Citadel pioneers look back
They will blend in with scores of young mothers, cradling their children and strolling beside their husbands, as they visit the downtown campus for The Citadel's homecoming festivities this weekend.
Citadel Homecoming events today:
8:30-10 a.m.: Barracks open to visitors with Regimental Pipe Band playing.
8:50 a.m.: Summerall Guards elite senior drill platoon performance at Summerall Field.
9 a.m.: Football tickets go on sale at Johnson Hagood Stadium; wrestling freshman/sophomore tournament at McAlister Field House.
2 p.m.: 'Get the Red Out' football game versus Elon (tickets $22.50-$30 at the stadium box office).
But Nancy Mace and Petra Lovetinska Seipel, both 32, know this place more intimately than most. A decade ago, they became the military college's first female graduates, after years of publicity -- if not scrutiny -- when their roommates dropped out and hurled allegations of discrimination and torturous hazing, including being set on fire.
This year a record 56 women entered The Citadel as freshmen known as "knobs." The college has graduated 241 female cadets total, beginning with Mace and Lovetinska in 1999 and 2000, respectively. The original two alumnae remain friends, though their lives put them at opposite ends of the globe -- much like their upbringings.
Mace grew up in Goose Creek with two valedictorian siblings and less academic ambition herself. She graduated from high school early and spent a year at Trident Technical College before realizing she needed more structure than a traditional university could provide.
The daughter of The Citadel's Commandant of Cadets Gen. Emory Mace, she applied to the military college without her father's knowledge.
"He essentially said I shouldn't do it because of potential harassment and hazing," Mace remembered Friday. "But at that point I'd turned 18 and thought I knew everything I needed to know in life."
At the same time, a girl living in Washington, the daughter of Czech Republic embassy employees, received rejection after rejection from military colleges because she lacked U.S. citizenship. After the latest "no thanks" from the Coast Guard Academy, she walked into the Junior ROTC office at her school and announced that she would apply to The Citadel.
Seipel had read about Shannon Faulkner, the first woman to enter The Citadel but who dropped out after just days. "She obviously didn't have what it took," Seipel said matter-of-factly.
The redhead on the air rifle team had spent her formative years in a communist country and thought she could hack it. The only problem: Her family had so little money that Seipel and her brother ate free lunch at school, and paying for The Citadel meant rounding up some benefactors, now known as "Petra plank holders," who believed in her as much as she did.
An academic standout during her time at The Citadel, Seipel made headlines once after the school punished her following a mess hall prank, a tradition at the school, in which a freshman squeezed condiments on her shoes. Seipel grabbed the offending knob and wiped her sullied shoes on his trousers.
"I wouldn't say I've changed much since that," she said Friday. "People say I'm definitely the type-A personality."
Seipel joined the Marine Corps after graduation and met her husband Patrick Joseph Seipel, her next-door neighbor while they were stationed in Yuma, Ariz. Both work as aviation supply officers at New River Air Station in Jacksonville, N.C. This weekend they bring the 16-year-old daughter of Petra's cousin, living with the Seipels in order to learn English, and their 2-month-old son, Harley.
And no, he's not named after the motorcycle. Petra means "hard as a rock" in Seipel's native tongue, and her son's name means "pile of rocks," she explained.
Despite her no-nonsense nature, Seipel said that during her one visit back to campus since graduation, she felt a familiar chill remembering extended Friday night runs. Looking toward this weekend's homecoming, she said, "I would say it's nice to be on the other side."
Mace, whose parents still live in Goose Creek, visits The Citadel's campus every year. She lives in Atlanta and runs a public relations and Web design firm. One of her clients, political blogger Will Folks, garnered national attention this year after claiming to have had an affair with Gov.-elect Nikki Haley.
"We've gone from being on a shared hosting to having a dedicated server" for Folks' FITSNews site, Mace said. "I manage the process on the back end, but I have nothing to do with the editorial content."
Mace learned about the media during her time at The Citadel, a period of her life carefully chronicled by news outlets. She kept a diary over those years, the rough translation of which became her book "In the Company of Men: A Woman at The Citadel."
By the time she graduated, Mace had agents salivating over the rights to her story, and her book was published under Simon and Schuster, part of CBS Corp.
This weekend she makes her annual visit to her alma mater, this time with her husband Curtis Jackson and their children: 3-year-old Miles and 1-year-old Ellison, who already don Bulldog baseball caps.
Every year Mace said she sees more women on campus, more women graduating --but without camera lights flashing or a nation paying close attention.
"Kids there today don't know any difference," she said. "And I think that makes a difference."
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.