Thirty-seven years ago, the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1982 graduated and set out for their first assignments in the service.
Today, one of the classmates retires after reaching the pinnacle of Navy service: Chief of Naval Operations.
Much has been noted in recent years about the success of the Class of 1982, which produced 20 flag officers, in addition to many more who made other contributions to the Navy or who became leaders in their own right in industry.
Among the graduates: a chief of naval operations, a vice chief of naval operations, two Naval Air Systems Command commanders, a head of Naval Air Forces, a head of Naval Surface Forces, a combatant commander and more.
As Adm. John Richardson retires from the Navy and leaves just three classmates behind in active service, several of his classmates reflected on their time at the Naval Academy, progressing in their careers alongside classmates, and what they attribute their collective success to.
Annapolis from 1978 to 1982
The Class of 1982 showed up in Annapolis at an interesting time in history: post-Vietnam, when the country was tired of war, and before the Reagan naval buildup, when support for the sea service surged.
“When we joined the service back in 1978, that wasn’t the post popular thing to do, frankly. There wasn’t this talk of, everybody in uniform is a hero; it’s hard to even remember that it was like that, but there was a lot of discussion about where, there were places you would not wear your uniform,” Mike Petters, who now serves as the president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, told USNI News.
“And every one of us volunteered to be at the Naval Academy, so that was in the face of that cultural headwind. But by the time we graduated, President Reagan had taken over and the country was kind of turning up the gain on the Cold War, so the ‘80s were an interesting time militarily.”
“The persistence that comes from putting your hand up in the very beginning even though there were lots of pressures to not do that – I think it took something, every member of the class had to figure out how they were going to make peace with that and go do that with their life – and frankly I think that served most of our classmates, whether they stayed in [the Navy or] the defense industry or not, they’ve across the board contributed remarkably important stuff to the future of this country,” Petters added.
Tom Rowden, who rose to serve as the commander of Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Force Pacific, said he remembers showing up in 1978 to a non-air conditioned Bancroft Hall and yelling “eighty-two, sir,” whenever the firsties would yell “seventy-nine!”
“I remember the big deal was we were the third class with women, so all those training us were in the last ‘all male’ class. The Class of ’79’s motto is ‘Omnis Viri’ – ‘All Male.’ I wonder if they would now change it if they could,” Rowden told USNI News.
“As I reflect on my time at the Naval Academy, there is one thing that really stands out about our class: that’s the incredible character, resilience, fortitude and mental toughness of the women of the Class of 82. In my mind they epitomize all that I hope our class represents. The fact that Michelle [Howard] rose to VCNO and Kate [Gregory] rose the lead the Civil Engineering Corps – they and all their female classmates, they are the ones that really made a difference in our navy and our class. Sure, I am proud of John [Richardson] and my fellow flag officers from the Class of 82. But to me, the real leaders, the real heroes and the classmates I am proudest to call my classmates are the young women who showed up in the summer of ‘78, faced down over a century of ingrained (and in retrospect, destructive) attitudes, and excelled. All of them,” Rowden added.
Michelle Howard broke several barriers along the way, including serving as the first female four-star admiral, first female VCNO, first black female ship commander and more. Katherine Gregory was the first female flag officer in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps, as well as the first female to serve as executive officer and commanding officer of an active duty Seabee battalion. Gregory once wrote of her time in the third class to include women, “I entered the Academy in 1978, one of about 96 women in my class of 1,500. There were about 200 total women at the Academy then, and about 4,300 men.”
Several retired flag officers talked about how impressed they were with their classmates right from the start.
“In the 37 years since graduation, I’ve thought very little about the specific events that filled four years as a midshipman. In fact, many of the details now are just a blur. However, the lessons that I learned there – and the character those lessons forged – guide me every day,” Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, who currently serves as the deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command, told USNI News.
“Among the lessons I hold most dear and most relevant to my diverse career revolve around the trust and teamwork that were imbued from my classmates. While the education and immersive Naval environment strongly enabled my service progression, the virtue of trusting others and being trustworthy, and the value of teamwork in attaining high performance outcomes, are far more attributable to any success or accolade.”
