Faces of the Naval Academy Essay Contest Winner
Her name was Kathleen Lewis Grant, and to the young Marine with whom she shared the story of her life she came to symbolize the bond that draws graduates and their families back to the Naval Academy.
In the early 1970s, I was assigned to the Naval Academy as the 20th Company Officer. In the course of my four years there, I had the opportunity to meet a variety of individuals, some interesting and some famous. Among the famous were President Richard Nixon, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Ollie North, Bob Hope, and Ross Perot. But the most interesting individual I met was an elderly lady I often observed walking the grounds of the Naval Academy; a woman who, at first glance, appeared to be fragile, lonely, and utterly lost to the rest of the world. To me, she symbolizes the indefinable, yet strong, bond that draws graduates and their spouses back to the Naval Academy.
Our paths crossed many times during my tour, and each time we met I would utter a courteous "Hello, how are you doing?" which she always rewarded with a warm smile and a sincere greeting. Somehow, in those brief meetings she silently conveyed to me that if I ever wanted to take the time, she would be eager to engage me in a longer conversation.
Over the months that I observed her walking through the yard, I was able to piece together her daily ritual. She would enter the Academy through Gate Three each morning at ten, exchange greetings with the gate guard then, turning toward the Officer's Club, walk along the perimeter of the Yard until she came to the Chapel. There she would rest on a bench and gaze at the bronze doors. She sat there for almost an hour each day before retracing her steps and departing the grounds. Her routine was as constant as her attire.
Her usual outfit was a floral cotton dress trimmed with lace, a small pillbox hat that kept her stylish gray hair in place, white gloves, and sturdy walking shoes that matched her purse, topped off by a pearl necklace and earrings. In her right hand she always carried a silver-handled cane that she didn't require as an aid, but used because it had belonged to her husband. The only deviation in her outfit came during the winter months, when she would add a wool topcoat.
Although she was just over five feet tall and could not have weighed more than 90 pounds, she demonstrated remarkable stamina, most likely gained from her daily walks at a pace most people half her age could not manage. She took short, sprightly steps, walking with an air of elegance that hinted at the beauty she must once have been. From a distance, she appeared so light and fragile that it was easy to imagine a strong breeze sweeping her off her feet and sending her sailing through the air like an autumn leaf.
One day while passing the Chapel, I saw her sitting on her bench, and we exchanged our customary greetings. As I hurried on my way, I promised myself—for the umpteenth time—that someday I would find the time to talk with her. Suddenly I realized that I actually had been avoiding contact with this woman because she had raised a hidden fear in me—the fear that someday I would end up like her: old, purposeless, and alone with nothing more than memories. I increased my pace, to get away from my future as fast as possible.
Not long afterward, while speaking with my mother on the phone, my thoughts drifted to the enigmatic lady sitting alone on her bench. I wondered if my mother would be as vulnerable someday, and if she were, if anyone would be kind enough to brighten her day with a smile and a little conversation. There and then I resolved to stop and talk to the mystery lady the next time I saw her.
That next time turned out to be the following day, a cold but sunny January morning. Without invitation, I sat on the bench next to my mystery lady and addressed her with as cheerful a greeting as I could muster. "Well, hello," she answered. "My name is Kathleen Grant. How do you do?"
"My name is Tony Garcia," I replied. "And I am doing just fine. I hope you don't mind my sitting here with you, but we have said hello to each other so often that I felt it was time we introduced ourselves."
"I don't mind at all. In fact, I have been hoping to meet you Major; you see, I know a lot more about you than you might think. My grandson is a first classman, and he tells me all about the company officers, especially the Marines."
"Then you have me at a disadvantage," I said, a little surprised at her revelation.
"Something that is easily rectified," she replied.
From that day on I spent part of my lunch hour sitting on her bench and talking to Kathleen. My only regret was that I had waited so long to make contact with her. Over the next few months she unfolded the story of her life, an hour at a time.
Kathleen Lewis Grant first came to the Naval Academy one summer with her college choir, to sing during a Sunday service at the Chapel. In those days, Chapel attendance was mandatory for all midshipmen. During the performance, her eyes caught and locked on the eyes of a midshipman seated in a small alcove to the side of the Chapel. She could not break her gaze on the midshipman with the innocent, alluring smile and, apparently, neither could Midshipman First Class Mike Grant tear his eyes away from Kathleen. With only that mysterious exchange that occurs when the eyes of strangers meet, she knew that he was the person with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. Her only fear was that he might not feel the same way.
That fear dissipated as she left the Chapel with the other girls following the service and saw him waiting for her; at least she hoped he was waiting for her. When he saw her his face lit up and he walked up to introduce himself. "Hi, my name is Mike Grant," he said in a husky voice with a Southern accent.
"I am Kathleen Lewis," she replied. "You don't know how pleased I am to meet you." Together they walked off to the Campus Inn restaurant, beginning a union that would last for the rest of their lives. Less than two months later he proposed marriage, and she eagerly accepted.
