As luck would have it, I was the recipient of a good and privileged education. It could have been and probably should have been even better, but there were some obstacles that went by the names of lazy, unmotivated and distracted.
My teachers would typically describe me on report cards as “a good boy,” who generally “stays out of trouble,” and is “well-mannered.” Frank D. Ashburn, the distinguished headmaster of Brooks School in New England and the last of his kind, got fed up with me after a while and told my parents in no uncertain terms that their son’s “academic ceiling is low,” which was his way of saying that I could reach up and touch it but was too lazy to make the effort.
My friend and legendary News and Courier/Evening Post photographer Bill Jordan sized me up back in the day when I was doing summer internships at the paper and observed that I reminded him of his own days as a youth. When I asked for clarification, he offered an admonition that his grandfather had used to jerk a knot in him.
“What was that, Bill?” I asked.
“He said, ‘Son, you just full up with the dumb-a##.’”
I’ll never forget that. It was about then, after foundering through a couple of completely undistinguished and throwaway years at Rollins College, that something happened and I asked myself the existentially laden question, “Gee, what would actually happen if I literally tried to succeed academically instead of being a drunken derelict and wasting my parents’ money?” That’s kind of where the distractibility obstacle had come into play.
After freezing in New England at an all-boys prep school, to have suddenly found myself on one of the most beautiful (and coed) college campuses? It was like the scene from "Animal House" where girls, beer, drunk and stupid don’t necessarily translate to success, and it took me some time to figure that out and adjust.
Anyway, there was a fellow a couple of years ahead of me at Brooks who ended up going to Rollins. At Brooks, he was a campus personality, actor, raconteur and hail-fellow-well-met (in the best of ways) who was more or less hand-picked by the inestimable Bill Dunnell (a most influential English teacher, character-builder and coach) for greatness. At Rollins, this same young man majored in economics, joined the KA fraternity, became president of the student body and had the opportunity to introduce Gov. Ronald Reagan to a packed gymnasium of enthusiastic attendees when the latter made a campaign stop in the spring of 1976 (ultimately losing the Republican nomination to then-President Gerald Ford).
After graduating, he joined the Marines and became an aviator and I’d heard over the years that his career path had taken him on to numerous accomplishments. Richard Spencer is his name — great guy — but I honestly hadn’t thought about him in forever.
That changed three Saturdays ago when my wife, daughter and I attended the commissioning of the USS Charleston (LCS-18) at the Columbus Street Terminal. She’s the newest of the Independence-class littoral combat ships in the U.S. Navy and the sixth naval ship to be named for Charleston, dating all the way back to 1798 and the commissioning of a 52’ row galley.
The ceremony was loaded with dignitaries and moving speeches and it was particularly fun to watch military pomp and circumstance exchanged among some of the top naval brass and civilian personnel, including the Secretary of the Navy, a guy whose name just happened to be — wait for it — Richard V. Spencer.
Now, wait a minute. Surely, this is not the same guy, I’m thinking. I know Richard. Come on — there’s no way. I don’t care what Bill Dunnell would have to say. He was a KA and I was in the X-Club. I know what’s up with this guy.
But a quick Google search on my phone confirmed that he’d graduated from Rollins, served in the Marines, worked on Wall Street, became vice chairman and CFO of Intercontinental Exchange and was appointed by the president and later confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the 76th U.S. Secretary of the Navy on Aug. 1, 2017. I further recognized it was he during the delivery of his stirring and heart-felt remarks.
We had a very pleasant chat after the ceremony. “Richard!” I stammered at one point. “What in the world?! Bill Dunnell would be so proud of you!” His two-word response to that comment sums up what it was like to have once been young and youthful.