“The Naval Academy is an intense world that swirls around young men and women. At first you don’t know which end is up. After you’ve lived in the swirl for a while, some rise to the top, some get caught in the swirl and some go down the drain,” said David Dunaway, who rose to the rank of vice admiral and led NAVAIR from 2012 to 2015.
“What stood out to me was the quality of the people. Everyone was a star,” he continued.
“Our first flag was Michelle Howard. The next year, Tommy Rowden, Phil Davidson, John Richardson, Dave Simpson and Terry Benedict were selected. I’m not sure what it was about ’82, but our selectees were incredible people and clearly on the path of leading the Navy.”
Collaboration Over the Years
Adm. John Richardson, who was selected for the highest-ranking Navy job of his classmates, told USNI News that he couldn’t have seen their success coming while students in Annapolis.
“But it is a kind of fun and gratifying and just a pleasure to see so many people do so well and to, coming up on 37, 38 years later, to be able to look around and having come through our careers together, come into leadership positions together. It’s just been a real delight. And so I don’t know how it happens, but it did and it’s been great,” he said.
“I think it’s just, it’s been a collaborative, kind of a work-together type of a class, even as we got started, and I think that those kind of team-building skills served us really well.”
Joking about that collaboration, Richardson laughed, “let me just make a confession. I wouldn’t – so going all the way back to our days at the Naval Academy, Adm. [Phil] Davidson is an ‘82 guy, also a physics major. So I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t copy his homework. As I’m getting ready to retire, I just wanted to come clean on that.”
Vice Adm. Bruce Lindsey, who currently serves as the deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said of the Class of 1982 “we were ‘a class act’ – our slogan – and that slogan implies that we are more supportive of each other than competitive with each other.”
He added, though, that there was an element of competitiveness at the Academy, “because to fight and win at sea, one must have a winning instinct.” Even after all these years, he noted that his company, “nicknamed Easy Company after the Marine Company at Iwo Jima, won the Color Company competition two years in a row.”
Lindsey added that he’s stayed in touch with many of his classmates over the years, despite going into different communities upon commissioning.
He added, “the Class of 1982 has been very blessed to have some stellar Class Presidents who keep us connected. Staying connected is in our Naval Academy DNA, as the third verse of Navy Blue & Gold states:
Four years together by the Bay,
Where Severn joins the tide,
Then by the Service called away,
We’re scattered far and wide;
But still when two or three shall meet,
And old tales be retold,
From low to highest in the Fleet,
We’ll pledge the Blue and Gold.”
For all the successes the Class of 1982 has collectively had, was there a certain point along the way that the classmates realized they had something good going?
“I think I was the last person in our class to select for one star, and Michelle Howard was the VCNO at the time – that was really the first time I thought about how many of my classmates had been selected for flag rank,” Lindsey said.
“For me, sitting here in the shipbuilding industry, what I would see is I would see classmates come through on the ships they were on, and when they first came through they were division officers, but then over time they became the reactor operators on the carriers, they became the XOs on the carriers, the COs,” Petters said.
“And when you start seeing classmates start taking those positions, you think, oh, you know, we’re doing okay.”
Though Petters said he had less contact with his classmates early on, after he left the Navy and began working in the defense industry, he said that “as we have become more senior in our positions, we’ve done that in parallel and we start bumping into each other again. So I started seeing some of my classmates starting to get equivalent positions in the service that I had in industry, and so in that regard we kind of all grew up together even if we weren’t looking at life quite through the same set of lenses. But it seems like the longer we go, the more prevalent” his run-ins with classmates have been at conferences and other events.
For Rowden, he’s been impressed with his class’s success along the way but says he most cherishes the friendships he made in the earliest days in the Navy – even ahead of the Naval Academy, during the one-year Naval Academy Preparatory School.
“There was nothing special about the Class of ‘82. We are all a bunch of knuckleheads that showed up, each with our own reason for being there and our own goals for a career and life. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thinking too much about the Soviets or the post-Vietnam era – or my career. I just wanted to graduate and go from there. I just knew I wanted to go there and to be a part of it,” Rowden said.