At that time Kathleen was not familiar with the rules and regulations of the Academy and did not realize that midshipmen could not remain at the Academy if they married. If she had, she might have insisted that they wait until he graduated, especially once she realized how proud this poor Southern farm boy was to be a member of the Brigade of Midshipmen. It was something he had worked for since he was a young boy, and it was the second most important thing in his life; she was the first. Still, she never forgave herself for putting an end to his dream.
Grant resigned from the Naval Academy, married Kathleen, and enlisted in the Marine Corps all in the same week. He had often told her of his dream to be married in the Naval Academy Chapel, but with his resignation that was no longer possible. Instead, they traveled to her hometown in Pennsylvania and were married in a small church. The newlyweds were a perfect match, each bringing out the best qualities of the other. The plain, shy young girl blossomed into a beautiful, self-confident woman; and the strong, rugged Marine revealed a gentle, caring side that made him a revered and respected leader. Through hard work and dedication, Grant received a commission in the Marine Corps, ultimately retiring as a full colonel.
As a captain, he was offered an assignment that both thrilled and frightened him: as a company officer at the Naval Academy. He felt a certain amount of embarrassment at the thought of returning to the institution he had abandoned. It was only on her insistence that he accepted the challenge. It turned out to be the most enjoyable assignment of his career, for both of them.
It was during this tour of duty that Kathleen first came to understand the sacrifice Grant had made to marry her. She fell in love with the Academy and its traditions, and she made it as much a part of her daily life as she could. They lived on the Academy grounds, and it was then that she began her routine of daily walks, accompanied by Grant on the weekends. Each time she passed the Chapel she lingered for a few minutes, wishing that they had been married there. Once, as they walked together, she hinted that they could renew their marriage vows in the Naval Academy Chapel, fulfilling one of his dreams. But the pain was still there for Grant, and he insisted that it wouldn't be the same. It was the last time they discussed the subject.
When they left after three years, she felt a pain of separation that she knew could be only a fraction of what Grant had felt when he left to marry her. When he retired from the Marine Corps, they came back to live in Annapolis, and together they made a ritual of their daily walk around the grounds.
It was clear from our meetings that Kathleen lived more in the past than in the present, and she sometimes had difficulty separating the two. One day as I approached her I noticed something slightly different about her appearance. She had abandoned her traditional outfit for a much more elegant ensemble. When I asked her what the special occasion was, she seemed confused by my question. "It's your attire," I said. "Why are you all dressed up today?"
"Why, I don't know" came the puzzled answer.
Suddenly she looked across the street to the Chapel and gave out a startled cry: "Oh my God; it's Grant!" I shaded my eyes from the noon sun and strained to see. There, in the shadow of the bronze doors, stood a Marine in dress whites. The conflict between the joy of seeing her lost love and the fear of the purpose of the apparition caused tears to fill her eyes. "Either I am losing my mind, or my time on this earth is ending and he has come back to take me with him," she said in a quiet, subdued voice. It was obvious she feared the former, but hoped for the latter.
She was wiping the tears from her eyes as the figure hurried down the Chapel steps toward her. When he was just a few feet away he saluted me, calling me by name. Then he turned to Kathleen. "Grandma, you're just in time. I'm so glad you made it. We were beginning to worry."
With a mixture of relief and disappointment Kathleen recognized the young man; her grandson was the spitting image of her husband. The handsome Marine bent down to give her a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. She returned the hug, clinging to her favorite grandson until he gently pulled away.
"Mom and Dad are waiting inside for you," he whispered. "The wedding starts in a few minutes, so we'd better get you to your seat." She turned to me saying "That's what is so special about today, my grandson is getting married."
"That's right Grandma, and I sure am glad that you're here with me because I've never been so scared in my life. You won't believe all of the people who showed up, and I don't know even half of them."
They bid me goodbye and turned toward the Chapel. I could hear her as she talked to her grandson. "Now I remember. My daughters helped me to dress this morning. They wanted me to ride to the Chapel with the rest of the family, but I insisted on taking my daily walk. I know I left the house early enough to ensure that I would get here well before the ceremony, but I guess I was distracted by the beauty of the morning, not to mention these uncomfortable shoes." Grandmother and grandson crossed the street arm-in-arm and walked up the steps to the Chapel.
As they paused at the entrance to the Chapel, he gave her another kiss before handing her off to an usher. She turned to her grandson and spoke in a voice strong enough to carry across the street: "Well, we are finally going to have our wedding in the Chapel, aren't we?"
"Yes, we are, Grandma," said the handsome young Marine with a smile of genuine affection. "Yes, we are."
Colonel Garcia, a naval aviator and graduate of the Naval Academy, served two tours in Vietnam and has flown the UH-34, CH-46, and various models of the UH-1 helicopter. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1986 and currently is a director with Litton Data Systems in Agoura, California.