in Morgantown as an undergrad. I had a core group of friends in Charleston from the very first day with my rowing buddies.

A smaller school was definitely a good place for me to get started. Yet I'm glad I went to a small school in the capital city, as opposed to the other WVIAC schools in small places. There were so many events and activities in the big city of Charleston that supplemented my UC education—things that never would have been available to me in places like Glenville, Philippi, or Athens, West Virginia.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach at the local community college, WVU-Parkersburg. For many of my students there, it is their only feasible way to get a college education. However, I'm so glad that I didn't go to school there (although I did sign up to take College Algebra there during the summer prior to my senior year—only to show up for the first day and find that the class had been cancelled due to low enrollment). Personally, I think going to a community college is not as educational as a traditional college (and don't get me started about on-line colleges).

I know that at UC, I learned a lot from a number of great faculty members. Dr. Evelyn Harris was incredible, as was Dr. Richard Shultz, both in my major of Political Science. Dr. Harris was an amazing woman. Her husband had worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII, and after the war had taken a job at one of the local chemical plants. Dr. Harris began teaching at UC in 1946, and her students included many pre-eminent West Virginians, including Robert Byrd. However, there were many more professors who taught me lots of new things (e.g., Dr. Harper, Justice Neely, Dr. Susen, Roz Freedman, Dr. Newman, and even Denny McLaughlin, whom I never had a class from but always enjoyed having interesting conversations on a variety of topics with him).

However, despite all this great learning that took place in the classrooms from these great teachers, I learned just as much (if not more) by living in the dorms. It taught me how to get along with others from different cultures (from foreign places like Nigeria and Iran, as well as New Joisey and LonGisland). Getting along well with others in college, when you are living on a small campus 24/7, truly honed my interpersonal skills. Just learning to do one's own laundry on a regular basis was a part of the college experience (remember those little black tokens?). I also learned other odds and ends like backgammon, lacrosse, and bocce ball.

Although rowing helped bring me to campus, I didn't stick with it for the entire four years (breaking my leg while ice skating at the Civic Center was the beginning of the end of my crew career). I found other interests that eventually demanded that extracurricular time. Primarily this was student government, which provided another major learning experience that benefited me immensely in my career. But there were other ventures as well, such as our College Bowl trivia competitions and my internships in the Legislature as well as in Congress.

Indeed, UC was an early member of the consortium that is today the leading internship experience in DC (The Washington Center). My senior semester spent working for Congressman Rahall on Capitol Hill set the stage for future career events in my life. Ironically, it was also during that semester that I discovered it was common for Congressmen to get requests for recommendation letters to the Coast Guard Academy, and that they were routinely provided. It might have been worth at least 46 quality points if I had submitted a recommendation letter with my application from my congressman rather than from my pastor or teacher.

Another advantage of UC was the many fine speakers who visited our campus (in part because of our location in the capital city). I always tried to attend these events and got exposed to lots of interesting ideas. Some of the speakers I remember were John Dean (Nixon attorney), Dean Rusk (Secretary of Defense), Cyrus Vance (Secretary of State), Rev. William Sloane Coffin (intellectual), Ken Hechler (former Congressman), Jeremy Rifkin (economist), and a former CIA agent whose name I forget (or did he wipe my memory?). I also got to meet many West Virginia politicians, such as Senators Byrd and Randolph, as well as Governors Rockefeller, Underwood, and Caperton (who served on the UC Board of Trustees while I was an ex officio member as student body president). I made many connections while a student in Charleston that helped me along life's way.

The education I received at UC let me get into our state's flagship institution, WVU. I'm proud that my training at UC seemed equivalent or even greater to my fellow students in grad school and law school. I am convinced that I ended up getting the best of both worlds by attending both UC and WVU. Plus, by waiting until 1981 through 1985 to attend WVU, the football and basketball teams were much more successful (a bowl game each year during that span, and probably the best teams of the Catlett era).

Besides the great education I attained there, perhaps the best reward for going to UC was the life-long friends that I made during that era. Facebook has served as an excellent tool for putting us all back in touch again. Some of the best people I ever met were at UC. My times with those folks in that place were some of the best experiences of my life, and as a result, my overnight dreams often revolve around UC days.

I think there are several lessons one can learn from my experience:

1. Not getting your first choice, while it hurts at first, may not turn out all that bad.
2. Don't assume that high school counselors know everything.
3. Just because a congressional recommendation is not needed, doesn't mean you shouldn't try to get one.
4. Make the most of whatever life gives you!
5. Friendships made over three decades ago can be reconnected and revived via Facebook.

This is the Coast Guard Academy's "Eagle," which all incoming freshman sail during the summer before beginning their freshman year. I would have been on this ship during the summer of '76 had I garnered a few more points.

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