Admiral Smith spent part of his youth on a farm in Alabama. While a freshman at the University of Alabama, he decided to apply for the U.S. Naval Academy. He learned he had received an appointment from his uncle, then-Vice Admiral Harold Page Smith. On 29 September 2004, in the first of ten oral history interviews with Paul Stillwell, Admiral Smith described a lesson in motivation and leadership he received when he was a plebe at the Academy in 1958.
My uncle followed me very closely the first two years, because he was the Chief of Naval Personnel. He introduced then-Captain William “Bush” Bringle, who was the Commandant of Midshipmen. He also introduced his good friend, Vice Admiral Charles Melson, the Superintendent.
I managed to survive, between Admiral Melson kind of watching after me and a session I had with Captain Bringle when I was a plebe. That was the defining moment in my life. I said so in my retirement ceremony. I was failing three of the five subjects, and I had Ds in the other two. My father was saying: “It’s okay. You know, you gave it your best effort. I’m proud of you. If you don’t make it, come on home, and we’ll welcome you with open arms.”
Inside, I knew I hadn’t given my best effort, and I was trying to figure out a way to work around that. I was trying to manipulate myself. I guess I tried to convince Dad that I was studying hard, and it just wasn’t the right thing. But finally, I got this surprise message that the Commandant wanted to see me. I cannot recall exactly when that occurred, but it seems to me it was about three months into my plebe year. And I mean I was really having some serious bad times.
I went in that office, and I will never ever forget the vision. Here was this huge desk, about an acre big. There was the American flag on one side and the Navy flag on the other and the Naval Academy flag in there, and all these banners and ribbons on these things. Sitting behind that desk was Bush Bringle, who had the most imposing face. He was tanned. He had steely blue eyes. He had bristly hair. He was central casting’s image of a naval officer.
He had a chest full of ribbons with the Navy Cross up on top and those beautiful gold wings up there. He was in his service dress blues; his jacket was buttoned. He was sitting there ramrod straight, and he looked at me. I was at rigid attention, and he said, “Relax.” I snapped to parade rest. He said, “You’re on the tree in three courses and on the bush in two. What’s your problem?”
I started to say, “I’ll find out, sir,” which, of course, was the answer you always gave if you had no other that you could give.
He said, “No, no, Midshipman Smith. This is not what I want. Are the first class giving you a hard time?”
Well, they were, but they weren’t giving me any harder time than anybody else. And if they were, it was my fault, not somebody else’s.
“Are your instructors giving you all the time you need?”
Well, they would have if I had asked them.
So, we spent maybe five minutes in that office. Those were the most important five minutes I ever spent in my life. I remember walking out. He said to me as I left, “Now, it’s fairly clear to me that there are no problems here, so there’s no reason why you can’t get those grades up. So, ten days, Midshipman Smith.”
When he said that, I thought: “You know, I might as well put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger. There’s no way I’m going to do this.” I walked out of his office, and I swore to myself the first step out of that office, “I ain’t never going back in there again.”
Actually, it had dawned on me in his office that there was only one person responsible for the predicament I was in, and it was the guy filling my shoes.
I hadn’t tried, and I hadn’t asked for help, and I had shuffled. I’d talked my way through high school, and now I was suddenly face-to-face with the fact that I better get my ass in gear and do something myself. Either I had to take control of my life, or somebody else was going to do it, and I was going to be back slopping pigs in some damned farm in Union Church, Alabama.
That taught me a lot about leadership. Don’t be afraid to reach down into the bowels of an organization and pick up somebody who doesn’t look like he’s quite pulling his own share or not taking responsibility for his life and shake him a little bit. Give him an opportunity. Beat up on him a little bit if you have to.
There are different ways of handling different people. I mean, some people respond better to having their butts kicked than just a nice quiet talking to, and I think you have to be fairly perceptive to figure out which approach works. Captain Bringle’s approach worked for me. In ten days, I got the help I needed, worked harder, and passed.