“I am sure three were some rough times, but I don’t remember them with a tremendous amount of clarity – but I do remember with crystal clarity the great times I have shared with my classmates throughout all the years we have had together. I never noticed our class doing ‘better’ from a promotion or job standpoint over any other class until I was a couple years into being a flag officer. But it was never a big deal. My best friends today are the people I went to NAPS with, and while I do have a lot of friends who are flag officers, the friends I cherish most are the ones from those very early days. They are the ones I lean on the most.”
Dunaway and several others said they weren’t sure there was anything special about their class that led so many to become flag officers.
“I don’t think there is anything special about any single USNA class. The fact that we had so many flag officers that succeeded is, in my opinion, a happy coincidence. Fine people doing the best they could with the gifts they were given,” he said.
Petters agreed, saying that each class has its own set of challenges to deal with, whether within the military, culturally as a nation, or abroad.
“As a nation, we always seem to be lucky to have the right leaders in the right place at the right time, so that when a crisis happens, you kind of step back and say, boy we’re really lucky to have that person there. But in general, that’s because we as a nation really do a good job of producing the right people so that, when the crisis happens, whoever is there happens to be the right person,” he said.
The fact that the “right people” still helping lead the Navy and the Defense Department today are 1982 graduates 37 years later, “I think that speaks to the mission of the Academy and how well it prepares future leaders,” Petters continued.
“And I look at the folk that are at the Academy today and just marvel about how well the Academy does at that mission, and I look at the caliber of the midshipmen and the future graduates and think about – it’s hard to even imagine what challenges they’re going to have over the next 30 years, and yet I have a lot of confidence that the preparation is the right preparation for whatever that might be.”
Petters said his class’s success points to the idea that, “even at a point in time when the Academy was going through a transition from post-Vietnam to the Cold War amplification, and transforming the Academy around women in service – the other theme that was going on there was the Navy was working through a series of drug issues in the late ‘70s – and throughout all of that turmoil, the Academy somehow managed to produce leaders for the country that have, quite frankly, at least from my vantage point, have served the country pretty well. And I think that speaks more about the Academy than it does our particular class, but I’m really proud to be a member of this class.”
Adm. Phil Davidson, who serves as the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and will be the only remaining four-star admiral from the class once Richardson retires, told USNI News that “it has been an honor to serve with Adm. John Richardson and to be able to call him a friend for over 40 years. Throughout that time, he has underscored the importance a strong U.S. Navy delivers not only to the defense of our nation, but to peace and prosperity around the world. And as his time in uniform comes to an end, I know he will be most proud of the generations of sailors he has served with, and shaped, to serve the Navy and the nation.
“I know I speak for all our 1982 classmates when I say we are grateful for his leadership and his friendship,” he continued.
“I wish John and Dana all the best in their next adventure.”
The Class of 1982
The U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1982 includes 18 flag officers:
Adm. Phil Davidson
Adm. John Richardson
Adm. Michelle Howard, retired
Vice Adm. Bruce Lindsey
Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne
Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, retired
Vice Adm. Richard Breckenridge, retired
Vice Adm. David Dunaway, retired
Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, retired
Vice Adm. David Johnson, retired
Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, retired
Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, retired
Rear Adm. (upper half) Katherine Gregory, retired
Rear Adm. (upper half) Matthew Klunder, retired
Rear Adm. (upper half) David Simpson, retired
Rear Adm. (lower half) Kurt Kunkel, died in 2011 of brain cancer while on active duty
Rear Adm. (lower half) Kenneth Perry, retired
Rear Adm. (lower half) Kevin Sweeney, retired
The class also includes four reserve flag and general officers:
Rear Adm. (upper half) Chris Paul, retired
Rear Adm. (upper half) Kenneth Carodine, retired
Rear Adm. Robert Greene, retired
Brig. Gen. Frans Coetzee, retired
Other classmates of note:
Mike Petters, President and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries
Paul (Chip) Jaenichen, former administrator of U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD)
Robert Sturgell, senior vice president for Washington operations at Rockwell Collins; former acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, former FAA deputy administrator
Christian Sprinkle, Raytheon’s senior program director for Tomahawk